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

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

Originally Published in The New York Times Magazine

James Verini - August 18, 2020

he 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.

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.
Credit...Kevin Cooley for The New York Timesi

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.

Roberto had never expressed interest in “going north,” as Guatemalans call migration to the United States. When his aunt offered him a chance to apply for a work visa, he declined. But now he and Tomás talked about his going. Tomás’s deportation hadn’t soured him on the U.S. On the contrary, he still revered America, in exile more than ever. Guatemala did not offer people like them much opportunity, Tomás pointed out, even people as enterprising as Roberto. Whatever Roberto might be making at his barbershop, whatever he might make in the future as a nurse, would be dwarfed by the pay he would find in the U.S., even in a job like construction or meatpacking.

Caty and Roberto discussed the idea. Like Roberto, she didn’t feel hopeless in Cubulco, or not always. Yet she knew so many people in the U.S., including her younger sister, an American citizen whom Magdalena had given birth to in Tennessee. There was no one in Cubulco, it seemed, who didn’t have family somewhere in Tennessee. Nashville was 1,500 miles away, yet for how familiar it felt, it might have been the next town.

Going north wasn’t just about escaping desperation, not any longer. It was about being a success. People who went to the U.S. had nicer houses, nicer jobs, nicer lives. They sponsored religious festivals, endowed churches and paid the school fees and hospital bills of distant cousins. Their children had better prospects — a matter of newfound concern for Roberto and Caty, who in early 2019 learned that Caty was pregnant.

When, that summer, Roberto told his parents he was considering migrating, he had already made his decision. The plan was for him to go first. Once he was settled near Nashville, Caty would go. She wanted to give birth there so their baby would be an American citizen.

Finding someone to take him wasn’t difficult. Tomás called a “coyote,” or people smuggler, who had recently transported the nephew of a friend. When he came to the Sunúns’ store, Caty and Roberto realized they had seen him around town. It turned out Roberto’s father was friendly with him, though he had no idea the man was a coyote. He was a familiar face. He wasn’t going to mistreat a fellow Cubulero, Roberto reasoned.

The coyote told Roberto that his journey across the desert would take three days and that the entire trek would cost him 75,000 quetzals — about $10,000. This was many times what Tomás and Magdalena had paid, and Roberto couldn’t afford it — not even close. But it was a common rate, and migrants figured out how to pay. Families got mortgages on their homes or land to send members north, sold off livestock or took out private loans. Roberto could have asked his father to pay, but Lucas was opposed to his going. Caty’s father lent him the money. He didn’t realize he was sending his son-in-law to a very different border than the one he crossed 19 years earlier.

On his last visit to church, Roberto donated two conga drums to the band and sang a hymn. Caty was struck by one lyric: When I finish my journey in this world, Roberto sang, my soul will be lifted. On the morning of May 25, 2019, a pickup truck pulled up in front of the store. Roberto climbed in.

Geologists estimate that the Sonoran Desert has been accumulating for about two billion years. Today it occupies approximately 100,000 square miles — an area larger than Britain — that stretch from the Colorado Plateau in the north down through Sonora, Mexico, in the south, and from Southern California in the west to just east of Tucson. In the desert’s Pinacates Volcanic Field, as little as an inch of rain falls in a year. NASA used to train Apollo astronauts there — it was the closest thing to a moonscape they could find.

The eastern desert, which includes the Tohono O’odham’s tribal lands, is more hospitable, but even here the earth’s indifference to human need can seem vindictive. A route through the desert that missionaries, miners and migrants traditionally followed was called El Camino del Diablo, the Devil’s Highway. It followed an older trail that the Tohono O’odham used to send their young men down. Toward the desert was “the direction of suffering.” One early-20th-century account called the desert a “vast graveyard of unknown dead.” It can still feel that way. Hiking on the Arizona border today, even taking a walk outside Tucson, you can find human bones. Some are years old, some months.

Last December, I accompanied a pair of Border Patrol agents as they left the gates of the agency’s sprawling sector headquarters in Tucson and headed toward the border. Jesus A. Vasavilbaso and Daniel Hernandez had for about a decade been “sign trackers,” following migrants through the desert.

