TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - A humanitarian group said on Tuesday it has given emergency GPS location devices to Mexican human smugglers in a controversial bid to save immigrants' lives as they break into increasingly remote desert stretches of the U.S. border this summer.
Rev. Robin Hoover, founder of Tucson-based Humane Borders, said he gave five cell-phone sized location beacons to a church group in Mexico's northern Sonora state earlier this month to distribute to human smugglers, known as "coyotes."
The aim is for the coyotes to use the devices to summon rescue if they get into trouble as they guide migrants on the dangerous trek through remote desert terrain, where summer temperatures can top 115 F, he said.
"Migrants are getting into greater danger as they go further out across the border to avoid detection, and they need help," Hoover told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"They ... are dying at a higher rate, so we've got to do something different," he said.
Previous initiatives by the group include setting up water stations in the desert and giving out posters warning potentials migrants of the dangers of trekking north through the bleak wilderness, where deaths from exposure are common.
Last year 249 border crossers perished in Arizona, according to a database compiled by the Arizona Daily Star newspaper, drawing on figures tallied by medical examiners in counties flanking the border.
The deaths have risen over the past decade as security has tightened along the border and coincide with a decline in the overall number of arrests made by the U.S. Border Patrol, suggesting that the journey has become more hazardous.
But a spokeswoman for the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector warned that the devices would put immigrants at greater risk by giving them a "false sense of security right out in the desert."
"We are concerned that people can get themselves in a very precarious situation if they are relying on this device," said agent Colleen Agle. "Unfortunately there's no guarantee that it's going to work."
Agle added that smugglers are "very unscrupulous" and care about the "dollar in their pocket," not the safety of those they guide.
Hoover said the device, a McMurdo Fast Find Personal Location Beacon Model 210, has a five-year battery life. When activated it uses GPS technology to determine its location and sends an emergency signal to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite.
When a distress signal is received, local search and rescue personnel are notified.
Hoover said it was not clear if the devices had yet been given to coyotes guiding groups over the border.
Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst