How U.S. Policy Turned the Sonoran Desert Into a Graveyard for Migrants

The Sonoran Desert in Arizona, where slightly less than half of all migrant deaths occur, trying to make their way to the United States.

Arid terrain

The United States border patrol agent found the body, a man’s, on the southern slope of a hill about three miles outside Sells, Ariz., known to locals with long memories as Bird Nest Hill. The man was face down, his head near a rocky outcropping, his legs stretching downhill. He lay with his left hand clenched beneath his chest, his right beneath his cheek, among tufts of buffelgrass and creosote. So inconspicuously did he blend into the landscape, a passer-by might have overlooked him. The agent might have, too, if not for the bright red waistband on the man’s underwear. Then there was the hair. Thick, dark, spiky, the hair looked fashioned, somehow, almost stylish, after all this time in the Sonoran Desert — surely weeks, the agent figured, and possibly months.

Beyond the dead man the desert sprawled hypnotically. Hills, basins, hills, basins, dusted with monsoon greenery but without a drop of water or a stitch of shade in sight. It was a clear morning, and a golden glow came off the desert. The agent could have gazed deep into Mexico, but he didn’t linger. The sun was pulsing, the humidity enveloping. At 10 a.m. on Aug. 28 last year, the temperature outside Sells was nearing 100 degrees.

There were no telling possessions on the man, no hunting rifle or camping pack, but there was one significant feature: his clothing. He wore a hooded jacket printed with real-tree camouflage and matching pant covers. His shoes were encased in carpet-soled bootees made to hide footprints. This was someone who had wanted not to be seen.

The Border Patrol apprehends migrants who cross the border unlawfully. The dead are not in its purview. When agents find corpses or human remains near the border, as they often do, they contact local law enforcement. In this case, the agent was patrolling on the lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and the tribal police had jurisdiction. The agent called the department’s headquarters in Sells and relayed the body’s GPS coordinates. A Tohono O’odham detective went out. Roads are scarce on the reservation, and he drove with a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle in tow.

The Tohono O’odham government does not have a full-time medical examiner, so once the detective retrieved the body, he called the medical examiner’s office in Pima County, Ariz., which borders the reservation. Under state law, unidentified corpses do not require autopsies unless foul play is suspected, but the Pima medical examiner makes a point of looking into the cases of bodies it suspects belong to migrants. An investigator from that office, a tall, hefty, bearded man with a utility vest and a badge on his hip, drove the 60 miles from Tucson, the county seat, to Sells.

The dead man was still on the rear cargo shelf of the A.T.V. at the headquarters when the investigator arrived. The scent filled the parking lot. The Tohono O’odham detective, a tall, clean-shaven man wearing a black cap, cargo pants and a pistol on his hip, gave the investigator the GPS coordinates and scene photographs.

“Did you check the scene?” the investigator asked.

“Yes,” the detective said, with little evident conviction.

At the medical examiner’s office in Tucson, the dead man was taken to the autopsy theater. There, two technicians and a pathologist in aprons, hair covers and face masks began moving about him with dolorous expertise and talking to one another in sentence fragments. One climbed a rolling ladder to photograph the body from above as another removed the clothing and probed the hems, felt the inner panels and inspected the belt and the tags and the labels. Migrants often travel with no identification or fake identification, but they can secret away genuine documents or phone numbers in their clothing. The technician didn’t find any of those things, though from the pants he pulled a nearly empty wallet and a pocket-size Gideon Bible with a blue plastic cover. The photographer fetched an infrared camera and through the viewfinder inspected the man’s limbs and torso, looking for tattoos. “My gut feeling is this guy doesn’t have any,” he said. He couldn’t say why, exactly. “It’s just my sense.”

He was right. His sense came of long experience. He had inspected more U.B.C.s, as the medical examiner calls them — undocumented border crossers — than he could count. The man on Bird Nest Hill was U.B.C. No.104 for the year, and it was only September. In the mid-1990s, the federal government introduced a policy of pushing undocumented migrants away from border cities and into increasingly remote locations. The policy persisted, and as it did, more people died. According to the Border Patrol, just under 8,000 migrants have turned up dead on the Southern border since 1998. The real number is probably much higher, but even going by the Border Patrol’s estimates, that is a rate of about one migrant death per day, every day of the last 22 years.

Slightly less than half of those deaths occur in southern Arizona, most in the Sonoran Desert. Almost all the bodies found there end up at the medical examiner’s office in Tucson. This fact has become widely known beyond the city, and every day the office receives calls about the missing from desperate families and foreign consulates.

The desert reduces its victims with barbarous celerity, and few of them are identifiable by outward appearance. The man on Bird Nest Hill was nearly mummified, his muscles and organs autolyzed and leached out, his eye sockets full of mud and insect carapaces. On the autopsy report, his weight was 38 pounds. That was heavier than many. Often only bones turn up.

The rough terrain of Senora

Done with the examination, the pathologist and technicians leaned in to look at the man’s hands. Could the fingers be printed? “We can take them off,” a technician said, holding a scalpel apprehensively, “but I don’t know how well they’ll print.” Nevertheless, she severed both hands below the thumbs, placed them in a clear plastic bucket and poured in sodium hydroxide to rehydrate the skin. In a few days, she would see if the patterns of his fingertip pads had re-emerged.

Bird Nest Hill in the Sonoran Desert near Sells, Ariz.