“I can’t tell you how many times we’ve come upon groups in the desert, and they have no food, no water,” Vasavilbaso said as he drove south on State Route 286. “And the journey they had — they had no idea what was coming. The terrain was so harsh, and they’re in the middle of nowhere. And we tell them: ‘You should be grateful and glad that we caught you when we caught you. What was coming, you were not going to make it out.’”

As migrants have sought out increasingly remote routes through the desert, more of them have died. This is a fact not seriously disputed by anyone familiar with the problem, including the Border Patrol. But if we are to look at these deaths as the Pima County pathologists do, as a kind of slow-motion epidemic, we must label the desert a proximate, not an ultimate, cause. There are various ultimate causes, but perhaps the plainest, certainly the most traceable, is federal policy. Confronted with images of holding pens and parentless children, it would be easy to assume the policy began with President Trump, the latest face of a revived — though hardly new — American hostility toward migrants. In fact, it has been in place through four presidential administrations.

Roberto and Caty.
Credit...From the Primero Luis family

In 1993, the Border Patrol apprehended over 1.2 million people trying to migrate without documentation. Bill Clinton entered office that year pledging to “get serious” about the problem, and in a strategic plan the following year, the Border Patrol introduced “prevention through deterrence” (the quotation marks are original). It called for an increase in security around border cities like Tijuana, El Paso and Nogales. As more agents assembled in these places, the thinking went, undocumented migrants would try to cross in increasingly remote areas, where the land and the elements would take over. “Mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers and valleys form natural barriers to passage,” the plan read. “Temperatures ranging from subzero along the northern border to the searing heat of the southern border affect illegal entry traffic as well as enforcement efforts. Illegal entrants crossing through remote, uninhabited expanses of land and sea along the border can find themselves in mortal danger.” Doris Meissner, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the time, said later that “it was our sense that the number of people crossing through Arizona would go down to a trickle once people realized” how dangerous it was.

“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.
Credit...Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

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.

The guide told Roberto’s group they could still go, but they would have to hike a longer route. It would take seven days rather than the planned-on three. Roberto agreed. He had heard about migrants dying in the desert; everyone in Guatemala had. Even his mother-in-law, who spent three days trekking in the desert, told him it took all her strength. But it was all worth it, she had said.

Late on the morning of Sunday, June 9, Roberto called Caty.

“Please be careful,” she said. “I love you, and our child does, too.”

She was now five months pregnant.

“I’ll be on the other side by Saturday,” he told her. “Get ready. You’re next.”

When Caty didn’t hear from Roberto on Saturday, June 15, the day he was supposed to have arrived in Arizona, she got anxious. Her father told her not to worry. “They’re probably somewhere hiding from Border Patrol,” he said. She called Roberto’s family and learned that he tried to call her from the desert but couldn’t get through. He had talked to his aunt in Nashville, however, and sounded good.

But by Monday, Caty still hadn’t heard anything. Tomás called the coyote in Cubulco. He told Tomás that Roberto had been caught by the Border Patrol. When Roberto’s father, Lucas, saw the coyote in the street around the same time, the coyote told him the same thing.

Tomás, who speaks some English, called Customs and Border Protection in the U.S. He was told that there was no record of a Roberto Primero Luis in custody, but that there was another man with the name of Primero. Tomás and Caty knew it was possible Roberto had been given phony identification. They decided, hopefully, that Roberto might be using a pseudonym. They waited two more weeks.

When no further word came, Tomás called the coyote and persuaded him to pass on the phone number of the Mexican coyote who had taken Roberto to Altar. Whether the number was genuine, Tomás couldn’t know, but he called. The man who answered said yes, he had handled Roberto. But Roberto had not been arrested; he had been kidnapped. He gave Tomás a phone number that he said belonged to the kidnappers. Tomás called it. The man on the other end said he had Roberto. He was willing to release him and get him to Nashville, but Roberto needed medical attention first. The price for everything would be 28,000 quetzals, or about $3,600. Tomás was skeptical but agreed. He and Lucas drove to the border of Guatemala and Mexico and gave the money to an intermediary.

He never heard from the supposed kidnapper, nor the supposed coyote who had put them in touch, again. The coyote in Cubulco disappeared and turned off his phone.

By now it was July, and Roberto had been missing for a month. Caty and Lucas made the four-hour drive to Guatemala City, where they went to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The officials there had heard nothing of Roberto and suggested contacting the Guatemalan Consulate in Tucson. They did, relaying Roberto’s personal information and a physical description. July turned into August.

