A Democracy Now! Special
HAVANA TIMES – Democracy Now! travels to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona to follow the humanitarian activist Scott Warren into the Sonoran Desert as he accompanies other No More Deaths volunteers as they leave water and food for migrants making the treacherous journey north.
Warren is currently facing up to 10 years in prison for his humanitarian work in the Sonoran Desert, where the bodies and bones of more than 3,000 people — nearly all migrants — have been found since 2001.
We also speak to the Tucson-based artist Alvaro Enciso, creator of the project Where Dreams Die. He has built and installed over 900 crosses across the treacherous Sonoran Desert to mark where migrants have died.
AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’re broadcasting from Tucson, Arizona. Just under three months ago, an unprecedented trial took place here. Amidst a catastrophic immigration crisis at the border, ongoing family separation, and cruel and inhumane conditions at immigrant jails across the country, the government put humanitarian activist Scott Warren on trial here in Tucson. His crime? Helping migrants who had arrived on the doorstep of a humanitarian shelter in Ajo, Arizona, seeking help after a perilous journey across the Sonoran Desert. The government charged Scott Warren, a longtime volunteer with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, with three felony counts, including conspiracy, for providing food, water and shelter to 23-year-old Kristian Perez-Villanueva from El Salvador and 20-year-old José Sacaria-Goday of Honduras. All three men were arrested January 17, 2018. If convicted on all charges, Warren faced 20 years in prison. At the same time, he and other No More Deaths volunteers also faced separate misdemeanor charges for leaving water jugs and food for migrants on a national wildlife refuge in the remote desert.
The trial here in Tucson took eight days. Warren and other No More Deaths volunteers provided hours of testimony on desert conditions and the policies that push migrants deeper into the deadly region each year. After hours of deliberation, the jury returned without a verdict. Eight of the 12 jurors found Scott Warren not guilty. The government will now retry Warren in November, though they’ve dropped the conspiracy charge against him, will try him on two felony migrant harboring charges. If convicted, Scott Warren faces up to 10 years in prison.
As he awaits his next trial, Warren met us in the remote town of Ajo, Arizona, this weekend to show us firsthand the work he does with No More Deaths in the treacherous Sonoran Desert, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Since 2001, the remains of over 3,000 migrants who died in southern Arizona have been found. That’s an average of more than 150 dead a year. But immigrant rights activists say the number may be closer to 10,000. We joined Scott Warren and other No More Deaths volunteers for his first trip in a year as they made a water drop in the desert.
SCOTT WARREN: We are in the center of town here, just south of the plaza, and we are at our newly opened humanitarian aid office. The office is really here to support what’s been a long tradition, in this town and many other places in the borderlands, of providing humanitarian aid — water and food and things like that — to people who are coming through our communities.
AMY GOODMAN: So, why don’t we go into the office? And I saw a map there. Can you introduce yourself?
PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: Yeah. My name is Paige Corich-Kleim, and I’m our media coordinator, and I’ve been volunteering since 2013.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us where we’re going to go today?
PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: Absolutely. So, right now we’re in the Ajo aid office, right here, in the town of Ajo. And we’re going to drive south out of town and take a right on a road that starts as Darby Well Road but then turns into what is called the Devil’s Highway, and it continues all the way to Yuma, and it’s a pretty well-known road. There was a book written about it, about some migrants who died in that area. But we’re going to follow the road south, right here.
AMY GOODMAN: That book was?
PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea. And it was about a group of migrants that actually died on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. So, we’ll be south of where that book took place.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Scott, tell us where we’re going.
SCOTT WARREN: We’re headed out into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and we’re going to do a big loop and check on some water drop locations that we maintain out in the desert.
AMY GOODMAN: And water drops are?
SCOTT WARREN: Water drops are the places where we leave food and water and other humanitarian supplies for people who are walking through the desert and would otherwise be without those things.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott, can you describe what’s happening? We see a Border Patrol van up ahead. What is it?
SCOTT WARREN: Oh, yeah. We just — there is some Border Patrol activity in this area, which is not unusual. This is definitely one of the areas of a lot of enforcement and one of the areas that we do our humanitarian aid work in. So, we’re entering into the Growler Valley, which is this big valley coming up here, and that’s also a very active area, so…
PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: Well, let’s drop some water here.
AMY GOODMAN: Paige, can you tell us what you’re doing?
PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: Yeah. So, there’s a rescue beacon right behind us, and so we’re just going to leave a couple gallons there. So, if anybody sees the beacon and walks toward it, they’ll find some water.
AMY GOODMAN: What’s a rescue beacon?
PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: So, a rescue beacon are these towers that are made by Border Patrol. And they have a button on them, where if somebody goes up and pushes it, Border Patrol will come and, what they call, rescue, but what is actually detaining them. But the beacons don’t have water at them, so when we drive by them, we leave some, so that if people see them, they’ll be able to get some water.
AMY GOODMAN: So you’re leaving water and?
PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: And just a couple cans of beans, so there’s some food here, as well. Rescue beacons are something that Border Patrol, in all of the trials, have really talked about as their efforts to save lives. But they actually don’t have any data showing how effective they are. And we’ve actually — the one time that they released data, it showed how many times the buttons were pushed and how many rescues they resulted in. And in the Yuma sector, rescue beacons were activated a couple thousand times, and it resulted in, I think, four rescues.
This one, you can’t really tell, but some of them, you can see — there used to be a red cross on them, like on the sticker, and the Red Cross actually told Border Patrol that they had to remove that, because Border Patrol is not a humanitarian aid group that’s associated with the Red Cross. So, it used to have that kind of international symbol of help, and it was removed.
SCOTT WARREN: We’re in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and we’re approaching the boundary with the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. And right on that boundary line between the park and the refuge is what they call Boundary Camp, which is a Border Patrol forward operating base. So, it’s attached to the Ajo Border Patrol station, and they use this as a base in the wilderness here, essentially, to conduct patrols in this Growler Valley area.
AMY GOODMAN: We’ve stopped here, Scott. Why? Why aren’t we going right into the refuge?
SCOTT WARREN: Well, I can’t set foot into the refuge right now. And as you mentioned, Amy, that’s because of the misdemeanor charges that I face that are related to the provision of humanitarian aid on the refuge. And then I also face felony charges for the, what the government calls, harboring of migrants. So, we’re here on the boundary. We’ll continue south through Organ Pipe and check on some water drop locations in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. But we won’t actually go onto the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.
AMY GOODMAN: The government was forced to drop conspiracy charges against you for helping migrants, but the felony charges of helping them remain. It shocked many, because it was a hung jury. Eight of the jurors said they would have acquitted you. But the government decided to move forward with this case. So why do you persist? This is the first time you’ve come out on the range since your trial, the first trial, and yet you’re here with your group delivering water.
SCOTT WARREN: It’s part of just regular work that we do out here, to check on these water drops and just to be a presence and to witness what’s happening out in the desert. It’s very remote out here. And one of the things that we do is just being a presence out here in case we do run into people. And to be a witnessing presence, as well, is really important. So, being out here is a good thing, and it’s just something that those of us who live in Ajo and do this work really feel compelled to be out here, this time of year especially.
AMY GOODMAN: As we drove here, and we’re right next to the Border Patrol forward operating base, I mean, it sounds like a war, but so do the casualties, No More Deaths having encountered the disintegrating bodies of migrants, the bones of migrants who had died much earlier, not far from where we’re standing right now, your group.
SCOTT WARREN: Yeah, that’s right. You mentioned the casualties here, both the people who have died, migrants that really have been sort of forced out into these remote and rugged areas, for decades now, as a result of prevention through deterrence, the way that the border is enforced. So, there’s the direct impact on people who have died, people who have suffered out here, people who have been disappeared, and then the ripple effects of their families, the trauma that that creates. The traumatic experience of this is another way that it can feel like a conflict or like a war zone. I don’t like the war zone rhetoric that you typically hear politicians use, because it’s deployed to increase militarization and building of walls. But it’s appropriate when you think about the trauma that people have faced as they cross through these areas, and the trauma that their families experience and the pain.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this forward operating base of the Border Patrol, who come out here, stay for days, in rotation. Actually, this wasn’t built during the Trump years, but under President Obama.
SCOTT WARREN: Yeah. There have been different versions of a forward operating base on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument for probably at least a decade or so. But this one that you see here, it’s very established, is fairly recent, probably within the last five to seven years. It’s built on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It’s —
AMY GOODMAN: So, this is a military base built in a national park.
SCOTT WARREN: A military base built in a national park on Hia-Ced O’odham land and territory.
AMY GOODMAN: On Native American territory.
SCOTT WARREN: On Native American territory. So, the levels of dispossession are many here of the indigenous people that have always lived here, and this has always been their territory. So, it’s layers upon layers, really, of dispossession and pushing people off the land.
AMY GOODMAN: Just as we got out of our car here, just as we — you know, here we are at Organ Pipe, but we’re not going on to Cabeza Prieta, because that’s not safe for you — a helicopter flew overhead. Talk about the significance of these helicopters. Who controls that plane?
SCOTT WARREN: Those are CBP helicopters, U.S. Customs and Border [Protection]. And they are out here looking for people. And they fly really all up and down this valley and through these mountains and in different areas. And on the one hand, they can come across people, you know, who want to get rescued. They want to get apprehended. People might set like a signal fire or something or be desperately trying to signal because they’ve run out of water and they want to be, at that point — you know, they’ve come to the end, and they are doing everything they can to get themselves rescued. Those helicopters are also, though, part of prevention through deterrence. So, they will also end up scattering groups of people. They can chase groups of people, further sort of disorient folks. And that’s really the brutality of it, you know, is that —
AMY GOODMAN: Explain that, the scattering. I mean, there is the famous book, The Devil’s Highway. And if you can talk, back then, what happened and how that continues to today?