They inspected the wallet. In it were two bank notes from the Bank of Guatemala and a national identification card issued by the Republic of Guatemala. The morgue staff knew the ID couldn’t be conclusive, even if it was genuine; there were too many fake or stolen IDs in the desert for that. A fingerprint match would be, if the country he was from maintained reliable fingerprint records of its citizens. Guatemala did. And it wouldn’t be surprising if that was his home, they knew: Of the 153 migrants whose journeys ended in the medical examiner’s office last year, nearly half of those identified so far, the single largest group, were Guatemalan.

The black-and-white portrait on the ID showed a young man with broad cheeks, a wide jaw, arched eyebrows and a high quiff of thick dark hair. According to the birth date, he had recently turned 23.

Around his town, few people called Roberto Primero Luis by his name. His friends called him Rokuzzo, the name of the barbershop he owned. His wife liked to call him Robert, because it sounded more American. Mainly it was his parents who still used their firstborn child’s given name.

Lucas Primero and his wife, Eufemia, traced their heritage back many generations in the area of the town, Cubulco. They were both Achí, a Mayan people that established a trading route in this area of central Guatemala before the Spaniards arrived. Lucas left school as a boy to labor in the cornfields and eventually worked his way up to earning a living as a bricklayer. He and Eufemia married at 15. Roberto was born in 1996, the year Guatemala’s 36-year civil war ended.

Roberto was studious, obedient and, thanks to his father, who was also a pastor, devout. He sang and played the saxophone, keyboard and drums in the church band. After high school, he wanted to become a nurse, but the tuition for nursing school was more than his family could afford, so to raise the money Roberto apprenticed as a barber. Finding that he liked the work, he put nursing on hold to open his own shop. Lucas lent him the money, and together father and son went to Guatemala City to buy the chairs and razors and scissors.

Rokuzzo became one of the most popular barbershops in Cubulco. (The name apparently derived either from Antonela Roccuzzo, the wife of the F.C. Barcelona soccer player Lionel Messi, or from Rakuten, a sponsor of the team.) Roberto was beloved for his good cheer and devotion to his customers. He worked 13 hours a day, six days a week. He hired his younger brothers, and they became known for their signature style: a high quiff, pushed back, with closely shorn sides into which they shaved swirling patterns. They printed posters of Cubuleros with the cut and hung them on the walls. At night, those same Cubuleros would gather in the waiting chairs in the shop to banter and watch Barcelona highlights and listen to music. After closing, Roberto’s brother and his friends would pull down the aluminum gate and continue hanging out, but Roberto wouldn’t stay — he wanted to be with his fiancée.

He and Caty Sunún had been together since he was 16 and she 13. Before they met, he had noticed her on the street. She was angelic, he thought, with big, warm eyes and a radiant smile. One day he called out to her: “You’re Catalina!” She replied, “And?” and continued walking. He phoned her for months before she agreed to talk to him.

For two years they dated secretly. When Caty finally told her parents about Roberto, they weren’t pleased. They had a vision of their daughter’s future, and it didn’t include her staying in Cubulco.

Tomás and Magdalena Sunún were also Achí, and, like Lucas and Eufemia, they came from families of poor farmers and laborers. They, too, had married as teenagers. But there the families’ stories diverged. They diverged in the way Guatemalan society itself has diverged over the last two generations.

Guatemalans had been migrating to the United States for decades, but mass migration began in earnest in the 1980s, when the civil war entered a genocidal phase. Washington had backed Guatemala’s military dictatorships since inciting a coup d’état in 1954. Armed with American weapons and funds, the government now labeled Mayans like the Achí insurgents. Cubulco was one of many towns set ablaze.

The American government went a small way toward atoning by granting thousands of displaced Guatemalans asylum. Some gained citizenship; others didn’t but stayed. Many prospered, and in time family and friends and neighbors followed them north. According to the International Organization for Migration, roughly 2.6 million Guatemalans live outside the country, a vast majority in the United States. But according to Aracely Martínez Rodas, an anthropologist and migration expert at Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, it could be as many as four million, or roughly a quarter of the current population of Guatemala. While poverty is still the principal driving factor, more and more members of the middle class are migrating. In 2019, according to the World Bank, Guatemalans living abroad sent back remittances worth nearly $10.7 billion. That is roughly equivalent to the Guatemalan government’s entire spending for the year.

In 2000, the year after Caty was born, Tomás migrated to the Nashville area. Three years later, Magdalena followed, leaving Caty in Cubulco in the care of her grandmother, a common choice for young parents who migrate. In Tennessee, Tomás worked as a builder, Magdalena as a cleaner, until 2010, when he was pulled over for speeding and subsequently deported. Had he not been, they might never have come back to Guatemala. As it was, they returned people of means. They built a new home in the middle of Cubulco and on its ground floor opened a grocery, bakery and animal-feed shop.

Tomás and Magdalena agreed to let Caty see Roberto on the condition that she finish school. She and Roberto dated for three years, the traditional courtship period, and in 2018 he proposed. Caty was Catholic, Roberto evangelical, and at first she wouldn’t agree. She broke up with him. They reconciled, and she converted.

Caty had trained to be a teacher, but there were no teaching jobs in the local schools. The region around Cubulco, Guatemala’s dry belt, was among the poorest in the country and particularly vulnerable to climate change; the last several harvest seasons had been a pitiful sight. But Roberto was doing better financially than anyone in his family ever had, making as much as 300 quetzals, or about $40, a day in his shop. He had paid back his father’s loan. Lucas gave Roberto a plot of land. They were planning to build a house together.

“Each day we view news media deploring conditions for migrants who cross our borders for a better life but is this trek worth the loss of their families’ loved ones??” Part II continues

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