Published November 17, 2014
NOGALES, Mexico (AP) — Hector Ortega stumbled across the body of a fellow migrant as he walked across Arizona's harsh desert in the searing summer heat. He tried not to look too closely.
With nothing to be done for the deceased, Ortega and the others trudged on, guided by a smuggler across the U.S. border, determined to complete their illegal odyssey even as they endured record-high temperatures and fever-pitch resentment.
At 64, the farm laborer with a weathered face, strong hands and silver hair protruding from his baseball cap was stoic about the body — someone's journey cut short near a stand of scrub bush and cactus.
"What can you do about it in the desert?" he asked.
Deaths of illegal immigrants in Arizona have soared this summer toward their highest levels since 2005 — a fact that has surprised many who thought that the furor over the state's new immigration law and the 100-plus degree heat would draw them elsewhere along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.
But at the Pima County morgue in Tucson, Ariz., the body bags are stacked on stainless-steel shelves from floor to ceiling. A refrigerated truck has been brought in to handle the overflow at the multimillion dollar facility.
In July, 59 people died — 40 in the first two weeks when nighttime temperatures were the hottest in recorded history, hovering around the low 90s. The single-month death count is second only to July 2005, when 68 bodies were found.
Of this July's deaths, 44 were on the Tohono O'Odham Nation, a reservation the size of Connecticut that shares 75 miles of Arizona's border with Mexico. The tribe is opposed to humanitarian aid on its lands, believing it invites violence.
Eighteen more people died in the first 23 days of August.
Even with the prospect of a torturous death, and the bitter wrath they face in Arizona, immigrants, including Ortega, say the state's vast, sparsely populated terrain is still the best place for border jumpers.
"In Tijuana, you have two walls that you have to get over," said Ortega, who first came across in 1976 to work in West Coast agricultural fields. "This is much easier here. You just have to watch out for the snakes. That's why I prefer to walk in the daytime and not at night."
He admits he's afraid when he crosses, but states flatly, "It's worth the risk."
Even though — after two days of traversing the desert — he and his group were caught by U.S. Border Patrol agents when they reached a freeway and their ride wasn't there.
Resting at a shelter for failed border crossers that sets atop a steep hill in Mexico overlooking the city of Nogales, Ortega expanded on his motives. "It's the only way to make a little money to support my family," he said.
The shelter is a simple but large home with warnings about the dangers of the crossing posted on its walls. It gives those who've been sent back across a hot meal of tortillas, rice and beans, and bunk beds stacked three high.
One room has been converted into a chapel. On a recent night, a woman sobbed quietly while another migrant tried to comfort her.
Ortega knows risks. He is from Apatzingan in Michoacan, where drug gangs have shot up federal agents and terrorized the impoverished farm town.
Roberto Hernandez de Rosas, a quiet 18-year-old with a quick smile, said his family paid a smuggler $1,500 to take him and his brother across the Arizona desert and on to Los Angeles.
Hernandez's brother had already made the trip three times and the smuggler told them Arizona was still the easiest place to cross.
He was told it would cost twice as much to cross from Tijuana, where smugglers sell immigrants fake documents to walk through the port of entry.
"The town where I'm from, it's like being in jail, it's like a death," said Hernandez, who is from a mountain village in the impoverished southern state of Puebla. "You have to think twice about crossing the desert, but when you don't have any money, you need to look for a better life."
Hernandez and his brother were spotted by a Border Patrol helicopter in the morning after walking through the desert during the night. Authorities returned Hernandez to Mexico but his brother was jailed because he'd been deported before.
Hernandez had been at the shelter for a few days waiting for his brother to be released from custody because he had all his documents. After that, Hernandez said he wanted to go back home rather than attempt another crossing.
But he expected his brother to try again because his 2-year-old son is in Los Angeles.
Most of those who trickled into the shelter planned to try again, shrugging off Arizona's new law giving local authorities the power to arrest them — currently stayed by a federal court order. They are also unfazed by the Mexican government's warning to its citizens to avoid the state.
Sofia Gomez, of an aid group called Humane Borders, said crossers are traveling through even more remote areas than in previous years. At the same time, anger over illegal immigration has led to people shooting up the water stations her group has placed in the desert.
"They're taking a higher risk and they're not making it," Gomez said.
So far this year, the body count is at 171, the same number the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office had seen at this time in 2007, the year the office saw a record 217 deaths.
Most of the deceased were young, healthy men — at least at the outset of their trips. By the time they reach the morgue, many are in advanced stages of decomposition and beyond recognition. Bag after bag is tagged with "John Doe" or "Jane Doe" as officials wait for families to come forward to report loved ones missing.
But often the relatives of the deceased are waiting back home to hear from them, believing they are busy working in the United States.
"We thought the political climate in Arizona would be a significant deterrent to people crossing but as far as the deaths are concerned, they certainly have been what looks like is going to be the highest they've ever been," said the morgue's Dr. Eric Peters.
That doesn't surprise Border Patrol Agent Colleen Agle, who works in the agency's Tucson sector.
"Smugglers are the ones who determine where to take people, where they're going to be walking, and they're the ones deciding that certain areas are preferable," Agle said. "They know they're remote and they know we have difficulty accessing them, so they're taking people through those areas. Unfortunately they're just putting people's lives at risk."
Worried about their profits, smugglers will leave behind people who are injured or fall ill, she said.
The Border Patrol often comes to the rescue.
Agency statistics show that agents helped 1,281 people last fiscal year. That's up from 1,264 rescues the previous fiscal year, but down from the all-time high of 2,845 rescues in fiscal year 2006.
Agle said smugglers often lie to immigrants, telling them they'll only walk a couple of hours when they actually walk for days. Even so, the agency discourages water stations for crossers becauseauthorities say it encourages people to risk the journey.
Kevin Riley, 28, of Hopewell, N.J., came to the desert a year ago to volunteer for No More Deaths, a humanitarian group. He spends most of his time at the group's remote, desert camp east of Arivaca, 13 miles north of Mexico.
Riley and other mostly 20-something volunteers from across the country hike up to 12 miles a day to fill desert water tanks stationed along popular migrant paths that cross unforgiving terrain dotted with palo verdes, mesquites and Saguaro.
Riley recently found a 34-year-old man who had been vomiting for days and was curled up with cramps, no longer able to walk. The man was rescued and hospitalized for four days.
He was one of the lucky ones.
In February, Riley found a body. The volunteers called the sheriff's department and then helped the officer carry out the body bag.
"We have some maps printed out actually showing us where people are dying," said Riley, thin and bearded, "and one big frustrating point is the majority are in areas that we can't go to."
That would be the vast and treacherous Tohono O'Odham Nation that has barred water stations and has banned members of Humane Borders and No More Deaths from stepping foot on the reservation.
Tribal leaders blame illegal immigrants and smugglers for crimes on their land. Two years ago, the tribe dismantled four, 55-gallon tanks being filled up by one of its members, Mike Wilson.
Wilson, with the help of another tribal member and funding from Humane Borders, still makes a symbolic gesture each week. He puts out one-gallon jugs, forming the shape of a cross on the ground, at the former stations. He says it's not enough.
The Tohono O'Odham Nation declined repeated requests for comment.
Omar Velasquez died on the reservation last month. He was with his 22-year-old wife, who survived the trip but declined to talk about what she or her husband experienced. According to an autopsy report, Velasquez was a healthy, 25-year-old. He was found wearing a blue baseball cap embroidered with "New York."