SCOTT WARREN: It’s part of a larger sort of enforcement strategy of the border, which is prevention through deterrence, so to really increase hardships on people, with the hopes that people will basically give themselves up. So, on the sort of biggest scale of the border, that looks like building walls and fences in urban areas and pushing people out into the Growler Valley and rugged and remote places like this, where it’s very difficult to cross. On more micro levels, that can be, like we were talking about, with a helicopter, that might cause a group to scatter.
AMY GOODMAN: And what does that mean?
SCOTT WARREN: That means seeing a group of people and flying close to them, flying low to them.
AMY GOODMAN: And they scatter, but what does it mean for them, for the migrants?
SCOTT WARREN: For people who are scattered by that, it can mean death.
AMY GOODMAN: If you could quickly summarize? You’re actually facing — you’re involved in two separate trials right now.
SCOTT WARREN: That’s right, yeah. I have the — I’m facing misdemeanor charges resulting from humanitarian aid work that we did particularly in the summer of 2017, providing water and food and doing search and rescue and recovery work on Cabeza Prieta. So, the charges I’m facing with that include operating a motor vehicle in a wilderness area and abandonment of property. And the other charges I’m facing are from a separate incident, and that’s — those are the felony charges of harboring, which resulted from an incident that happened in January of 2018, when I was arrested with two men from Central America, José and Kristian, at a property in Ajo called the Barn. And so they charged José and Kristian with illegal entry, and they charged me with harboring.
AMY GOODMAN: So, the jury was a hung jury on that?
SCOTT WARREN: That’s right, yeah, the jury was a hung jury in the first trial. And then the government initially had also charged me with conspiracy, though they dropped the conspiracy charge, and now they’re just pursuing the two harboring charges.
AMY GOODMAN: By dragging out these two cases, are they in fact, whether you are acquitted or not in these two cases, getting what they want, preventing you from speaking fully or going to all the places that you went to help migrants?
SCOTT WARREN: Yeah, it’s a good question. I don’t know what their purpose is, frankly. You would have to ask them what sort of the goal of all of this is. It’s really unclear, I think. But certainly, you know, I have been affected by it — my life, my partner and my family and my friends. And at the same time, there is a lot of awareness and a lot of people that want to help, because of — because of the level of awareness around this, as well. So, it’s ironically had the effect of also bringing a lot of people here who want to do something to help.
AMY GOODMAN: And it clearly looks like it’s across the political spectrum, about humanitarianism, I mean, all of this happening against the backdrop of the separated families, of the children dying in Border Patrol custody, one by one. I mean, since you were first charged, scores of migrants have died. What is the count? From something like 2,000 to now, 3,000 migrants have died. That’s averaging what? A hundred fifty migrants a year.
SCOTT WARREN: Right, and that number is for Arizona. For what we know, borderwide, including South Texas and California, it’s much, much larger. And those are numbers of people who have been found.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe this Border Patrol van to us, that just passed?
SCOTT WARREN: That’s a pretty typical Border Patrol truck that’s been used here. And they’re rigged up in that way to carry people they’ve apprehended, detainees. So that’s what that cage is on the back. It can seat — I don’t know how many — people on the back of that, but that’s what they’re for.
AMY GOODMAN: Also at this forward operating base, we see a cage. So, explain what happens, from cage to cage.
SCOTT WARREN: That’s right, yeah. People will be apprehended in the field, typically, and then put into a truck like that or another vehicle. And then they can be brought here to this forward operating base. And there’s a sort of garage door and an enclosed fence area, where they can be offloaded and then put into the facility inside, which is a detention facility. And then, from there, they get taken to the Ajo Border Patrol station, which is probably another one to two hours’ drive on dirt roads to get back to the highway, further processed there, and then, from the Ajo Border Patrol station, taken to the Tucson sector headquarters.
AMY GOODMAN: So, at this forward operating base, tell us how many border agents are here. And how has it grown over time?
SCOTT WARREN: In the Ajo station, there’s something like 400 to 500 agents that work out of there. And it’s grown significantly. In the early 1990s, there were something like two dozen agents at the Ajo Border Patrol station. And that station has the capacity of up to 900 agents. So, that could be the number that could be there, I suppose. So it’s grown significantly in the past couple of decades.
AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you plan to do from here on in? I mean, you face a trial, and you face this other case, as well.
SCOTT WARREN: Yeah. Unfortunately, it’s become somewhat normalized, I think, this litigation and sort of waiting for trials. And so, we’ll continue to wait, and I’ll do what I can. And I’m being just held and carried by so many good people and so much support, and so I’m extremely lucky to have that as I face a felony trial. I think I’m probably the most supported person that’s ever been in a situation like this.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Geena Jackson, who’s with No More Deaths. Geena, talk about this terrain and what this means for migrants.
