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

“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.

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