Though the route of Roberto’s group had changed, its endpoint was the same: Twenty miles north of the border, they would near the town of Sells, on the Tohono O’odham reservation. They would emerge in a remote stretch of State Route 15 and be picked up and driven to the outskirts of Phoenix. From there, Roberto would be taken to Nashville.

The Tohono O’odham reservation is one of the largest in the country; it occupies 62 miles of the border and is larger than the country of Lebanon. Yet it has about only 15,000 residents, making it one of the least-populated places in the U.S. After riding with Vasavilbaso and Hernandez, I went to the reservation to see Ophelia Rivas, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation whose home is a few hundred feet from the border. The Tohono O’odham’s original lands, which long predated the border, and for that matter the countries it separates, extended well into Sonora. (The tribe’s name translates as “people of the desert.”)

Like most Tohono O’odham, Rivas has family in the U.S. and Mexico, and it used to be that they would go back and forth, on horseback or by wagon, later by truck. This is no longer possible. A vehicle barrier now extends along the line. Gone are the Tohono O’odham farms that used to grow from the alluvial fans here; gone are the Tohono O’odham cowboys who used to ride herd north and south. Even as the suburbs and bedroom communities of southern Arizona have expanded, the Sonoran Desert has become a more barren, and dangerous, place.

As Rivas and I looked out to the east onto a pair of hills on whose ridges she played as a girl, a Border Patrol truck went up an unpaved road into the saddle between them. The Trump administration had tried to persuade the tribe to allow it to extend pedestrian fencing across the reservation. The tribe objected, and the administration agreed to instead install a series of the new surveillance towers. The truck was headed to the base of one of these towers, which was still under construction.

For as long as she could remember, Rivas told me, migrants had come through her family’s land. But, she said, “we didn’t recognize them as migrants. We just thought of them as people coming across.” They started coming in greater numbers in the late 1990s, as “prevention by deterrence” took effect, and it wasn’t long before the Tohono O’odham felt besieged.

The chairman of the tribal government, Ned Norris Jr., attributed this to federal policy. “I believe that the government knew exactly what they were doing,” he said. “They were going to force that migrant activity somewhere, and in my opinion, they forced it onto the Tohono O’odham Nation.” With more migration, he said, came more crime. “Suddenly our folks were being carjacked. They were being held hostage in their own homes. They were being threatened.” The Mexican criminal organizations had infiltrated the reservation, he said. Members of the tribe were recruited.

Just as bad, Norris went on, was the toll that lost and sick migrants had on the tribe’s already threadbare services. They were treated gratis at the hospital. The Tohono O’odham are supposed to be reimbursed by the federal government, according to Norris, but it is millions of dollars in arrears. When migrants die on the reservation, the Tohono O’odham must pay Pima County for the medical examinations. Half of the police’s man-hours are given over to migrants.

Rivas and I left her home and descended a sandy track to the border. Once, when she was a girl, she told me, a man turned up in the yard, haggard and worried. He had been traveling north with his wife and daughter, who had stopped, exhausted. He had continued on to find help. Rivas’s grandfather hitched up a wagon and took the man back into the desert to retrieve them.

Roberto’s brother, Marvin, at Rokuzzo, the barbershop founded by Roberto in Cubulco. Roberto left the business to his younger brothers before he began his journey to the United States.
Credit...Daniele Volpe for The New York Times

Standing on the borderline, we looked onto a palimpsest. Stretching east to west was the new vehicle barrier, composed of hulking steel posts, not as much of an eyesore as the pedestrian fencing outside Sasabe but hideous enough. Running parallel to that was the “old fence,” put here long ago, a waist-high line of barbed wire rusted into quaintness. Between new and old was a small grave site, a circle of sun-bleached stones. This was where Rivas’s grandfather and the migrant had buried the man’s wife and daughter, whom the desert killed.

On the morning of Sept. 9, a Sunday, Caty was at church with her mother when she received a call from the Guatemalan Consulate in Tucson. A Guatemalan ID bearing Roberto’s name had been found on a body retrieved from the desert. The official told Caty that this didn’t mean the body was Roberto. The medical examiner was determining if the fingers on the body could be printed.