GEENA JACKSON: Sure. So, where we are in the Sonoran Desert, it’s one of the hottest and driest parts of the country — I mean, of the world. And because of government policies, like prevention through deterrence, migrants who are crossing the border are actually funneled into some of the deadliest parts of this terrain. Where we are right now is kind of emblematic of the mountain ranges in this area. These are the Growler Mountains over here. And then, where we’re standing is actually the Growler Valley. It’s really flat, and there’s not much signs of any other humans or civilization. So, to get lost in this area, there’s not a lot of places to go for help.
AMY GOODMAN: And where do people come over the border to get here?
GEENA JACKSON: So, it varies. A lot of people start at a town just south of Lukeville-Sonoyta crossing. Sonoyta is the town. And —
AMY GOODMAN: In Mexico.
GEENA JACKSON: In Mexico, yeah, in Sonora. And some people leave from the town itself. And some people are dropped off or walk some distance outside of the town. From Sonoyta, which is pretty close to the U.S.-Mexico border, about 40 miles north, there’s a checkpoint. And then there’s the town of Ajo. And then, another 40 miles north, there’s another checkpoint. And that’s the only paved road in the area. So, migrants leaving from Sonoyta are not just walking outside of the little bit of border wall that is outside of the city center and then pushes people deeper into the desert, but then people also are walking deeper into the desert to get around the checkpoint, not just the first checkpoint but two checkpoints. The second checkpoint is about 80 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, which makes this journey over a hundred miles.
AMY GOODMAN: And tell us where we are south of right now and the significance of the kind of final mountain in the Growler range, where that is.
GEENA JACKSON: From here to where that peak is continues to be Cabeza Prieta, the national wildlife refuge. Past that peak starts the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range, which is shared by the Marines and the Air Force. And it’s an active bombing range. And there’s also proving grounds out there.
AMY GOODMAN: This is named after the senator, the former presidential candidate.
GEENA JACKSON: Yeah. So, past that peak in the distance, which is the last really distinctive peak that we can see from here, then begins the bombing range, which has no public access and which our humanitarian aid organizations have only gotten access to once in the many years of doing this work. And when we did get access to that area, we found many human remains, in just the couple of hours we had in the land restriction.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain.
GEENA JACKSON: So, there, in this area, we record the human remains that are found. It’s not a good indicator of the total human lives lost, but just the human remains that are found, which is limited because of our limited access to this area. This is the only public access road until all the way up there on the other side of the mountains. That is the next public access road that you’re even allowed on.
We can hike in this area with permits from Cabeza Prieta. In June — in July 2017, Cabeza changed their permits to add a clause that specifically said that leaving food, water, blankets, medical care — specific language to our work — would now be in violation of the permit. So, it’s put us in a place where to do our work, we need to violate a wildlife refuge permit.
The bombing range is completely closed to public access. In one incident, another search-and-rescue group got permission to be escorted onto the range to do a search and rescue with a bombing range escort. And in just a couple of hours, they found over 10 human remains on the bombing range. If you look at the maps of recorded human remains, there are no recorded remains anywhere on the bombing range, which we know is obviously not true, because in the few hours we’ve had access to that land, we found a dozen. So, it can be presumed that many, many people have lost their lives on that land. And we can’t recover their bodies or even like know just how great this humanitarian crisis is.
AMY GOODMAN: The journalist John Carlos Frey alleges there are mass graves under the Goldwater bombing range.
GEENA JACKSON: Yeah, I would agree with that. I mean, just in this area, when we first started exploring along the west side of this range, I mean, days would go by where we’ll find three, four human remains just in one day, after spending many, many days out there hiking. The loss of human life is immense. And the number of people in the U.S. and in other places who have disappeared family members and don’t have any closure of knowing what happened to them is also massive. But for where we are right now in the Growler Valley, this is still south of the bombing range. So, if there’s that number of human remains here in this valley, we can only imagine how many more people are dying 40 miles further north.
AMY GOODMAN: Geena Jackson, as we stood in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. When we come back, she, Paige Corich-Kleim and Scott Warren go on a water drop. It’s Scott’s first time in more than a year. He faces a November retrial for helping migrants last year. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “They Built a Wall” by Anarchitex. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, broadcasting from Tucson, as we continue our journey into the Sonoran Desert with humanitarian activist Scott Warren and No More Deaths. Deep into the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, Scott and two other volunteers, Geena Jackson and Paige Corich-Kleim, hiked into the desert over the weekend to leave food and water for migrants.
AMY GOODMAN: Scott, how does it feel to be coming out here to be part of a water drop for the first time since your trial, in over a year?
