‘No Olvidado’: These Americans find and bury missing migrants

A three-part documentary about death and dignity on the US-Mexico border

Part I Missing in the desert

Five hours into the hike and 100 degrees in the shade, the exhausted men thought about water and their aching feet and how many bodies they would find that day.

Fanned out in a line across a remote patch of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, the 15 men in fluorescent vests reading “Aguilas Del Desierto” (Eagles of the Desert) freckled the Mars-like landscape. All morning, they had hiked over uneven black volcanic rocks, lava-hot and ready to split an ankle in two, into the heart of a valley, where thousands of giant saguaro cactuses waved their stubby arms.

For the last hour, Pedro Fajardo, a 56-year-old factory worker, had smelled death. As the men poked sticks under bushes and sweated through ditches dotted with the familiar detritus of migrants -- water bottles painted black, discarded clothing and rosary beads -- an occasional putrid breeze was their compass.

Members of the Aguilas del Desierto search for migrant remains in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a remote area in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert.

Stopping at the bottom of a small ridge, Fajardo caught it again — stronger this time. He pushed the men forward.

That’s when a whistle blew, and 12 radios crackled in familiar chorus.

“Encontramos un cadaver, encontramos un cadaver.”

We’ve found a corpse.

At least once a month, the Aguilas del Desierto, a group of 30 predominantly Mexican-American volunteers, travel to the Sonoran desert to search for migrants reported lost or missing. The names and suspected locations of missing border crossers are reported by desperate families on the other side of the border, usually via Facebook, though the group also receives as many as 20 phone calls per day.

Most of the Aguilas work 40-hour weeks, many as landscapers, cooks and factory workers. Money for their expeditions, including gas for the 14-hour round trip, comes from online donations and weekly collections at local markets in California, where most of the group lives.

Pedro Fajardo, a volunteer with the Aguilas del Desierto, prays over the remains of a dead migrant.

The body they had just found was fresh. The man had lain there maybe four or five days, they guessed. He was sprawled in the shadow of a small tree, flies fogged above his swollen chest. Pus and blood leaked from his eyes and mouth.

The man was the second dead migrant they had found that morning; a skull was found earlier. Once they’d found 11 sets of remains in an afternoon. Another time, two days before Christmas, they’d found nine bodies, huddled in a line -- victims of dehydration.

Still, it was rare to find a fully fleshed body in the scorching heat of the desert, which can render a human skeletal in a matter of weeks. Even more unusual, the man would be quickly identified.

His name the Aguilas would learn after they had performed the grim ritual they knew so well -- taping off the area, radioing coordinates to Border Patrol, saying a prayer for the dead man’s soul. José Inés Ortiz Aguillon. He was from El Salvador and 51 years old.

A member of the Aguilas del Desierto lays a cross next to the body of José Inés Ortiz Aguillon.

Found on April 22, 2019, Aguillon would become the 47th dead migrant to be retrieved from the Arizona borderlands since the first of the year. By August, as temperatures rose as high as 107 degrees, that number would more than double.

“It's like a gigantic cemetery right now, crossing the desert. Only a few make it. Once they get into the desert, there is no return,” Fajardo says.

“We could be looking every day up there, and we can find (dead) people every day. Unfortunately, we can't do that because we have to work.”

The Aguilas group was founded in 2009 by Mexican-American migrant Eli Ortiz after his brother and cousin died while attempting to cross the Sonoran Desert. Their story, he says, is common to many.

“They were crossing the border and their smuggler left them behind. I asked immigration for help, and they refused to help. I asked the consulate for help and they refused. I asked the police for help and they refused too,” Ortiz says.

“We found my family four-and-a-half months after they were left behind. All that was left were their skeletons.”

That’s when Ortiz knew he had to help. For him, the mission is simple.

“If it wasn’t for us, who would find them?” he says.

The group formed in response to a mass wave of migrant deaths on the border that have been hidden in plain sight for more than two decades, even as overall rates of illegal migration have decreased.

Arizona’s numbers speak for themselves. Between 1990 and 1999, the average number of migrant deaths recorded each fiscal year in southern Arizona was 12. From 2000 to 2017, that number jumped more than tenfold, to 157 deaths per year,) according to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner.

This increase can be directly attributed, human rights groups argue, to the U.S. Border Patrol’s 1994 adoption of “Prevention Through Deterrence” as its chief operational strategy. The new initiative was formed amid an intense outcry over historic numbers of illegal immigration from Mexico in the ’80s and ’90s. Named “Operation Gatekeeper,” it outlined a radical new tactic for deterring illegal border crossers -- using the unforgiving landscape as a natural barrier.

The strategy said that as “mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers and valleys form natural barriers to passage,” known migrant routes at urban entry points should be fenced off and militarized. This left migrants with no choice but to cross over harsh, remote desert. Authorities assumed they would fear making such a hazardous journey -- and if anyone tried, their deaths would act as a future deterrent.

In one aspect, this hypothesis proved correct. Illegal migration did go down after the implementation of Operation Gatekeeper. In 2000, more than 1.6 million unauthorized immigrants were apprehended by Border Patrol. By 2010, that number had dropped by more than 80 percent, to just over 300,000.

