The Sonoran Desert Turned Into a Graveyard for Migrants
“Desperate people will try anything to remove the fear and bad conditions that prevail in their lives. They also sometimes miss all the dangers that sits before them without making exceptions to conquer those dangers. What was before is probably not the same today. Climate and entities change daily.” Part 3 brings those changes and entities into focus as Roberto and many other migrants from south america traverse to the north seeking hope and opportunity.”
“Prevention through deterrence” worked. Apprehensions increased, reaching a peak of nearly 1.7 million in 2000. So did deaths. Migrant deaths weren’t new. People had always died trying to cross. It was where they were dying now, and how. Previously, the most common forms of death involved traffic accidents or drowning; migrants were hit by vehicles as they tried to run across Interstate 10 into El Paso, for instance, or went under when the Tijuana River flooded. Now they were dying on ranch lands and in mountain ranges and in the desert, of exposure, dehydration, heat stroke. Certain victims the desert took quickly. Others suffered more. “It is not unusual to find bodies of migrants who in a confused state have removed their clothing in freezing weather or attempted to drink desert sand to satisfy thirst in extreme heat,” according to one report from the American Civil Liberties Union and Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission. “Disoriented, migrants sometimes fall on cacti or rocks, suffering blunt trauma and lacerations in different parts of the body.”
At the medical examiner’s office in Tucson, the pathologists began compiling reports of missing migrants. This was not a standard practice, but they saw a trend. “We knew it was a rise,” Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist with the office, told me. In 1994, Pima County handled 11 dead migrants. In 2000, it had 74 cases. By 2010, 222.
Under George W. Bush, the Department of Homeland Security began cooperating with local law enforcement agencies to increase detentions and deportations of undocumented people. The cooperation continued under Barack Obama, whose tenure saw more deportations than those of any of his predecessors (or of Trump). Though unlawful migration decreased drastically, the American debate around immigration grew only shriller. Trump used the charged atmosphere to stoke fears of Mexican rapists and Central American caravan invasions. He sent thousands of Border Patrol agents and National Guard troops to the border.
The Border Patrol’s Tucson sector — with over 3,600 agents — is one of the most heavily staffed. While that seems like a lot, Vasavilbaso and Hernandez told me that I had to consider the size of the sector: 262 miles of border, 90,530 square miles. But the last two decades have seen a proliferation of “tactical infrastructure,” as it’s known: not just the new vehicle barriers and pedestrian fencing that have been erected along much of the Arizona borderline but also unmanned aircraft, motion sensors buried in the ground and, one of the latest innovations, towers equipped with some combination of high-definition cameras, night vision, thermal-imaging sensors and radar. The result is what the Department of Homeland Security calls “wide-area persistent surveillance.”
Vasavilbaso pulled into Sasabe, Ariz., and turned west onto an unpaved track that ran along a stretch of fence. Sasabe is divided from El Sásabe, Sonora, by the border. Vasavilbaso had known this land man and boy, he told me. He was born in Arizona and grew up in Nogales, Sonora. Long before there was a fence, his uncle, a rancher, used to bring his herds up here to water. Like many border families, Vasavilbaso’s had members on both sides. They were Mexican and American. Citizenship wasn’t an issue. He was familiar with the local coyotes, of course — everyone was. “They were mom-and-pop operations,” he said.
That had all changed. As an agent, he watched as the Mexican criminal organizations took over. On the Arizona border this meant, principally, the Sinaloa cartel, which in its heyday had at its helm the redoubtable Joaquín Guzmán, lately of Colorado’s Supermax penitentiary. If it wasn’t “El Chapo” who first conceived of merging drug-trafficking and people smuggling, he refined the merger, as he did so much illicit border commerce, making migrants just another product he moved.
As the business changed, so did the cargo. In 1993, 97 percent of migrants apprehended by the Border Patrol were Mexican. So few people of other nationalities were there that they were collectively known as O.T.M.s, Other Than Mexicans. Last year, close to 20 percent were Mexican. Seventy-three percent were Central American.
The special agent in charge of homeland-security investigations in Phoenix, Scott Brown, told me that for the Mexican organizations, migrants became “easy and additional profit.” They represented income in themselves, but they could also serve as drug mules, willingly or unwillingly, or as diversions away from drug mules. If Border Patrol agents have to track large groups of migrants who are simultaneously being fanned out by their handlers onto different trails across the desert, the agents are less likely to come upon a small band of smugglers. Vasavilbaso and Hernandez averred this, and added that they believed this tactic could partly explain why coyotes had started moving migrants in such immense groups.
In the fall of 2018, Central American migrants, including many families, began arriving in northern Mexico in daily busloads. Tucson was overwhelmed. The Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement processed so many people that they had nowhere to put them, and they took to turning groups loose in the city. Temporary shelters were set up. The largest was in an old Benedictine monastery. When I first visited it, in early 2019, about two-thirds of the migrants were Guatemalan, but there were people from all over the world: Indians, Russians, Congolese, Venezuelans, Cubans. That year, the Border Patrol apprehended migrants from over 140 countries. That shelter has since been moved to a former juvenile detention center.
When Caty’s parents crossed into the U.S., one coyote took you all the way from Guatemala to Arizona. He had been at it for years and had close relationships with the Mexican desert guides. Since then, border crossing had become an anonymous volume business. To a new generation of coyotes, a migrant like Roberto was of no more value than a load of fentanyl or a kilogram of cocaine. Rather less, actually, because his passage cost less than the value of the drugs, and because unlike the drugs his arrival was in the main irrelevant. Whether he turned up in the United States alive or dead was of no consequence to his handlers so long as he paid. There would always be more like him. Along the way he might be kidnapped, murdered or raped, or he might die in the desert — not because he might get lost, but because he would be abandoned. If migrants were exhausted or injured, they were simply left behind to die, and the profiteering didn’t cease with death. Coyotes and a hem of freelance extortionists that had grown up around the trade contacted families to lie about the fates of their missing loved ones, saying they had been abducted or waylaid or injured and could be freed for an additional cost.
