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Oaxaca's Desperate Children

To understand the reality of life in the impoverished, southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, one need only look at the story of one mother, her child and their desperate, doomed attempt to immigrate to the United States.

On the eve of a critical presidential election in Mexico, it's a story that reflects the stark challenges facing America's neighbor and key trading partner.

As CBS News Correspondent Sandra Hughes reports, the story begins in the small village of San Pedro Chayuco, ten hours on rough and treacherous roads from Mexico City and thousands of miles from the U.S.-Mexico border.

The remote beauty of San Pedro belies a harsh existence. Jobs are rare and a day's work pays a mere $3. Life is eked out off the land.

Yolanda Gonzalez lived this hard life for 19 years, growing up in a two-room shack with no running water and no indoor plumbing. Married at 15, she became a mother soon after.

Yolanda's mother, Paula Flores, says Yolanda wanted a better future for her 18-month-old daughter Elizama. Flores claims just wanted a little house for her family.

Two months ago Yolanda decided to try to find that future in the United States. She planned to meet up with her husband, who was already working there illegally.

So Yolanda took a four-day bus ride to the Arizona-Mexico border and paid money to a smuggler to guide them across the suffocating desert.

But after walking 14 miles with baby Elizama in tow, the smuggler abandoned them. The temperature rose to 110 degrees. Border Patrol agents found Yolanda dead, still clutching her daughter in her arms.

"The smuggler didn't care about her life," her mother says through a translator. "Yolanda sacrificed her life for her child. She gave Elizama her last drink of water. It was a terrible death. It was a painful death."

The Immigration and Naturalization Service cleaned Elizama up and sent her home. A little girl who rarely smiles and barely cries, she's back with her grandmother. Her mother's body is buried just a short distance away.

But while Elizama is back in a loving home, she has also come back to the grinding poverty that forced her mother to make her desperate journey. Half the men in this town have already gone to the U.S. looking for jobs and those left behind wonder when opportunity will ever come here.

Officials admit the Mexican economy can't support all it's people. For every five Mexicans looking for work, there is only one job. People go north hoping for better odds.

Some take the dangerous desert routes to avoid beefed up security in other areas of the 2,000-mile border. In less than a year, 213 people have died making the trek north.

Those who dare to make the trip face dangers beyond the desert—ranchers along portions of the Arizona-Mexico border have taken to shooting at migrants crossing into the United States through their property.

The increasing danger of crossing the border led thU.S. Border Patrol to begin a Border Safety Initiative in June 1998 that was, according to the Border Patrol, "designed to educate migrants about the risks and dangers of crossing the border illegally and to assist those who do not heed the warnings."

It was upgraded in June 2000, to include water rescue training.

Through the first eight months of fiscal year 2000, or June 15, 2000, the Border Patrol has rescued 1,104. One of those was baby Elizama on May 29.

Oaxaca is a state of 3.4 million located near the southern tip of Mexico, bordering the Pacific Ocean. Voters there and throughout Mexico will decide whether Francisco Labastida of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) or the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, will follow Ernesto Zedillo as Mexico's president.