This story is over 5 years old

A Weekend in the Desert with No More Deaths

“The nature of the border itself makes it a strange place, causing confusion, dissimulation. No one really knows the truth of what really goes on there, we can only reconstruct it based on what we find,” volunteer Geoff Boyce told me.

by A.M Gittlitz
Dec 8 2012, 4:15pm

In the early morning of October 2, 2012, US Border Patrol agent Nicholas Ivie was shot and killed as he responded to a tripped ground sensor near the border town of Naco, Arizona. He was the fourth agent in two years to die on duty. Although his death would turn out to be the result of friendly fire, the bravery of the Border Patrolman’s mission was lauded in statements by Governor Jan Brewer, Senator John McCain, Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano, and others. They all spoke of the danger inherent in patrolling the border, but no one mentioned the hundreds of immigrants who die each year as a result of Border Patrol’s practice of funneling them into one of the harshest places in United States, the Sonoran Desert.

The Sonoran is a sprawling wilderness in southern Arizona where tall grass and cacti hide monstrous animals like the spiky-haired javelin, the cat-like raccoon called the coatimundi, and the tarantula hawk, a wasp so big it feasts on the giant arachnids. The Sonoran is also the final hurdle for tens of thousands of migrants who enter the United States illegally each year. As border technology and patrolling has increased in the past decades, the Sonoran is, by design, one of the only entrance points that remains. And if crossing the border itself is an arduous task then making it through the desert is even worse. It takes weeks. Scorching sun, no water sources, and the constant threat of capture by border guards or betrayal by unscrupulous smugglers await those intrepid enough to take to the dusty paths etched through the desert.

To visitors from either side of the border, the Sonoran feels like occupied territory, replete with watchtowers, helicopters, miles of separation walls, and semi-automatic wielding patrolmen. But these hazards indicate a crisis more than a war. And if Border Patrol guards and the rugged elements seem to conspire unfairly against those who try to enter the US, there are a few people trying to address the humanitarian fallout from this rugged cat-and-mouse game.

About 11 miles north of the border is Arivaca. Once known for its influx of marijuana-cultivating hippies in the 70s, the town today has become the home of the humanitarian organization No More Deaths. Each summer dozens of college activists, Christian anarchists, queer cowboys/girls, and the intensely compassionate voyage to Byrd Camp, No More Death’s desert base. The group strives to relieve the humanitarian crisis along the border, a daunting task attempted through cooperation with other NGOs, petitions to Homeland Security, researching and documenting abuse of migrants at the hands of Border Patrol, and directly supporting those who attempt the deadly journey from Mexico to the United States. 

The organization began in 2004. By then anti-immigration rhetoric had fully metastasized from the glimmer in David Duke’s eye and the frothy lather around Lou Dobb’s snarl to the actual erection of steel fences along urban borders and a massive surge in Border Patrol agents in the region. The increased militarization of the border began in 1994, when the Immigration and Naturalization Service launced Operation Gatekeeper. The initiative, implemented to stem an expected rise in immigration after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement, made crossing into to the United States from Mexico without a visa much more difficult. By 1997, the ranks of Border Patrol agents doubled, the length of border fencing doubled, and the number of underground border sensors tripled. Before Operation Gatekeeper, organized crossings of thousands at a time occurred nightly in urban border towns such as San Diego or El Paso.

For today’s border jumper, the task is not so easy. It’s like a real world SEGA Genesis role playing game, in which the character has no weapons, a limited inventory, and days of evading enemies ahead of them before reaching the refuge of a town.

I first heard of No More Deaths when my friend Richard, an anarchist I had met through the punk scene in New York, abruptly moved to Tucson to dedicate his life to the organization. While I stayed in Manhattan, plotting how to stop NYPD from stomping out symbolic tent villages, Richard ventured into the borderlands lugging a backpack filled with jugs of water and malcontent for the state like a modern day Edward Abbey hero. When I first mentioned to Richard that I might come down and visit him at NMD, he displayed little enthusiasm for the work he was doing, dissuading my hopes that the weekend at camp would be enjoyable by warning me of the severely stressful situation I was about to enter.

I caught an early morning ride with a few No More Death volunteers from Tucson. We met another truck of volunteers in front of Arivaca’s lone convenience store, and participated in a ritualistic vehicle exchange. Three volunteers who had spent the week at camp took our car back to Tucson, and we headed to Byrd.

True to his word, minutes after I arrived at Byrd camp, I was introduced to three Mexican men who had stayed the night for medical treatment. Two had feet in such bad condition they were barely able to walk. The third was badly ill, likely with a gastro-intestinal infection caused by secretive sips of dirty water from the few cattle ponds that dot the desert—often the only source of water available on the trails. They departed a couple hours later, the two better-off men carrying a limping third.

One woman, a young recent mother from the Mexico City area on her way to work with her brother at a fast food restaurant in Idaho, stayed behind.  As is the case with many of the wanderers who end up at camp, she became lost and alone after her group was scattered by Border Patrol (or BP, as the No More Death activists derisively call them).  Visibly depressed and barely able to walk, she spent much of the day staring into space, occasionally writing notes presumably to her family. Richard speculated that she was waiting for another group to come through, preferably one with other women.

Richard and I plotted out our work for the weekend. Each day, we would hike to a series of GPS way-points to leave food and water, mark if the previous caché had been consumed or destroyed, and replenish the supplies. As the sun set we ate a meal of quesadillas and beans and enjoyed the tranquility of the desert. After dinner we unrolled our sleeping bags for an early night’s rest. The Sonoran seemed peaceful. But the next morning we’d again be reminded of its harsh reputation.

Our first day hiking involved a grueling six-mile loop around the nearby Diablo Mountain, leaving water bottles and cans of beans at strategic points where trails converged. The trail was desolate aside from the buzzing of flies and wasps and the crunch of clay beneath my sneakers. Statistically speaking, it should have been likely to encounter migrants along the way, but volunteers report usually only seeing them when in dire need of help. Having no reason to trust any gringo, they hide somewhere off the trail. Even coming to Byrd for medical treatment can be risky. Byrd camp has been under surveillance and occasionally raided by Border Patrol. Some migrants have even reported hearing rumors that water and food drops are traps set by la migra (Border Patrol), which may explain why they are sometimes found untouched.

In July 2012, a No More Deaths hidden camera video showed an agent gleefully kicking water jugs placed by volunteers against a jagged rock, shattering them. The footage was aired on PBS’sNeed to Know program, which also ran interviews with migrants, Americans, and one whistle-blower Border Patrol agent speaking of sexual abuse, verbal abuse, harshly overcrowded cells, and torture. Salon’s John Carlos Frey polled recent deportees at a Red Cross mission in the border-town of Nogales. Out of 75 polled, 50 reported having experienced such abuses. In more formal studies No More Deaths interviewed 13,000 migrants since 2006. About half of them reported abuse.

Agent Brent Cagen of Tucson Border Patrol responded to these allegations by claiming, “acts of mistreatment or misconduct by Border Patrol agents are not tolerated in any way. The Border Patrol will cooperate fully with any effort to investigate allegations of agent misconduct or mistreatment of individuals.” He added that Border Patrol doesn’t discourage humanitarian groups, but that BP is de facto the most effective humanitarian organization in the region, saving the lives of over 600 migrants last year with use of search and rescue teams. The deaths, he claims, are more accurately the fault of the cartel-employed guides, or ¨coyotes,¨ who will leave behind members of their group at any sign of apprehension or if they can’t keep pace.

No More Deaths volunteer Geoff Boyce has been documenting abuse of repatriated migrants for over 6 years, and finds this statement to typically misleading. Contributing to the reports A Culture of Cruelty and Crossing the Line, both published at, Boyce has found the Department of Homeland Security typically ignores claims of both individual and systematic mistreatment, citing lack of trust in their sampling methods, or that cases of abuse are against policy.

But even if the cases of abuse are the result of a few “bad apples” within the force, often vague policies that are in themselves inhumane are at fault, he argues, mentioning Border Patrol’s lack of transparency in releasing their protocols for the deportation of entire families as a particularly troubling example. One of the most frequent and heartbreaking cases No More Deaths encounters is when family members detained together are repatriated to different cities. Frequently, minors have been found deported completely alone, and he has found no agency standards preventing this practice. Routine treatment of detained “aliens” also frequently includes pressure to sign documents provided only in English, refusal of food, water, and medical attention, and injuries due to unsafe driving and lack of seatbelts in Border Patrol vehicles.

Boyce agrees with Agent Cagen that the cartel´s coyotes are a major source of the humanitarian crisis, but that migrants are caught in between the human smuggling industry and the American drive to prevent border incursions. “As for individual agents, I have no doubt most don’t want to see deaths out there,” Boyce says. Nonetheless, the abuses documented point to “a culture of prioritizing expediency over the integrity of the Border Patrol's detention and repatriation practice.”

In other words, the policies result in something of an impersonal numbers game.  Attractive statistics become a goal, such as the claim of a zero net migration rate in 2011. While the implication is that migrants have stopped coming, the reality is Obama’s 400,000 deportations in 2010 and ’11 counteract the hundreds of thousands who also entered the country those years.

Even for those lucky enough to avoid the clutches of BP, the wilderness crossing is a punitive ordeal in itself. Since Operation Gatekeeper, Border Patrol technology and manpower has increased significantly, narrowing the gaps through which migrants can cross. The 1994 plan called for “prevention by deterrence,” implying that a heightened number of deaths due to exposure to elements would be an inevitable result. Doris Meissner, author of the plan and then INS commissioner admits, “We did believe that geography would be an ally for us. It was our sense that the number of people crossing through the Arizona desert would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.”

The perils of crossing did become notorious. The hundreds who die annually are those who get lost, run out of water and food, and become ill when they drink from toxic cow ponds. Coalición de Derechos Humanos, a grassroots organization resisting border militarization, has estimated 2,464 deaths in Arizona since 2000. Some of them are children, such as Josseline Jamileth Hernández, a 14-year-old Guatemalan girl whose remains were found by No More Deaths volunteer Dan Millis. When captured, migrants face harsh detentions conditions, and are then repatriated into border towns where they have little ability to subsist, making them prey for robbery or rape. It is unclear if these horrors serve as a deterrent, as intended, or if the slumping U.S. economy is more to blame for lower immigration rates. Either way, the annual death rate has remained in the 150-250 range for over ten years.

Even though much of the Sonoran boundary remains only a small cattle fence or vehicle barrier, to hop it is only the beginning. Migrants trek for days or weeks trying to make their way to a road north of two stationary checkpoints. Even then, anyone stopped or pulled over in this range can have their citizenship verified at the officer’s discretion. In this area, especially the barrios of South Tucson, the notorious “papers, please” legislation SB1070 has always been a redundancy.

On our final day out Richard and I hiked a trail along the Coches Mountain, only a couple miles from the border. Along the way we saw constant reminders of the thousands who had passed before us: empty black water jugs favored for their low-visibility, packets of garlic, thought to repel snakes, and worn out shoes and backpacks, some sized for children. At one dry well Richard pointed to a bundle of what looked like shoelaces. These were wrist restraints for detainees, and there were several strung together. An entire group was captured there; their packs emptied out nearby. We picked through them to find toothpaste, deodorant, a packet of instant coffee, and a menstrual pad. At each of the first five drops visited that day we found No More Death’s bottles had been slashed. They had probably been there for weeks, a sight that would cruelly mock any thirsty passers-by.

The disheartening pattern continued until the late afternoon, when we hiked a mile into another remote drop North of Arivaca. There we found eight bottles emptied—but structurally intact. The finding was so relieving it redeemed the entire ten-hour day of driving on bad roads and hiking in the desert. We made a return trip to the truck, bringing 12 gallons of waters, two packets of food, and several cans of beans to the drop.

When we returned to camp, we were told the woman from Mexico City had asked a volunteer to call BP to have her voluntarily repatriated. Byrd wouldn’t be quiet for too long. At 4 AM, we awoke to the sound of seven men shuffling into camp wearing slippers made from greeting mats fashioned to hide footprints in the sand. Several had minor injuries, but mostly they needed to eat. We showed them to the kitchen and let them prepare a large meal. As they ate, they told us about how they had been stuck in one well-patrolled spot near the border for over a week, only able to last due to the discover of a No More Deaths food and water caché. Traveling only by moonlight, it took them two days with no food and little water to reach the camp.

“The nature of the border itself makes it a strange place, causing confusion, dissimulation. No one really knows the truth of what really goes on there, we can only reconstruct it based on what we find,” Geoff told me. Nonetheless, watching the relief on the men’s faces as they wolfed down their food, there was a sense of clarity and righteousness that far surpassed the abstraction of typical solidarity work, often taking the form of protesting some distant bombing in front of a closed embassy, or handing out dumpstered bagels in a park like some crustier Salvation Army. Perhaps this is a hint as to why Richard was so keen on moving here.  

It was similarly obvious a few days later when I got a ride to the border in Nogales and simply walked across without even having my passport examined. Two men behind me, however, were stopped, asked to provide papers, and arrested when they could not. They were most likely trying to get home, but since they had entered the country illegally, they were to be detained and processed by Border Patrol before they could return. Clearly what allows me to walk into Mexico without any interest from the authorities, and what puts darker-skinned people in jails has little to do with a political border. It’s an ideology, a logic ingrained in the perceived naturalness of normality, that should be equally atrocious to us when we hear about mass detentions and deportations conducted by ICE, when we see destitute day laborers clustering roadside, our when our foreign-born coworkers make far less for doing much more strenuous work. Even hundreds of miles from Arivaca, these routine situations should serve as reminders that the border, less line in the sand than a deeply ingrained and inhuman logic, is never too far away.