ALTAR VALLEY — It's late June, temperatures have reached triple digits and once again, government and nongovernment agencies have launched into the grim summer routine of prevention and rescue efforts aimed at saving the lives of illegal entrants crossing Arizona's deadly desert.
Since 2000, when border deaths spiked to alarming levels, taking officials by surprise, much has been done to warn people of the risk and to rescue those who try anyway. But, despite the extensive efforts, the number of bodies found each year reveals a harsh truth — none of it is working.
More than 1,000 bodies have been recovered since 2000 in the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector. The deadly toll has topped 130 bodies a year since 2002. Officials found nine bodies in the past 10 days, bringing this year's total to 105 so far.
Worse yet, there are likely more out there yet to be found.
"We can do all these little things but they are nothing but band-aids," said Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, coordinator of the Binational Migration Institute at the University of Arizona, which recently issued a study on the deaths. "The obvious thing is to change our policy because before we had this kind of enforcement people were not dying in the desert in large numbers."
But not everyone agrees.
Al Garza, executive director of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, said he understands the forces that drive illegal immigration, but he sides with Border Patrol officials who insist the best way to save lives is to gain control of the border and use the mantra, "a secure border is a safe border."
Condemning law enforcement and pardoning illegal entrants and governments in their countries is unfair, Garza said.
"If they are going to be breaking laws and coming through the porous borders, they are going to suffer the consequences," Garza said. "I don't see where America is to blame."
The Border Patrol's Southwest Border Strategy, which began in 1994, devoted resources to slowing illegal entry near San Diego and El Paso in hopes the harsh desert terrain in Arizona would serve as natural deterrent.
But, the desert didn't discourage illegal immigrants, it just made their attempts more treacherous. By 1998, the strategy had funneled illegal immigrant traffic into Arizona, making it the busiest sector on the southern border.
Today, the lure of jobs and money continues to outweigh the fear of hardships and even death, experts agree. In the absence of tangible changes that would mitigate forces that push and pull people north, illegal entrants will continue to come — despite a growing awareness of the dangers.
Efforts on the border
With the sun setting over the Baboquivari Mountains, Border Patrol search and rescue agent Paul McKenna drives slowly west on a dirt road, looking for fresh footprints and waiting for a call for help.
Further west near Arivaca, No More Deaths summer volunteer Matt Mittelstadt calls out in Spanish: "We're friends of the church, we have food and water" as the group makes its nightly hike along a known-migrant trail, leaving gallons of water along the way. Throughout the valley, blue flags marking Humane Border water tanks flutter in the wind and Border Patrol rescue beacons stick out above the cacti and shrubs.
A few hundred yards south of the international line at a tent full of migrants, Miguel Martinez Zamarripa, a commander in Sasabe of Grupo Beta, Mexico's special migrant protection force, offers water and reminds the migrants that his agency has offices along the border if they are caught and deported or run into trouble. He doesn't bother to tell them about the risks they are taking — most of them have already heard about it from friends and family members, or from TV news or public service announcements in Mexico.
"We have a saying in Mexico that says, 'no se experimenta en cabeza ajena'; 'It's not the same to hear about it as it is to experience yourself,' " said Alejandro Ramos Cardoso, spokesman for the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, which runs a prevention campaign each summer. "A lot of people tend to think it's not going to happen to them."
Worth the risks?
On his first unsuccessful attempt to enter the country, 16-year-old Vicente Morales Lopez and his two older brothers walked past a gravesite with 70 tombs adorned with crosses and candles.
It was a chilling reminder of the dangers he already knew about, but it didn't deter him or even alter his state of mind. During the long nights and hot days, Morales Lopez was thinking about how quickly his stepfather had made enough money in the United States to finish the roof of his mother's house in the town of Presidio, in Veracruz state.
"We were never able to build the house, but in turn, he went to the United States and was able to do it," said Morales Lopez, in Spanish. "That makes you aspire to go even more."
Morales, who was in Altar last month preparing to make a second attempt to enter the country with his brothers, embodies the mind-set of many illegal entrants — aware of the risks but confident they'll become one of the millions who made it, not one of the hundreds who die.
"If I start thinking about a snake biting me or something happening to me, it's better not to come," said Tomás Garcia, 52, of Ciudad Obregon. "I come with the mentality that I'm going to work. That way, I'm not scared."
Miguel Moreno Leiva and José Muñoz Ruiz had already risked their lives numerous times during 25 days traveling aboard trains to move north through Guatemala and Mexico from their homes in Santa Barbara, Honduras. Their upcoming trek across the desert represented one more risk they were willing to take.
They had been told about the deaths from friends who had crossed and heard it again during lectures at a Catholic migrant shelter in Altar where they were staying in mid-May, but said they were determined to try anyway.
"The suffering you go through in Honduras brings you to these decisions," said Moreno Leiva, a 40-year-old father of eight. "Sometimes you can't get anything for your family, your children have to endure hunger, and you don't know what to do. That same desperation makes you make these decisions."
In Mexico, efforts focus on warnings and prevention, while north of the border the energy shifts to rescue and recovery.
Whatever their role, those involved know their work makes only a tiny dent in a much larger problem.
"If I can save one life, it's worth it," said McKenna, the Border Patrol search and rescue agent, echoing a common refrain among those dedicated to summer rescue efforts.
On a night last month, working east of Sasabe, McKenna might have done just that. He treated a 17-year-old girl from Hidalgo, Mexico, who had fainted twice as she crossed the desert without food and only a tablet of ephedra, caffeine and aspirin to sustain her.
McKenna gave her an IV and transported her out to the highway where a South Tucson ambulance picked her up to take her to a Tucson hospital. Her condition wasn't as severe as others, but without medical attention, she might not have recovered, McKenna said.
"She definitely couldn't have gone on," McKenna said. "If she would have continued, she probably would have been another casualty out there in the desert."
Tucson-based Humane Borders has 87 water stations throughout the desert on both sides of the border that its volunteers check and refill year-round in hopes of saving lives.
No More Deaths, also out of Tucson, runs two desert camps near Arivaca and has formal agreements with the Mexican government to offer medical assistance to deported illegal entrants in Nogales and Agua Prieta.
The Mexican Consulate in Tucson rolled out its prevention campaign for the fifth straight year in June with three TV and radio spots that air in Mexico. "No dejes tu vida en el desierto," or "Don't leave your life in the desert," read the posters officials put up in Mexico.
"Our job is not to stem the immigration flow from Mexico but to inform our people to protect them," said Ramos Cardoso. "I think by informing them, we are also protecting them."
Another way Mexico aims to save lives is through Grupo Beta. On many days, Martinez Zamarripa or other agents drive nearly an hour and a half along a bumpy dirt road to a staging camp 300 yards from the U.S. border known as Rancho Los Cochis — named for the smelly hogs that roll in the mud.
Last month in the midafternoon, Martinez Zamarripa entered a tent with about 50 people, including a woman holding a toddler in her arms. He offered water, help and a reminder that if they get deported, Grupo Beta has offices along the border where they can make phone calls and get discount bus tickets home. He made no effort to convince them not to cross.
"They are just one step from crossing and their hope is to cross," said Martinez Zamarripa. "It's very difficult for me to convince them. We try to convince them, we fight the good fight, but we don't get a good response in that respect."