Death Watch in the Desert

Humanitarian activists and federal agents do battle on the Mexican border


| November-December 2009


This is a place of ghosts. Ask anyone who walks these trails, in the bare-knuckle desert.

Here among high scrub, south of Arivaca, Arizona, sunlight glances off discarded water bottles, candy wrappers, tennis shoes, rosaries, and a tiny picture of the Virgen de Guadalupe in yellowing cracked plastic. Such things are hastily abandoned in the headlong passage between life and death, the fate of their owners unknown.

Officially, migrant deaths here each year number in the hundreds. Humanitarians who hike this country call those numbers bullshit. They say the desert is haunted by thousands of unfound dead people. Out here, a corpse gets about two weeks, tops. By then, sun and scavengers have sealed the deal.

A handful of rescue volunteers have come across bodies, but everyone has seen the bones. And in a place where mortality crunches underfoot, folks can get a bit touchy.

Take the feds and the humanitarian outfits. They’ve never shared much in the way of mutual admiration. Sure, everyone pledges bonhomie—each appreciates the other’s “tough job” or “dedication” or “good intentions.” But those are just words muttered to reporters. As it happens, the thing that keeps them at odds also binds them together: death all around. Death behind that shrub or in that wash, or settled in the shade of that half-buried boulder.

Death is the third partner in a relationship that nobody wants. The humanitarians provide assistance, food, and water to migrants. The feds mostly leave them alone to do so.