Two Vets Honor the Dead and Save Lives at the Mexican Border
All photos by Avery White

Two Vets Honor the Dead and Save Lives at the Mexican Border

They install water stations and grave markers for the people who try to enter the US illegally via the treacherous Sonoran Desert.
May 29, 2017, 4:00am

It's 110 degrees in the Sonoran Desert as Alvaro Enciso digs a hole in the dirt. He fills the hole with water and cement, then gently secures a handmade cross. Beside the grave-marker he places several water bottles for future border-crossers, "just in case," he says.

Over the past 17 years, the Tucson Corridor has seen a surge of Central Americans and Mexicans making the journey across the border by way of the desert. Enciso is marking the death sites of nearly three thousand bodies found in the desert as part of a conceptual art piece that spans 20,000 square miles.


The 71-year-old immigrated to the United States from Colombia in the 1960s. He was drafted into the US Army and served in the Vietnam War. Afterwards, he returned to the US to study cultural anthropology and was later hired by the US government as an expert in Latin American culture to work with the growing Spanish-speaking population. After retiring, he moved to Tucson in 2011 and dedicated himself to the plight of immigrants. First displaying his socially conscious found-object art work in the galleries of Tucson, he eventually started installing grave-markers in the Sonora Desert for people who've died trying to cross the border.

Alvaro installs around four grave markings every week.

"I'm one of the lucky ones" he says. "I'm an example that there are people other than 'bad hombres,' who make a life for themselves and who participate in the American system and contribute to the American way of life. That's why I do this. It's solidarity. I'm part of la raza." Enciso has already installed around 500 crosses, but his work is far from over as the death count continues to rise.

"So far in 2017, we've had 42," explains Dr. Gregory Hess, the Chief Medical Examiner for Pima County, the final destination for most unidentified migrant bodies. We meet Dr. Hess at his Tucson office where we survey the data associated with migrant deaths, best shown by the "death map." This open-source, interactive map that Enciso and other "water droppers" use catalogues the 2,802 known locations where human remains have been discovered since 2001. "Prior to 2000, migrant deaths weren't on our radar. It was maybe ten to 15 remains found per year in the desert. But then in 2000, that number was 75, and then basically from 2002 to 2015, we averaged about 170 per year." We ask Dr. Hess what drove this surge in deaths. "There was Operation: Gatekeeper and Operation: Hold the Line. Those were policies under the Clinton Administration that tried to decrease the number of illegal crossings. They put up quite a bit more fencing and tried to make it more difficult to cross in major populated areas, but what they did was push the [migration] routes into more remote areas like Southern Arizona. People are gonna still come if they have to."

The wall was installed in more geographically accessible regions of the border, pushing routes into areas that had not historically been trafficked

To better understand who attempts this difficult journey and why, we visit Juanita Molina, Executive Director of Humane Borders, a 17-year-old aid organization founded in response to this region's rise in deaths. "The federal government said they thought the desert would be a natural deterrent. People would die, news would get back home, and people would stop crossing. That was not the case for a few different reasons. One reason is that the federal government completely underestimated the desperation of the people and the severity of their situation. The second reason is that they overestimated their knowledge. Coyotes in Mexico will say, 'see those lights over there, that's New York, we just need a day walk or so.' And really it's a ten-day walk just to Tucson."

Molina holds a photo of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas who was beaten and killed by Border Patrol agents.

The term "migrant" is defined as "a person who goes from one place to another especially to find work." Molina, suggests that "refugee" is a more accurate word to use in describing many of the people attempting to cross the United States' southern border.

"No one is making this trek because they'd like to. People are fleeing life and death situations. They don't have other options except to try to come to this country under any circumstance. There are people suffering considerable violence, but the US government feels that if we were to acknowledge an asylum status for Mexico, that it would overwhelm our immigration system. The answer I hear from them over and over again is, 'I'd rather die trying.'"


According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, armed conflicts in Mexico and Central America are responsible for an estimated 39,000 deaths in 2016, alone. That figure is second only to Syria and more than Iraq and Afghanistan combined. "From a law enforcement perspective, public health or safety perspective, it doesn't make sense. It's completely illogical," says Molina. "Unfortunately, what we have done by creating this layer of criminalization is almost like putting out meat for the wolves. Cartels, who want to hurt people, want to traffic children, want to rape women, want to move drugs, we've made all of them stronger by taking away the identity of all of these people. Our views are so racist and xenophobic that we don't restore the humanity of these people. That's what's so cruel in this situation."

A catholic altar is mysteriously placed deep in the desert

Before sunrise the following day, we meet with Joel Smith, a Marine Corps veteran and Tucson native, in front of the Humane Borders headquarters. Smith loads hundreds of pounds of water into his truck. "To me, it's all racism. Instead of talking about the cultural ramifications of immigration, the religious aspect, the economic aspect, the philosophical aspect, you have these old white men sticking their fingers in their ears screaming, 'NO, NO, NO, we're not going to talk about it.'"

Molina urges us to accompany Smith on a water dropping excursion to get a complete picture of the the journey many people take to cross the border. We ride hours beyond the outskirts of Tucson, through the Tohono O'odham Native America reservation, past the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge, and down an abandoned mining road to what feels like no man's land.


