A grim task: find­ing bod­ies of bor­der crossers

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - NATION/POLITICS - BY SI­MON ROMERO

Mem­bers of Águilas del De­sierto — Ea­gles of the Desert — gath­ered be­fore dawn one July morn­ing in San Diego for a foray along the Mex­i­can bor­der. Their mis­sion: to find the bod­ies of im­mi­grants, hun­dreds of whom die in the desert each year.

Il­le­gal cross­ings are down sharply on the south­west bor­der, but the num­ber of peo­ple dy­ing is climb­ing. At least 412 mi­grants were found dead in 2017, from 398 the pre­vi­ous year. Ex­po­sure to ex­treme heat or drown­ing in ir­ri­ga­tion canals causes many of the deaths. With the ex­pan­sion of the Bor­der Pa­trol push­ing im­mi­grants fur­ther into re­mote ter­ri­tory, foren­sic re­searchers say the num­ber of deaths may be much higher. As the search be­gan, tem­per­a­tures were ap­proach­ing 100 de­grees, and wild­fires scorched the desert nearby.

We scoured a stretch of fed­eral land that was both des­o­late and fu­tur­is­tic; huge wind tur­bines tow­ered above the brit­tle­bush. Nor­mally, the Águilas search in re­mote parts of Ari­zona, but on this quest we were only an hour from San Diego.

“I know the agony of los­ing a loved one to the desert,” Eli Or­tiz, the group’s leader, said as we set out. He found the bod­ies of his brother and cousin in 2009.

Most Águilas are im­mi­grants them­selves: maids, gar­den­ers, com­bat veter­ans, con­struc­tion work­ers. They find pur­pose in pro­vid­ing clo­sure for fam­i­lies haunted by miss­ing rel­a­tives. They’ve un­der­taken this grue­some task once a month for six years.

I doubted they would find any­thing; the desert around the Car­rizo Gorge Wilder­ness is vast and for­bid­ding. But their plan­ning was metic­u­lous. They used satel­lite im­ages, GPS map­ping and in­tel­li­gence gleaned from Bor­der Pa­trol agents and smug­gling net­works.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, fam­ily mem­bers who con­tact Águilas on Face­book go along. Rafael Luna, 50, said his brother went miss­ing two months ago af­ter set­ting out from Jalisco in western Mex­ico. “He was left out here to die,” Luna said.

José Ge­nis González, 33, is a Navy vet, and trained as an EMT. He crossed with his par­ents when he was 2. Af­ter an­other vol­un­teer picked up the scent of a dead body, González rushed to what turned out to be a grisly scene.

There was a body de­com­pos­ing in the desert. Care­ful to avoid dis­rupt­ing the re­mains while au­thor­i­ties were called, vol­un­teers used gloves to ex­am­ine the scene.

Next to the body, they found a prayer card with the im­age of St. Peter, thought to pro­tect mi­grants from harm, and a Mex­i­can ID card bear­ing the name of Adrián Luna,

Rafael’s brother.

I wasn’t pre­pared for what hap­pened next. Luna be­gan shout­ing, “My brother, my brother!” be­fore col­laps­ing on the desert floor. His wails echoed across the empty hin­ter­land.

Agents from the San Diego County med­i­cal ex­am­iner’s of­fice re­cov­ered the body. Coro­ners some­times carry out DNA test­ing to defini­tively iden­tify re­mains.

The Águilas don’t al­ways find a body. Some­times all they find are scat­tered bones or a crushed skull, ev­i­dence, per­haps, of a homi­cide. Au­thor­i­ties have found so many uniden­ti­fied bod­ies in Cal­i­for­nia that they stopped bury­ing them, opt­ing for cheaper cre­ma­tions.

Mi­grants per­ish in the desert from de­hy­dra­tion, hy­pother­mia or heat­stroke. Some are raped and killed by smug­glers. Rafael Luna doesn’t know how his brother died, but peo­ple in Adrián’s group told him where the body could be found.

The vol­un­teers face chal­lenges that in­clude snake bites and ex­haus­tion. One vol­un­teer col­lapsed from de­hy­dra­tion as we trekked in the pun­ish­ing heat, and had to be car­ried out on a stretcher. Nour­ish­ment was bologna sand­wiches and cans of Pepsi.

Vol­un­teers placed a sim­ple wooden cross where they found the body. “The desert is like a lion, stalk­ing both the strong and the weak,” said Or­tiz, the leader of the Águilas. “The desert could devour any of us.”


A vol­un­teer with Águilas del De­sierto — Ea­gles of the Desert — holds a prayer card and a Mex­i­can ID card bear­ing the name of Adrián Luna found next to a body in the Mc­Cain Valley of south­ern Cal­i­for­nia on July 7.

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