Migrants who attempt a desert crossing frequently encounter wild animals, like rattlesnakes.

However, what soon became clear is that the challenges of crossing through inhospitable landscapes like the Sonoran Desert wouldn’t stop migrants from attempting to make the journey.

From October 1997 to September 2018, US Border Patrol recorded 7,505 migrant deaths in its nine sectors along the entire southwestern border. And this astonishing figure -- more than the total number of US military killed in operations in Iraq and Afghanistan combined since 2001 -- is likely a significant undercount.

A 2018 CNN investigation found that the Border Patrol had failed to count hundreds of migrant deaths on US soil. Border Patrol figure data includes only cases reported to them, and it’s estimated that agents only find about 50% of the remains that are recovered, leading to significant undercounting.

Border Patrol’s numbers also don’t account for the migrants who simply go missing in the desert, never to be seen again, their bodies eaten and scattered by coyotes and vultures. Some human rights organizations estimate the number of missing to be in the tens of thousands.

“The migrant people coming across the border, what they don't realize is how hard it is to get across the desert,” says Gerardo Campo, a 58-year-old floral designer who moonlights on weekends as the Aguilas’ operations chief.

According to Border Patrol, most deaths occur as a result of dehydration. Many other migrants die after being left behind because of a simple, treatable injury. Migrants walk at night to evade detection, and rocky terrain makes broken bones a common occurrence. Even a bad case of blisters can cause migrants to be abandoned by the smugglers they pay to guide them, leading to almost certain death, Campo says.

“They may have an idea that they're going to be walking for just a couple of days, as they've been told by the coyotes to hook them and make their money. But they don't realize until they're into the desert that it's not two days. It's going to be about five, six, seven, ten days walking,” he says.

“The traffickers, and even people and family members that are going with them along the journey, they don't care because their life is in danger too. So if someone gets hurt, that's it.”

Though all the Aguilas live in the US legally, most of them arrived undocumented, crossing before hardline policies militarized the border. They see themselves as the lucky ones.

“When I find remains of people in the desert, I honestly see myself in that process of dying,” Campo says. “That is me.”

Part II Identifying the dead

Dr. Greg Hess, chief medical examiner of Pima County in Tucson, Arizona, points to the outdoor cooler –- capacity: 115 human bodies -- the extra one they had to build in 2005 after the flood of migrant remains began to overwhelm his office.

“We ran out of room,” he says.

Dr. Greg Hess, Pima County’s chief medical examiner, pulls a body out of his office's indoor cooler.

Pima County, one of 22 counties adjacent to the Mexican border, has long been ground zero for migrants who die trying to cross into the United States. The centralized position of its office, responsible for three of Arizona’s four border areas, means that more migrant remains have come through the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner than anywhere else in the state.

José Inés Ortiz Aguillon, the man found by the Aguilas, was processed here. He was just one of more than 3,000 suspected US border crossers documented by this office alone since the year 2000.

“In the 1990s, we'd have less than 20 a year. In 2000, that jumped up to about 75,” Hess says.

“Our busiest single year was 2010. We had 222 remains recovered that year.”

The remains of an unidentified border crosser.

This enormous influx not only stretched the morgue capacity to its limits, but also left the office with a quandary: Federal law said nothing about what they should do with these bodies, and official record keeping was non-existent.

“There is no federal law that dictates what states should do with the bodies of migrants who die on the border. Arizona statute requires that the Office of the Medical Examiner be notified when remains of an unidentified person is found. But that’s it,” Hess says.

“There's really no way to track these types of deaths unless you are keeping your own internal numbers.”

That’s why, as the bodies poured in, unidentified, and taking up space, the office of the medical examiner tasked itself with rigorously documenting the identities of those found and assembled a DNA database.

In doing so, they were able to chronicle, for the first time, a historic wave of death at the border.

Identification, from the start, was the main challenge.

“If people are not found right away, they can become very decomposed and, or skeletal remains very quickly …. you lose a lot of information,” Hess says. “So, when we do examinations on people, we essentially make a profile. Is that a man or a woman? How tall are they and what do they look like? And do they have any identifying marks or scars or tattoos?”

Dr. Hess examines the property lockers. Each one stores belongings found on the remains of unidentified migrants.

Medical examiners also look to see if the migrants carried any personal effects that might provide a clue to their identity.

That’s where the property room comes in.

At first glance, the metal lockers look just like the ones you’d find in an American high school.

Except each one holds a year’s worth of plastic pouches, streaked with desert dirt, filled with the unmistakable scent of decay and stuffed with belongings chosen to provide a semblance of comfort on a long trip to a new life. Prayer cards. Photographs of children. Hair clips. Reading glasses with a missing lens.

These belongings hold valuable clues that could reunite remains with loved ones, says Robin Reineke, the co-founder and executive director of the nonprofit Colibri Center for Human Rights.

Colibri works with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, collecting detailed missing persons reports for people who disappeared while crossing the US-Mexico border and DNA profiles from family members desperate to locate their loved ones.

