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Underwater Recovery Team: Signals Under the Water

Presa Allende


By Jesús Aguado

“When I am underwater, you cannot see anything, everything is dark. Sometimes it is better if I close my eyes, but I never, ever let my lifeline rope go. The temperature starts dropping off, and all you want to do is to find the person you are looking for,” said diver Juan Ramírez Alvarado, who specializes in recovering bodies from turbid waters. He also holds the state record in finding a body under the water—1 minute and 30 seconds.

Swimming is not safe

Five years ago, Alvarado, who is also a paramedic with the Red Cross and a coordinator in the Civil Protection Department, took a training course to save people from drowning but found he wanted more. So he obtained training from the Brigada Integral de Busqueda y Rescate de Estado Guanajuato (The Search and Rescue Brigade of Guanajuato State), known as BIBREG, on recovering bodies under water. It is a skill that sadly has kept him busy ever since.

In San Miguel de Allende, there are 475 artificial lakes, plus seven dams—Jalpa, Obraje, Calderón, La Cantera, Las Colonias, and Santa Rosa. The biggest, which has a capacity to retain up to 120 billion square meters of water, is the Presa Allende, surrounded by more than 20 rural communities and with spaces (like El Embarcadero) that some people use as a place to drink and picnic, a fact that sometimes leads to tragedy.

The most recent incident Alvarado worked on happened this past February. A group of friends from Celaya were fishing in a boat and one of them fell into the water. The man’s body was found hours later and taken to the Forensic Service of the Ministerio Público.

Most drownings that happen at these dams are due to accidents that happen when people who have imbibed alcohol try to swim in bodies of water they are not familiar with. About 95 percent of the time, said Alvarado, drowning victims have been drinking alcohol beforehand. But other drownings can happen when people who don’t know how to swim take advantage of moments when the water levels in some of the dams go down and they can wade in. Others before them have extracted soil to use for planting or making bricks. This leaves holes and sudden drops in the ground level. When a person is already in water to their waist and comes across the uneven land, they can fall into a hole and drown or be dragged by internal currents. They have just 30 seconds to call for help, and after that they stop breathing.

In 2015, two young women from the community of La Campana were picnicking at the Jalpa Dam. They fell into just such a hole while in the dam waters. Juan Aboytes, a man who was close by, rescued one of the victims. The second drowned, however, and her body was not recovered until 16 hours later.

Twenty Five Years Finding Bodies

In early ´90s, San Miguel did not have cell phone service, and by comparison to now, the response from emergency services tended to be slow.

Alan Álvarez, director of the Civil Protection Department, still remembers his first experience as a recovery diver in the early ‘90s. A woman had gone to do laundry at the Los Carrizos stream, which comes from the Picachos mountains, crosses La Estancia and Rincón de Canal, and ends up in the Cantera dam. A big rain in Picachos caused runoff that sped up the current in the Carrizos and apparently dragged the woman in. The family didn’t realize that the woman was missing until the next day when people recognized her clothing floating in the dam and called for help. Álvarez was sent to recover her body. He was just 17.

Emergency services in San Miguel are relatively new—the Red Cross was established here in 1980, the Fire Department in 1983. Álvarez was 12 when his father took him to the Fire Department to get a job because he was a rebel “and needed to be a better person.” With the Fire Department, he had the opportunity to travel to the United States and take training courses on underwater recovery of bodies. Today he no longer practices diving because of his health; however he still always helps from the surface with underwater recovery incidents. In 25 years, he told us, he has recovered nearly 30 bodies.

In San Miguel, there are two other divers on the city’s underwater recovery team besides Álvarez. These days, the team also provides help to the city of San Luis de la Paz. The team most recently recovered the body of a young man who had tried to swim across the entire Presa La Virgen.

The benefit to Sanmiguelenses

Over the years, members of San Miguel’s underwater recovery team like Alvarado have learned that the job is not simply one of going into the water and retrieving a corpse. It also involves helping the loved ones of the victim deal with the incident.

“When we arrive in a place to recover somebody, the first thing I do is talk to the family. I tell them that we will find their relative, but I try to make them understand that the body will not be alive,” he said. “When you are underwater, you just want to find the person. When I find them, I am happy, although I know that the second phase comes soon, when the relatives will have a breakdown.”

The divers always go in pairs and have a set technique, he said. “When I go underwater, I close my eyes, because I cannot see anything. The water changes colors and goes from yellow to grey and then to dark. We swim within a two-meter distance from each other, and we always have a lifeline rope.”

“Under the water, we have our own language: one squeeze means ‘are you okay,’ two means ‘we have arrived,’ and three means ‘we found it,’” he said. When they find the body, it is taken to the surface and guarded by police until the arrival of the Ministerio Público and the Forensic Service.

Recently, Alvarado was internationally certified to recover bodies from turbid waters. With pride he points out that not only does this benefit him but also the people of Guanajuato since he will be able to work promptly in an emergency.


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