Two weeks later, the official called again. The fingers had yielded prints. They had been run against the Guatemalan government’s fingerprint database. There was a match.

At the airport in Guatemala City, Lucas and Eufemia were taken to a waiting room where Roberto’s remains would be offloaded. There they met three other families. The plane from Los Angeles containing their children was supposed to arrive at 6 a.m. but was delayed by fog. While they waited, Lucas and Eufemia fell into conversation with Augusto and Cecilia Mejia, who were there to retrieve their son, César. It was the first time Cecilia had ever been to an airport.

César, too, had died in the desert, she told Roberto’s parents. She said they didn’t know why César had gone north. He’d had a good job at a tile factory, a new wife, a house. Lucas confessed that he felt the same way about Roberto. He said, “He was young and had no reason to go to the U.S.”

The flight was four hours late. When the long, rectangular cardboard coffins containing the remains were finally brought into the waiting room, Cecilia asked if she could open César’s. She wanted to make sure it was him. How could she be sure? She hadn’t seen him in so long. Augusto told her they would wait until they got to the funeral home.

Cecilia asked an airport employee who was with them how often the bodies of migrants arrived.

“Every day,” he told her.

At the same funeral home, in Guatemala City, the coffin containing Roberto was opened. In it was a Styrofoam container with his remains. Lucas and Eufemia didn’t open it. Instead, they put it into an ornate gray metal coffin and that into a hearse that followed them back to Cubulco, where the town turned out for Roberto’s funeral. A procession filled the street in front of Rokuzzo, where the wake was held. Ten Cubuleros then carried the coffin on their shoulders to the graveyard. There, Lucas had built a simple red brick sarcophagus for his son.

Not long after the funeral, I went to Cubulco. At the Sunún family’s grocery, I found Caty tending the register. When I said why I was there, she began crying. Tomás and Magdalena were in the store, too. They took me to the faintly lit back room, near a conveyor-belt oven that was pumping out tortillas. Men carried sacks of animal feed in and out. On a table was a small altar with a statuette of the Virgin Mary and a burning candle. Above the doorway hung a framed portrait of Caty and Roberto on their wedding day.

As Caty and I spoke, she gently swayed a hammock. Inside, swaddled in blankets, was her son, asleep. He was born a few days before Roberto’s remains were repatriated. I asked his name. “Roberto Tomás Emmanuel,” she said. “But we haven’t been able to formally name him yet. The government hasn’t sent Roberto’s death certificate.”

Late in the conversation, Caty told me that one of the other Guatemalan migrants in Roberto’s group, a young man named Santos, was from Cubulco. He was, in fact, a distant cousin of Caty’s. Santos and Roberto had met on one of the buses and figured out their connection. They were paired by the foot guide before the group went into the desert. The guide gave them a phone to use if they got separated from the group. It was from this phone that Roberto had last tried to call Caty.

After Roberto went missing, Caty called the phone, again and again, for weeks. It was always off. Then, one day, Santos answered. He told her what happened.

Toward the end of the trek, he said, he and Roberto were nearing the rendezvous point where they would be picked up. But they were dehydrated and exhausted. Santos couldn’t go on. He collapsed. The guide wouldn’t wait, but Roberto refused to leave Santos. He poured what little water they had left into Santos’s mouth. He prayed over him. Santos revived, and, now separated from the group, they pushed on. The guide called them, gave them directions. They were so close, Santos recalled.

Empty water jugs left behind by migrants in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona.
Credit...Kevin Cooley for The New York Times

Roberto collapsed. There was no more water, no shade to rest in. Santos didn’t know what to do. He didn’t want to leave Roberto, but he believed that if he stayed with him, he would die himself. They would both die. So he left.

Santos didn’t see Roberto die, he told Caty, but he also didn’t see how he could have made it out alive.

“He seemed to feel bad about leaving Roberto,” Caty told me.

She couldn’t be sure from Santos’s story that Roberto had died in the desert, so she had held out hope, to the end.

She had never told Roberto’s family any of this.

As I was leaving the grocery, I told Tomás that I’d like to come back to speak with him about Roberto. He shook his head sternly.

“I don’t need to remember that,” he said.