SCOTT WARREN: It’s good to be back out in the desert, and it’s good to just be having a presence out here again and to be part of that, part of the work that people are doing.
AMY GOODMAN: What are your plans right now? Where are we? And what are you going to do?
PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: We’re in Organ Pipe, and we’re heading in to check on some water drop locations that are just up in these hills here. So, we’re hiking in to check on those areas.
AMY GOODMAN: And how do you know about the presence of migrants in this area?
SCOTT WARREN: We’ve spent several years now in these areas doing search and rescue, search and recovery, and doing water drops. And so, we just know that people are moving through these areas. And they’ve been moving through in large numbers for a while. Also, in these mountainous areas, oftentimes there’s trails that people will hike. And so, it’s easy to find those trails and sort of find evidence of where people have gone before. And then, that’s where we try to get humanitarian supplies to people.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you found bodies or bones in these hills?
SCOTT WARREN: Yep. Yeah, we have, unfortunately. Where we’re going, in fact, there’s been several recoveries that we’ve been in involved in, and searches, and people who have died in this area, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe this area we’re walking through?
SCOTT WARREN: Sure, an area that’s — from here, we’re probably maybe 15 miles north of the border, as the crow flies. And we’re hiking into these mountains on the west side of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which is Hia-Ced O’odham land and territory. And its Sonoran Desert can be really difficult to walk through, because even these areas that might look like they’re flat, there’s actually quite a bit of terrain and topography, because there’s these washes. So, oftentimes what seems like it could be even just a flat, easy walk is like really strenuous, because you’re dropping down into these deep washes and then climbing back out and then going again and going down into a wash and climbing back out again. So, it can be really difficult to hike through here.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you say what a wash is? A little gully?
SCOTT WARREN: Yeah, it’s a gully, yeah. It’ll have water in it when it rains. But most of the time it’s dry. This is one way where we know where to drop water, which is, we’re on these trails that are pretty distinct and are used by migrants.
AMY GOODMAN: And what were they created by?
SCOTT WARREN: By people, by migrants just walking through here over time and establishing this path.
AMY GOODMAN: So, as you drop — make this water drop, I mean, we are standing here. It’s over 100-degree weather. Just walking for — what? — half an hour, it is so beyond depleting.
SCOTT WARREN: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: For migrants, some of them walk for days, and it can even be hotter than this.
SCOTT WARREN: Yes. Yep, that’s correct. Yeah, days in this weather. You can’t carry enough water. You know, even if you’re able to carry like four gallons of water, you’ll go through that. And so, people are dependent on finding the few water sources that do exist in this desert, which sometimes you get to a watering hole, and the water can be quite dirty, or it can be dry. So, it’s a really — it’s really risky.
PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: So, whenever we leave water gallons, we write messages on them, just simple things for people to find, partially so that folks know that it’s not Border Patrol like putting out water that’s a trap, and also just to kind of show a level of care and solidarity with people who are making a really dangerous trip. So, we just like write little notes on them and then leave those for people to find.
AMY GOODMAN: What are you going to write?
PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: I usually write kind of religious notes, so like “Vayan con la fuerza de Dios” or “Que Dios bendiga su camino,” which means “Go with the strength of God” or “May God bless your journey.”
AMY GOODMAN: Geena, can you describe what you’re writing on that bottle?
GEENA JACKSON: For this one, I wrote “¡Ánimo!” and “¡Mantenga la fuerza!” and “¡Sí, se puede!” and words of — I don’t know — words of strength. I don’t know. We’ve asked some of our patients before what would feel good to read on the gallon, or what would be like a nice message, or what — I don’t know — what makes the water seem more trustworthy. And a lot of people have said, like, more religious stuff. And a lot of people have said “¡Animo!” So, “¡Animo!” it is.
AMY GOODMAN: Geena, you’re now laying out canned beans. Why beans?
GEENA JACKSON: So, we lay out the cans that have pop tops, so that people can open them pretty easily. And we want to put out things that have calories in them and also salt. Drinking water is not enough. A lot of dehydration comes from electrolyte imbalance. So, you need like sodium in addition to water. So we want to put out salty food, or beans have calories and is, like, starchy and has sugars, as well. Yeah, just for some caloric intake in addition to the water.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re putting this in the shade.
GEENA JACKSON: Yeah. Well, so, we want to protect the pop tops, because you can’t get in the beans or any can very easily if you can’t get into it. So, a lot of times I put them upside down, so that birds won’t peck at the shiny part and break the pop top. And also, if it rains, we don’t want water to collect in there, because it will rust the pop top. So, I put those underneath, here. And then, we just want the gallons to be in a shadier area, just to protect the plastic so it doesn’t disintegrate and for the quality of the water. But we’ll come back and check on these drops within like one week, two weeks, three weeks, and then can swap out if anything has gotten old, or if things are used, we’ll pack up the empty gallons and leave fresh ones.
