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Death on the border Part 2: Missing


WORLD Radio - Death on the border Part 2: Missing

Volunteers take on the burden of tracking down the remains of missing migrants in order to give their families closure

Barbed wire at an illegal migrant lay up in South Texas. Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Wednesday, July 19th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: searching for the lost.

A note of caution: this story may be too heavy for younger listeners, so a word of warning to parents. Now might a good time to press pause, because we’re continuing the series we began yesterday on those who die trying to cross the southern border.

Yesterday, we met some of the people working to identify such migrants. Today, WORLD’s Bonnie Pritchett brings us Part Two of that story.


BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: Prayers are rising above the Fortuna Foothills outside Yuma, Arizona. It’s the morning of May 21st. Volunteers with Eagles of the Desert are preparing to search the rocky terrain for the remains of Victor Hugo, a migrant from Pueblo, Mexico.

For protection from the elements, the volunteers wear long pants, boots, and long-sleeve, fluorescent yellow shirts. For success in their search for migrants—living or dead—they seek God’s provision.


Eagles of the Desert is a search and rescue organization based in Southern California. They work primarily in the Arizona desert. The group chronicles its work in videos posted to its Facebook page.


After the amens, searchers don wide-brimmed hats and begin discussing the search routes.


Migrants who enter the Southwest United States between legal points of entry often risk their lives. In April, when Hugo was reported missing, temperatures had already topped 100 degrees. Water is scarce. So too is mercy. Those who can’t keep up with the group get left behind. That was Hugo’s fate.

Local authorities or Border Patrol will search for migrants reported missing and presumed alive. But neither agency is charged with looking for the dead. Ely Ortiz and Vicente Rodriguez have chosen to carry that burden.

Ortiz’s brother, Rigoberto, and cousin, Carmelo, died in the Arizona desert in 2009.

ORTIZ: [Speaking in Spanish]

Ortiz told me how they died. It’s a sadly familiar tale.

RODRIGUEZ: Then they came in a group and crossed in the Arizona desert. And his cousin ate some cactus that made him sick.

Carmelo couldn’t keep up with the group. So, the smuggler abandoned him.

RODRIGUEZ: The brother was okay. He just stayed with the cousin and that's why he both of them got left behind.

From his home in California, Ortiz tried to mount a search for their remains. He had few volunteers. There was another complication: The bodies were on federal land. Ortiz needed a permit to search.

RODRIGUEZ: We got the permit to start a search on Fourth of July.

After three searches, Ortiz found his brother’s and cousin’s mummified remains.

Their deaths and the months-long search for their bodies compelled Ortiz and Rodriguez to found Eagles of the Desert.

Rodriguez credits the group’s coordinated efforts with rescuing over 500 people since 2012.

But most of their searches are for the dead.

The U.S.–Mexico border is nearly 2,000 miles long. Texas spans most of that shared border. In 2022, Arizona Border Patrol agents encountered 570 thousand migrants. Texas had more than double that.

More migrants inevitably adds up to more lost or dead.

In one South Texas county, Brooks County, Don White is spending his retirement looking for both.

WHITE: I'll just pick an area that I know has been traversed or traveled through before. And you go out in search. Sometimes the family will send me GPS information. There's two, there's two search groups in California that will send me information.

Black ribbons of two-lane highways bisect sparsely populated Brooks County—the deadliest border crossing region in the United States. The remains of 951 people have been found in the sandy scrub land since 2009.

WHITE: I carry extra water to pass out to people I find out the brushes that are still alive. Back in the back is exhumation tools, body bags, three different types of body bags we've got a white which is for...

For almost a decade, White has volunteered with the Brooks County Sheriff’s Department, mostly searching for migrants who died on the vast ranches.

But just as searchers in Arizona require federal permits to access some locations, White needs the ranchers’ permission to search on their land.

WHITE: That's a hard trust to get a hold of. Once they trust me, then they're pretty good with access. But until they do, I may not get access at all. I'm almost nine years into this. And some ranchers I've never met in some of the smaller areas.

White steers his black Jeep off the road and parks on a wide easement. On the other side of the hog wire fence is a layup—a random clump of mesquite and cats claw trees where migrants gather to avoid capture and await their ride north.

WHITE: So, we're gonna go right there. That's they'll, they'll stage up all through these woods, wait for the ride to pull up and then they pile over the fence come over.

It seems everything here has flesh-tearing spikes, including the barbed wire topped fence.

White presses down on that top wire and we cross over. He has the rancher’s permission to enter.

Once over the fence, he points to a spot in the undergrowth strewn with old clothes, empty water bottles, and memories of more somber remains.

WHITE: This lady was with this group. She died while they were waiting for the ride. Nobody would call 911 after they left. Somebody called.

Body parts strewn about by animals can be collected and restored to a family.

WHITE: For the families. It's all for the families. It has nothing to do with deceased persons. It's to satisfy the families, because in the Hispanic culture, Latino culture, it's very important to have the bodies back. Very important.

It was for Ely Ortiz and his family in Oaxaca, Mexico. Rodriguez interprets.

RODRIGUEZ: He says he has more peace after they took the bodies down. And he told his mother, here's, here's the body. Here's your son. And he also told his aunt the same thing. And he said he felt a little bit more, better liberated. Because they had the bodies.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett in South Texas.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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