The Colibri Center for Human Rights collects detailed missing persons reports in order to try and unite families with the remains of their loved ones.

They currently have reports for more than 3,000 people.

“When we take missing persons reports, we don’t treat that as a legal law enforcement document. We treat that as a scientific document and a humanitarian document,” Reineke says. “We’re recording every detail that the family can remember about the person, about what happened, what size pants they wore, what size shoes … anything that the family can remember.”

Belongings found in the desert are not only useful in identifying the missing but also have tremendous meaning to devastated families.

“We work with families in crisis -- families grieving unthinkable losses. The items also help us, help the family to heal,” Reineke adds.

“To see his prayer card, to see his wallet, to see his glasses, to see her ring, her earrings, her scrunchy, her Bible. And then to hold those items and do their best to try to be with that person in that moment when they couldn't be with them when they left the world.”

When skeletal remains are found with no belongings, DNA becomes the only chance of identification. Since 2016, Colibri has taken DNA samples from more than 583 individual family members in the hope of finding answers in the Pima office’s database of more than 1,000 samples.

So far they have helped families identify 45 loved ones.

But the relentless human toll is hard for Reineke.

“I’m an optimistic person, but at this point I’m pessimistic that we’re going to be able to identify everyone who has died here,” she says. “I keep waiting for the moment when the American public realizes we’ve allowed something really ugly to unfold.”

Part III From paupers’ graveyard to proper burials

The paupers’ graveyard at Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, California -- some 15 miles from the Mexican border -- is at the back, behind the manicured lawns with the marble headstones and fresh carnation stems wilting in the hair-dryer heat. It’s home to several large rattlesnakes and more than 500 unmarked graves. A large “WARNING” notice signposts the snakes. The rows of paupers’ graves, marked by numbered bricks, read “Jane Doe” and “John Doe.”

A grave marker in the paupers' graveyard at Terrace Park Cemetery.

The three-acre dirt lot was opened in 1994, the same year that Operation Gatekeeper policies were introduced. Half of the men, women and children buried here are unidentified. Of those, most are migrants who died attempting to cross into the United States.

Usually this site is closed off to the public, chained shut. Burials stopped here in 2009, after officials realized cremation, at $850 a body, was more cost effective for taxpayers than the roughly $2,300 it costs to bury someone. After cremation, ashes were scattered at sea.

For years, the graveyard’s only visitors were the cemetery’s superintendent and a volunteer group named the Border Angels, who gained permission to pray over the graves every six weeks or so and leave flowers and crosses.

But now, a decade since the last pauper’s grave was dug here, the remains of unidentified border crossers are coming back to Terrace Park. Except this time, their cremated bodies aren’t buried at the back. Instead, a new policy is ensuring remains are placed in an endowed area of the cemetery that is marked and accessible to the public.

This new policy is the work of Imperial County Public Administrator Rosie Blankenship.

For years, it has been her job to break the news to any migrant families who came calling about the fate of their loved ones.

If the coroner can’t identify a migrant’s body within 30 days, the remains are sent to her department, Blankenship says. Her office then typically waits about 30 days before moving forward with cremation. However, by the time a family might call, it was often too late.

“When they would come to me and say, ‘I'd like to claim my loved one,’ I would have to tell them, ‘Oh, I'm sorry, we scattered their ashes at sea,” she says.

“There was no closure for the family. And I thought, ‘Okay, we've got to change that.’”

Paupers' graves at Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, California.

Blankenship’s first visit to the dirt lot at Terrace Park Cemetery left an indelible impression.

“As soon as I crossed those gates and looked at the area in which our decedents were buried, my heart just broke,” she says.

Changing the cemetery policy was one of the first things on her to-do list, Blankenship says. “To be able to bury them in the endowed area, a much more beautiful place, I mean that was the right way to go,” she says. “Why it hadn't been thought of before, I don't know.”

Imperial County Public Administrator Rosie Blankenship reads during a funeral service for the unidentified at Terrace Park Cemetery in Holtville, California.

Which is why, on a blazing hot April morning, as three volunteers strum guitars and softly sing the Catholic hymn “Entre Tus Manos,” Blankenship reads out a list of 17 names -- most of them simply “John Doe” -- with an estimated date of death.

Volunteers take turns laying single red roses into an open grave. Her voice quivers as she reads the names aloud.

“No more unidentified migrant or identified person has to be buried in the back,” she says. “They too have the honors of being buried in the front with all the rest of us.”

Seventeen people are interred during the ceremony. Not all of them were migrants -- some were homeless and others simply locals who went unclaimed after their death.

“We bid them farewell in a very respectful and dignified way and at the end of the day, I can look back and say, we did well. We did well for them,” Blankenship says. “And that gives me great pleasure to know that their farewell was a grand adios.”

After the ceremony, a crowd files solemnly through the gate into the paupers’ graveyard, winding their way around the shallow graves to lay homemade crosses. A Catholic priest recites a prayer in Spanish as the freeway across the dirt fields rumbles with the sounds of Border Patrol cars and trucks of goods on their way to Mexico.

The crosses read “No Olvidado.”

Not forgotten.