AMY GOODMAN: Is this against the law in these parts?
GEENA JACKSON: Humanitarian aid is never a crime. It is a humanitarian imperative to try and ease the death and suffering in this area. And regardless of government agencies trying to prosecute humanitarian aid workers, we maintain that humanitarian aid is never a crime.
AMY GOODMAN: As you watch this, Scott, what your colleagues are doing, from No More Deaths, do you get to describe this in the courtroom?
SCOTT WARREN: Yeah, I’m just noticing the energy of this moment, and I think maybe because all of us are here, and hearing here my friends describe the messages that they’re writing on the bottles. It’s so routine for us that we do this, but even I forget like how important and like how beautiful and really kind of sacred it is for us. And it’s an honor for us to be able to be out here and do this work, I think.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Scott Warren with No More Deaths. It was his first time in more than a year accompanying a water drop in the desert. He faces a November retrial for helping migrants last year.
AMY GOODMAN: “Bad Crazy Sun” by The Sidewinders, a Tucson band, recorded in 1989. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman. We’re continuing our special broadcast, “Death and Resistance on the U.S.-Mexico Border.” The bodies and bones of more than 3,000 people, nearly all migrants, have been found since 2001 in the treacherous Sonoran Desert in Arizona. Recent changes to asylum proceedings under the Trump administration have diverted more migrants to deadly portions of the U.S.-Mexico border.
We turn now to the Tucson-based artist Alvaro Enciso. Every week, he drives and hikes to the exact locations in the desert where migrant remains have been found, and places a cross there to honor their lives and make visible the deaths so often ignored. The Colombia-born artist has built and installed over 900 crosses throughout the desert as part of his ongoing project called Where Dreams Die. We recently spoke to him at Altar Valley in the desert, where four immigrants were killed in a car accident as they fled from Border Patrol agents. We spoke as we walked.
ALVARO ENCISO: This area is called the Altar Valley, because we have the Baboquivari Mountains in that direction, and we have the Sierrita Mountains in this direction. The migrants use this area here to go from south to north, from Mexico, which is about 40 miles this way. And they use the electric poles as a navigational point. They’re not far from the paved road, in case they get into — they don’t feel well, and they come out to the road and hope that someone will pick them up and — whether the Border Patrol, you know. At one point you know that you cannot walk anymore, and that’s it. So this is one of those — it’s not as heavily used as much anymore, because too many Border Patrol and too many helicopters and too many things here.
As we came in here, you saw some tires on the ground, and the Border Patrol uses those tires to drag them to clear the road. So, they come back, and if they see any tracks, then they know that migrants have come through here, and so they start looking for them. But now the migrants carry these booties made out of pieces of rug, pieces of carpet, and they clear.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re saying the Border Patrol smoothes these sandy paths so they can see their footprints?
ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: And they wear — and so, some of the migrants wear kind of carpet?
ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah, just about all of the migrants wear these booties that have carpet under, on the bottom, you know, the sole.
AMY GOODMAN: So you can’t see the footprint.
ALVARO ENCISO: So, then, the last guy sort of sweeps the — a sweeper, pretty much.
AMY GOODMAN: What is this area?
ALVARO ENCISO: The Altar Valley. We are close to Tucson. The idea is that the more money that you have to pay the coyotes, the less you walk. The less money you have, the more you have to walk. So, if you have enough money, they will — you will walk to Tucson, which is that road that we came on, Ajo Road, and they’ll get picked up there. The idea is that you’ll get picked up after the checkpoint. But if you don’t have enough money, you’re going to have to walk another hundred miles, 80 miles, to Interstate 8, which is the road that goes to San Diego.
And, you know, the jurisdiction of the Border Patrol now is a hundred miles; it’s not just the border. It’s a hundred miles in, into the U.S. So you have to walk at least a hundred miles to be out of Border Patrol jurisdiction. But then ICE takes over, you know, so it’s always a layer and layers and layers of people. So you have to live in the shadows.
AMY GOODMAN: What kind of cactus are they?
ALVARO ENCISO: The ones you need to worry about are these, are the jumping chollas. They jump at you when they feel any kind of warmth, and, you know, they will attach to you.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what that means for a migrant.
ALVARO ENCISO: Well, at night, you will go right into one of those, and you get hundreds of those things, and you cannot remove them. And then they get infected. In two, three days, you are infected. So, the infection debilitates your body, and the lack of water and everything. And then you just sit in front of, you know, under a true, kind of take a break, you know, but you don’t get up. That’s how we find them, sitting there under a tree.
AMY GOODMAN: And the rattlesnakes?
ALVARO ENCISO: The rattlesnakes, you know, there are about seven species of rattlesnakes here in southern Arizona. And at night they are very active. And they bite you, and that’s the end. You know, you can’t — you know, who’s going to take you to the hospital? You know, you lose your leg, you know, depending on the kind of snake there is.