Tomás had wanted Roberto to experience the America he had. But that America no longer existed — not for Guatemalans, at any rate. Of the 860,000 people apprehended by the Border Patrol in 2019, more than 265,000 of them were Guatemalan, the single largest group. In the same year, over 54,000 Guatemalans were deported. Tens of thousands more have been detained. Several Guatemalans have died in these facilities, among them a teenage boy from a village near Cubulco. Most of the detainees have been caught near the border soon after crossing, but many have been arrested in the interior, in raids on the kinds of businesses and neighborhoods that Roberto would have been working at and living in. In April 2018, federal agents arrested 97 people, many of them Guatemalan, in a meatpacking plant near Nashville.

In Tucson, after Roberto was positively identified, I discussed his case with the Guatemalan consul. When I asked whom in Roberto’s family I should contact, the consul told me that it wasn’t clear. His widow and his family were arguing over who would receive the body at the airport. Before I spoke with Caty, I noticed that her parents’ store was a matter of feet from the Rokuzzo barbershop. I asked if she ever went there to say hi to Roberto’s brothers. No, she said. “They talk about me behind my back.”

Roberto’s parents lived in the hills above Cubulco, in the same three-room wood-slat house that Lucas built after they married. When I arrived, washing hung over bucket sinks and chickens chased one another around in the mud yard. It was a Sunday morning, and I suspected that they would be at church, so I came with a basket of fruit and a note with my phone number, planning to leave it at their door. But as I stood on the porch, a woman stepped outside. It was Roberto’s mother.

I told her who I was and why I’d come. She began crying. I apologized, offered my condolences and was preparing to leave, when she began talking about Roberto. She spoke as though he had only just died.

When I told her I had come from the U.S., the place where her son was now supposed to be, her thoughts turned to the coyote. She grew angry thinking of that man who “left my son in the desert,” she said. “That ungrateful, ungrateful man.” But then she returned to Roberto, recounting the moment when she learned that he was leaving. “He made up his mind to leave in a matter of three days,” she said. “In three days, he realized he had to make that journey. I told him no. But he didn’t take my advice.

“Well, he’s gone, right? He’s by God’s side. But we’re still in pain, yes. It hurts because he was a very smart man. He was a hard-working man. Yes. He was kind.”

She had been told nothing of her son’s death by the Guatemalan government, nor for that matter by the American one. When I told her I had been with the medical investigator in Arizona when Roberto’s body was retrieved, she had many questions. “I wonder if he was there for many days, suffering,” she said. “Do the immigration officers go to that place often? Why did it take months until they found him?” Finally she asked, “Did they take pictures when they found him?”

I told her yes, and I had them, but they were upsetting. She didn’t hesitate before answering: “I would like to see them. It doesn’t matter, because we have experienced that pain already.”

We went into a bedroom, where we were joined by Roberto’s younger sister, Nohelia. On the wall were photographs of Roberto, in the corner a black case containing his saxophone. Nohelia brought in two plastic chairs, and Eufemia and I sat next to each other, while Nohelia sat on the bed behind us. I opened my laptop, brought up the file with Roberto’s autopsy photos and began scrolling.

“I’m sorry” was all I could think to say. But Eufemia didn’t look grief-stricken. She was concentrating intently on the images.

We looked at the first photographs, of Roberto lying facedown on Bird Nest Hill. “They found him stuck on the ground?” she asked, as doubt overtook her face. Roberto was unrecognizable, and she seemed not to know whether to believe this was him. After all, she had not seen him since he left Cubulco. She had not opened his coffin after it arrived at the airport. “But that’s not him, right?” she asked again. “That’s not Roberto?”

I assured her it was. She motioned for me to continue scrolling. We arrived at an image of his face, with the mud-filled eye sockets and the skeletal hand pressed to his cheek — and the hair, still looking good. She didn’t cringe, or even blanch. She looked up at a photograph of him on the wall.

“He was a handsome boy,” she said. “Look at him.”

“When he was here, people called him Gringo,” Nohelia said.

I brought up a picture that the Tohono O’odham detective had taken, the most striking image in the file. It showed Roberto in the foreground, while beyond stretched the desert, seeming to emanate from but also culminate in him. Hills, basins, hills, basins, a mild golden glow, a ribbon of blue above. You could see deep into Mexico. Eufemia gazed at it for a long time.

“He walked all this,” she said.

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