Border officials trekked journalists, humanitarians and officials from Mexico, El Salvador and Guatemala across the desert southwest of Tucson Friday to raise awareness about the danger migrants face crossing the border.
The annual event also allows the Border Patrol to highlight its efforts and methods it uses to rescue border crossers lost in the desert.
With Baboquivari Peak in the background, this year’s focus was on the Missing Migrant Team established in June 2015. It works with medical examiners, humanitarian organizations from both sides of the border and foreign consulates to find missing migrants and identify those who have died.
“The only thing I can compare it to is a puzzle,” said Gene Hernandez, an investigator with Pima County’s medical examiner’s office. Getting bodies back to loved ones is a priority, but it can be difficult to identify remains. The collaboration with Border Patrol, consulates and humanitarian organizations helps.
“Meeting everybody in our office once a week holds us all accountable,” Hernandez said.
The Border Patrol says it helped identify more than 100 migrants who died in the desert since June. They have also received more than 765 requests from consulates to locate migrants reported missing during that time.
“It might not be good news, but they are able to send the bodies back to their loved ones so they can have the proper closure,” said Cristina Ruiz, a spokeswoman for the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector.
However, preventing deaths remains a priority.
“One death is one too many,” said Felix Chavez, the sector’s deputy chief.
As part of the Border Safety Initiative in Brown Canyon near the Baboquivaris, a Black Hawk helicopter swooped overhead. It dropped agents at the site of a mock emergency, demonstrating how the Border Patrol’s Search, Trauma and Rescue Team (BORSTAR) would respond to a lost migrant.
Border Patrol agents respond to calls for help at at least one of the 32 rescue beacons in the Tucson Sector every day, said Scott Good, the patrol agent in charge of the Ajo station. In 2015, there were nearly 800 rescues in the sector.
The Border Security Initiative, which started in 1998, was designed to bring a variety of groups involved in border issues together to prevent deaths and “make the border safer for agents, border residents and migrants,” Chavez said.
“We are flooded with pleas for help on a daily basis,” said José Genis Gonzalez, vice president of the Aguilas del Desierto, a humanitarian group that searches for migrants in the desert. Communication with Border Patrol has allowed them to save time and resources, and reunite families, he said.
He praised the Border Patrol’s efforts in addressing this “crisis” in the desert, but added another message, switching from English to Spanish.
“The Border Patrol is not the only, or last hope,” he said, addressing migrants’ families. “There are many organizations dedicated to helping families.”