"The land out here will kill you if you don't know what you're doing," he warns. "What we have here is miles of desert without a trace of humanity. This isn't farm country like Ohio or Indiana. Out here, you can walk for a day and not see a soul. So there's a good chance you can elude Border Patrol… but there's no water and there's no food. Everything out here is against you."

"This is the Sonoran Desert, absolutely beautiful to be in, but if you've never been to this place before, it is hell on Earth," Smith says.

Smith ventures into the most remote corners of the desert and installs water stations to give border crossers a better chance of survival. He's been maintaining these stations for almost a decade. His motive is simple, "I just can't let people die in my desert."

"I'm out here looking for the living and the dead," says Smith as he scans the desolate scenery. "I'm looking for garbage I haven't seen before. I'm not looking for American stuff like beer bottles and Pepsi. I'm looking for migrant stuff. I'm looking for water jugs. I'm looking for packs. I'm looking for shoes. I'm looking for bones. I'm looking for a person. Human remains are not very pretty and they leave a bad taste in your mind."

We arrive at the first water station, marked by a blue flag waving high above the brush. Previously, as an experiment, Smith placed water in close proximity to an emergency station installed by Border Patrol for people on the verge of lethal dehydration. In three languages along with pictographs, the emergency station explains that water and help will arrive if they press the big button and wait. For a person eluding border patrol yet trying to survive, this could be a life or death decision. Smith's newly installed water station changes the situation entirely, but his history of legal, amicable cooperation with Border Patrol allows for such "experiments."

Border Patrol Rescue Station.

Smith notes the change in water level since his last visit, and then refills the tank. "We have various protocols that humanitarians and Border Patrol have agreed upon, things that we can and can't do. I can give food and water. I can give socks. I can give directions. I can show a migrant a map. But I can't give them the map. I can't put them in the truck and take them anywhere. That would be aiding and abetting. That would be against federal law."

Back in the truck, we look at the road-worn death map Smith consults for his missions. He runs his fingers along clusters of red dots, each one signifying a death. "You know, in a lot of ways this is the toughest job I've ever had. I have to leave women and children behind in the desert, and there's not a thing I can do about it. If I start smuggling, I put myself and Humane Borders at risk. It's that old conundrum of having to not save one person so that you can save many more." "I've seen people I couldn't help and I tell them the options. I can call Border Patrol if they want me to, or they can risk dying, it's one or the other… a lot of them have come up to me and said they want me to call Border Patrol… They're desperate… They could have been raped. They could have beaten. They could have been robbed. They may not want to talk about what happened. They just want out."

Smith spends 25 hours a week maintaining Humane Borders' water stations.

In addition to apprehension from Border Patrol and death by dehydration, people crossing the border face a host of other threats on their trek. Coyotes employed by the cartel for human trafficking are often violent and coercive. "Most of them are criminals, you don't get a lot of saints in that business. We've come across high heels and strollers out here, people had no idea what they were getting into."

"'It's a little bit more, a little bit more,' they say. They're easier to control if you don't say 'you have to walk five days.' Some of the coyotes don't even bother lying. They'll just use a revolver. We've seen quite a few migrants who have died of gunshot wounds out here in the middle of nowhere. God knows what happened."


Then there's the "militia," vigilantes who take it upon themselves to patrol the border. "With the migrants I'm not assuming any risk, with the exception of food and water, I don't have anything they really want. The people I keep an eye out for are the 'Minutemen.' They have their rifle, a revolver on their hip, an automatic, and another in their pack. They say they're gonna shoot the station or poison the water. And they do vandalize our stations. A couple weeks ago a water barrel got shot about 25 times, looked like a .22, and another barrel got stabbed about a dozen times. So you got some people with serious anger issues."

"You don't get the same coyote from Mexico all the way to Phoenix, nobody knows the desert that damned well. That's a mighty big desert to know over a 120 miles like the back of your hand," Smith explains.

The next site on the day's docket is more remote. Smith says it's been a couple months since he'd last checked on it. He expects the 24 gallon station to be anywhere from empty to half full. As he fills his military duffle bag with 10 gallon jugs of water he tells us, "It's physically impossible for a migrant to carry enough water for this entire journey."

Smith carries close to 100 pounds of water in a duffel bag from his military days.

We hike through the brush and across the dry washes. "Shuffle your feet as you pass through to warn the rattlesnakes," Smith advises. We arrive to the water station and discover the blue flag on the ground and the barrel's top is pulled off. A large rock lays on top of broken water jugs. Smith removes the damaged jugs and replaces them.

"They threw the rock on top of it instead of slashing it. This is the second time this area has been hit… Probably Border Patrol, this is too far back for vigilantes."

Smith installs blue flags by water stations to alert border crossers that there is water.

We ask Smith what would make his job obsolete.

"If you have a system where people can come here legally, Border Patrol could do its job and really chase after smugglers, instead of some guy who wants to go to Reno and flip burgers. That would take the refugee out of the desert and nobody would have to sneak through the 'back door' except the actual criminals."

Until then, Joel Smith will continue to install water stations and Alvaro Enciso will continue to install grave sites.

One of Alvaro's volunteers carries water for miles towards a new grave site

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