AMY GOODMAN: So, this happens. It’s not only migrants in the desert, but to be safe, they want to start moving at night, and that makes it very, very dangerous.
ALVARO ENCISO: Yes. And, you know, in the old days, they used to carry these regular gallons of water. But now that water reflects at night. So they started painting them with paint black and using shoe polish. And then people in Mexico started making them. So now you buy black water bottles that do not reflect any light. However, black doesn’t reflect light, so the water gets very, very hot. And so you’re drinking water that’s 130 degrees. So you don’t drink as much, because it doesn’t taste right. But you start dehydrating.
That’s why we have these groups here like Samaritans and No More Deaths, who walk the trails, putting water out there and looking for anybody that may need assistance in some way. So, these are the remnants of migration, you know, the gear that they —
AMY GOODMAN: A shirt or a cloth.
ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah. It’s a shirt, most likely.
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, this looks like it was a shirt.
ALVARO ENCISO: You die here, and you don’t last very long, because the animals will get at you very quickly. And in matter of two weeks, you disappear. The animals begin to grab their parts. You know, the vultures eat very well here. You can see they’re nice and fat.
I put the first cross here about six years ago. But at the time, I was not very experienced with the GPS, and I didn’t realize that there were three other people at that location. So, once I started revisiting some of the sites and looking at maps and looking at my data, then it came up that three other people had died here. So I came back not too long ago and put three crosses. So now this site is complete. So, like, there’s a cross for each one of them. They were — one guy was 17 years old. The other one was 19 years old. You know, young people. You shouldn’t be dying at that age. You’re too young.
AMY GOODMAN: Where were they from?
ALVARO ENCISO: I think Mexico and Guatemala, if I recall correctly. They used to come here looking — you know, economic reasons, trying to find a life for themselves and for their family. But now the American dream is no longer a plan. You know, they are fleeing violence. They are fleeing for their lives. They are fleeing from all kinds of things, and even climate change. You know, if you’re a subsistence farmer and you buy seeds and you put them in the ground and it doesn’t rain for one [bleep] year, you know, you get wiped out. You know? So what do you do? You head north.
AMY GOODMAN: Tucson-based artist Alvaro Enciso, as we walk together in the Sonoran Desert. We then sat down in front of four of the more than 900 crosses he’s created to honor migrants who’ve died in the Sonoran Desert.
ALVARO ENCISO: We are here at a location where four migrants were found dead some years back. These migrants died on the same day. They died all together here. They were trying to get away from the Border Patrol. They were in a van, and the van just rolled over and tumbled. And they were collected out of here with multiple injuries, multiple head injuries. And I learned of this site about six years ago, when I started putting crosses out here. At the time, when I saw the red dot, I thought it was going to be just one person, and I left it at that. And then —
AMY GOODMAN: And that’s where you built your first cross?
ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah, that’s where — this is one of my early crosses. This is very early Alvaro. This is right when I got started.
AMY GOODMAN: That was one person you learned about. And you talked about a red dot. Where did this red dot come from?
ALVARO ENCISO: When I first came to Tucson, and I took this training, an orientation for Samaritans, and the first thing they do is they show you this map of southern Arizona with thousands of red dots on it. And, you know, I guess when you’re a visual artist, you sort of react to certain things. And that red dot immediately caught my attention, because this red dot represented a location where someone lost his or her life, you know, who the end of an American dream happened to someone. And so, this was the — so I decided to go to these actual locations, you know, because the map is a map. It’s not the territory. And the red dot is an abstraction on a map. But I wanted to come here, where the people are collected out of here, put in bags and taken to the morgue.
AMY GOODMAN: And who was the first person that you built a cross for, the red cross?
ALVARO ENCISO: Well, I don’t have the names of these people. Over the years, I put over 900 crosses here. And to me, at the time, they were — I don’t want to say generic, but I wanted to treat everybody with the same, you know, respect and dignity, so I wasn’t very concerned with the names or whether they were identified or not. I was just wanting to put the cross there to celebrate the honor, to celebrate the courage of someone who came here looking for what I came here looking for 50 years ago, that opportunity.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you learn the stories of these four migrants?
ALVARO ENCISO: Well, again, you know, there’s a database that is public. But the database is limited. You get the name and the age and the place of origin, and that it was, in this case, multiple injuries, head injuries and chest injuries, due to a car accident. And that’s all I know.
AMY GOODMAN: Describe how you came up with the idea. And who was the first person that you honored?
ALVARO ENCISO: I was looking for a way to mark locations where the American dream ended for someone. And I was trying to avoid the cross, because the cross had enough baggage already. And I wanted to think of migration as a universal thing, that it happens all over the world. And I didn’t want to use the Christian symbol, because it would limit the vision of people. You know, when people saw those crosses, immediately Christianity comes into mind. And so, I wanted to — it needed to be bigger than that. So I was struggling with what to — how to mark these locations. And I tried different things that didn’t work.