The Mexican organizations, meanwhile, had introduced their signature military prowess to the merged migrant and drug trades. I spoke with an undocumented migrant from Honduras who arrived at the border with no money and unattached to a coyote. If you arrive on your own this way, you are liable to be recruited or press-ganged by the plaza boss, who monitors migrant traffic for the cartel. He was taken to a safe house and was told at gunpoint that if he couldn’t come up with the money to cross, he could carry drugs. Or he could die.
He chose the drugs. He was outfitted with a camouflage suit and carpet shoes, along with a heavy rucksack. He was told not to open it. He complied. He was put into a group with four other men. They trekked through the desert, mainly by night, only in their group. They were not allowed near other migrants. They were accompanied by escorts in front and back who never spoke to them, save for threats. On the hilltops along the entire route, there were lookouts. He said: “There were cartel people everywhere. There were more of them than migrants.”
Roberto Primero Luis’s parents, Lucas and Eufemia, with his sister and brother-in-law, Nohelia and Edmer, at his grave in Cubulco, Guatemala.
For every Border Patrol innovation, Hernandez told me, the people smugglers had an answer. They had persistent surveillance of their own. The lookouts used encrypted radios, signal repeaters, long-range video equipment. He recalled catching a lookout. When Hernandez questioned him, the lookout, apparently wanting to talk shop, listed each location Hernandez had been to that day. The organization had tracked his every move.
“They have great, great countersurveillance,” Hernandez said. “These guys are incredibly sophisticated.”
“You have to always assume you’re being watched,” Vasavilbaso said.
The Border Patrol has expanded its Search, Trauma and Rescue Unit, and mobile rescue beacons are now situated throughout the desert. They feature a large red button that, when pressed, sends a signal to the Border Patrol, and in some cases a phone. Still, deaths go uncounted. A 2017 USA Today Network investigation found that “hundreds of border deaths involving migrants were not included in official Border Patrol statistics over the past five years.” It was 25 percent higher in Arizona over this period, the report said, “but some years it was 100 percent higher.” Almost all of Arizona’s share of the border is on public land. In Texas, where almost all of it is on private land and where many of the border counties don’t have medical examiners, the situation is premodern. “Many of these jurisdictions don’t track migrant deaths.”
The pedestrian fence that Vasavilbaso drove along was composed of high steel bollard beams separated by narrow gaps. From a cross rail above hung two spools of concertina wire. There had been rain the night before, and while on the American side of the fence the track was tidy, on the Mexican side the water had amassed at the base of the fence a miles-long berm of what the agents called “migrant trash.” Jackets and backpacks and diapers and socks and black gallon water jugs. In some washes, the berm was several feet high and deep. Especially the jugs; there were thousands of them. You had to wonder: If the migrants shed their water here, what did they do once on the other side?
“It’s like this at the end of every migration season,” Vasavilbaso said.
On the fence posts, the mist had brought out handprints and shoe scuffs. Some people are strong enough to climb up the fence and leap over the wire. For those who aren’t, like small children, the guide will bring a ladder. We passed a ghostly sight: a child’s sweatshirt suspended in the coil of wire, hanging there as though on a mannequin in a shop window: the sleeves outstretched symmetrically, the hood upright. It appeared as though a child had dropped out of it and the sweatshirt had stayed.
“It’s kind of eerie, isn’t it?” Hernandez said.
The coyote from Cubulco took Roberto to another town in central Guatemala, where he handed him off to another coyote, who drove him over the border into Chiapas, Mexico. There Roberto boarded a bus. Coyotes buy up blocks of seats or charter whole buses and pay off drivers, depot guards, the police. He slowly made his way north with an expanding group of migrants, switching buses every few days. From the bus, Roberto video-called Caty on his smartphone several times a day, pointing the camera out the window onto the passing landscape so she could see what he saw. She noticed that the buses were becoming more crowded. Eventually Roberto was standing in the aisle. There were no rest stops. The passengers were given only scrambled eggs and some water for sustenance.
For solace, Roberto read the little blue Gideon Bible, one of a shipment of Bibles his aunt’s church in Nashville had sent to his church in Cubulco. In Chihuahua, the bus had to turn around and backtrack, adding another three days to the journey. When he called Caty now, Roberto sounded depleted. He asked her to pray for him.
After two weeks of this, Roberto finally arrived in Altar, a town 60 miles south of the border in Sonora, Mexico. He was exhausted but excited, he told Caty. He was put in a group with nine other migrants, and they were installed in a safe house, one of many around Altar. The coyote gave Roberto’s group over to the foot guide who would lead them through the desert. The man never said his name. He handed Roberto a black plastic gallon water jug, a camouflage jacket, pant covers and carpet shoes.
When Tomás crossed, the Border Patrol had about 8,600 agents on the border; now there were 17,000. Eight of every 10 miles of Arizona border was now blocked with some form of pedestrian or vehicle barrier. Tomás and Magdalena had gotten through on their first tries, but now it was common for migrants to make several attempts before getting across, if they got across at all. The day after Roberto arrived in Altar, two groups of migrants returned from the desert. On the American side, they reported, the Border Patrol was everywhere. There had been no way through, and they turned back.