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Deadly canal: raging waters prove dangerous for those in search of American dream

American Canal along the El Paso/Juarez border. (Credit: KFOX14)

The Rio Grande and the adjacent American Canal are two of the deadliest places in the Borderland.

In a span of two days in July, five people died trying to cross over, to reach the American dream. But that dream was short-lived, after the current swept them away.

Border Patrol supervisor Nicolas Veliz said the water is non-stop evil.

“It’ll just bring you down,” Veliz said. “It will keep you down. And it’ll just take you.”

Another Border Patrol agent, Joe Romero, said the water runs in three layers.

"Typically what we see is, the water runs in about three layers,” Romero explained. “The top layer is your slower level, or layer. It runs, I don't know, anywhere from 10 mph on average. So it doesn't look like it's moving real fast. It looks like something you can traverse. Then there's a second layer, middle of the water. That runs a little bit faster. But it's the third layer, that undertow, that moves the fastest. And that's the one you don't typically see from the top.”

The layer on the bottom goes at about 25 to 30 miles per hour. Border Patrol agents said that even the best swimmers have trouble with the swift-moving water.

And that’s what I’m trying to find out.

Lonnie Valencia (photographer): “How are you feeling right now?”

Kezhal Dashti: “I'm scared. I mean, everything they're describing right now, this is pretty monstrous water, it's moving really fast. I'm intimidated and I swam for 12 years."

As a competitive swimmer, I trained for almost four hours a day, six days a week. But even I was scared to go in.

"When he said 10 miles an hour just on the first layer, that scared me,” Dashti said. “That's fast. Imagine 10 miles an hour on a treadmill. That's hard."

After reporting on five deaths, one as young as 14 years old, I decided to get suited up to show how dangerous the water really is.

I got in about four times, the third time without a life jacket. I was struggling to get out.

Lonnie Valencia: “Talk to me.”

Kezhal Dashti: “I’m out of breath. That was a lot harder. Oh my God, my legs are shaking. I couldn’t get my legs up. Once my legs were going that way, I couldn’t pull them up. That current is so strong underneath. I would’ve been gone, because I didn’t think I could hold on to that rope much longer. My arms feel like noodles.”

Romero said, "I was only in the water for seven seconds." What Romero said people don’t know, is that it only takes less than a minute for individuals to tire out in the water.

“Obviously, I had a life vest on and a helmet on, so I was very prepared,” Dashti said. “But it's once we took the life vest off, and I had to pull myself up, I could not pull myself up. That current is moving so fast, that it knocks you over and you end up on your stomach, and you have to have a lot of upper body strength to get yourself to pull up. The swimming part for me wasn't hard, it was getting myself out of the water or pulling myself up on the ladder, that was, at one point, I really thought I was gonna let go."

This time of year, Border Patrol agents said water levels are much higher, and they’re not going down anytime soon. They say twice a year, water from up north is released from the dam, into the Rio Grande River, which feeds into our border canals.

One of those times is at the end of July, beginning of August, which is why water levels are so high right now. In addition, with all the rain that the Borderland has seen, it’s caused water levels to be even higher.

It’s important to remember, Border Patrol is the first on the scene when an individual is drowning. According to Border Patrol, they typically have a window of a minute to rescue someone drowning in the canals, before backup arrives. That means, they’re getting in without a life-jacket or helmet to save you.

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