But then I started paying more attention to the cross, and I learned that the cross was used as an instrument of death during the Roman times. The Romans built these structures to kill people. They hung them out there in the sun without any water until they died. They wanted to make it as painful as possible, you know, so people will see that you don’t [bleep] with the Roman Empire, you know, that this is the price. And it’s exactly what is happening here. You know, people are dying because they don’t have any water, and there’s no shade, and they’re out in the sun until they died.
AMY GOODMAN: You always make an image. Or, talk about the kind of icon you have in the middle, that’s different for every cross.
ALVARO ENCISO: Yes. I wanted the crosses to be as unique as possible, but to have something that bring them together. And I use the red dot that I found on the map. So I’m bringing the red dot into the desert where the actual tragedy took place.
AMY GOODMAN: The red dot of a migrant death.
ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah. The red dot that you see on the map is here now on the crosses. So the crosses are the container to bring the red dot here.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the pregnant woman who was making her way along the border here in the Sonoran Desert?
ALVARO ENCISO: I learned about that case a while ago. And it was a baby who was born by the side of the road and died by the side of the road. And the fact that baby was born by the side of the road, that made him an American automatically, because he was born in this country. But he didn’t have the opportunity to die — he died there. And the mother, we don’t know what happened. She got deported somewhere.
And when I saw that case, you know, I said, “Jesus, do I have to make a special cross for this baby, or do I need to do something with it?” And I finally had gathered enough courage to go there and put the cross for this baby. It affected me, you know, big time. How could a baby die here? And so, I came and put a cross there, and then I told people that I had put a cross for a baby, you know. And then, little by little, people started bringing toys and started writing poems, and it became a big shrine. And everybody that came here will have to stop there and have a picture taken with this cross that became the iconic symbol of this tragedy here.
But one day the cross disappeared. It was gone. And then everybody started calling me about, “Well, the cross is no longer there. We need the cross, because the cross is now — now we don’t have anything to” — you know, this was the symbol that represented this whole thing. So, I went back and built another one, so that was a second-generation cross. Now it’s full of toys again. And now there are people who maintain the area. They pull the weeds and, you know.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Alvaro, you also find bones in the desert.
ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah, I find bones and dead bodies, because I walk areas that are so remote, where migrants die, because, you know, that’s the way it is here in this desert.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about working with the Pima County medical examiner, how you find the link between the bones or the dead body in the desert and the family that has somehow made it known that their loved one is gone.
ALVARO ENCISO: Sometimes I work with Colibrí Center for Human Rights. They work together with the Office of the Medical Examiner. You know, they see me on television, or they see me — they read an article about me. So I get a call or an email from a family that they want me to put a cross. And a couple years ago, there was a family from Peru. The woman, a woman from Peru, disappeared here, and no one knew what happened to her. And then, one day, a skull was found. The cranium was found. It took a couple years to identify the cranium, and they finally were able to make the connection. So —
AMY GOODMAN: DNA connection.
ALVARO ENCISO: Yeah, DNA connection. So, the family, her two daughters and her husband, came, and I put a cross for them. And it was a magical moment. You know, things like that don’t happen in my project. It’s always anonymity. You know, it’s always — and that was very, very special, you know, to be able to have the family there and me putting a cross for her. But those are rare moments that — you know, I got an email recently from a woman who wants me to put a cross for her father. And I said, “Well, I’ll do that when I come back from Colombia. When I — you know, I’ll do that.” And they asked me: How much do I charge for this kind of service? You know, I said, “No, I don’t ask for money. This is what I do. This is my work.”
In the beginning, you know, some of the death sites from the early 2000s, we knew most of the names, because people carried IDs, you know, they carried some kind of information, and because they were found not too far from the roads. But nowadays people do not carry any form of ID, because if you carry ID, that exposes you to extortion from organized crime. You know, they can call your family and ask for money. They kidnap people very much. And what good is an ID from Guatemala or from El Salvador or from Honduras? It doesn’t do you any good. In fact, it brands you as an illegal person here. You know, I say “illegal,” but that’s not a good word, you know. Trying to be somebody in life, there’s nothing illegal about that.
AMY GOODMAN: Will you go on building these crosses?
ALVARO ENCISO: For as long as I can. You know, the objective of the project has already been — you know, the statement has been made, that there are crosses here in the desert, that 3,000 people have died, and then a whole bunch missing. But for me, going out every Tuesday, it has become my meditation, my going to church, my — you know, I’m not a believer. I’m not a — I don’t follow any religion or anything. But this gives me the opportunity to connect with whatever spiritual thing is happening here. So this is my — this has become part of my life.
AMY GOODMAN: Tucson-based artist Alvaro Enciso. He has created more than 900 crosses to honor migrants who have died in the Sonoran Desert. He calls his project Where Dreams Die.