No one knows how many migrants have died trying to cross the desert into the United States. The US Border Patrol reports more than 5,500 deaths since 1998. Immigrant rights groups, like the Tucson-based Coalición de Derechos Humanos, estimate that the remains of at least 6,000 people have been recovered. These numbers certainly are just a fraction of the actual toll. The border is nearly 2,000 miles long, and as Kat Rodríguez, a spokeswoman for the Coalición, says, “The desert is a big place.”
Exhausted migrants crawl into caves and die, their remains never recovered or their bones, picked clean by carrion birds and other animals, disappearing into the sand. A Texas rancher recently told a reporter that only one out of every four bodies is found, which would put the death toll at well over 20,000. Patrick Ball, a statistician who works with human rights groups to count the victims of mass atrocities—93,000 in Syria, 69,000 in Peru, 18,000 in Timor-Leste—says that in order to arrive at an accurate ratio of total dead migrants to known remains, one would need “several independent enumerations of people you can identify as having died in the way you’re studying.” Each list would have to survey roughly the same area of the desert and include the name of the victim and the approximate location and date of death.
But migrants often don’t travel with identification, and the reliable data that do exist are spread out over California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, fragmented among morgues, hospitals, police departments and the Border Patrol. Some of those who perish during the trek don’t do so until they are well into the United States or have staggered back into Mexico. Robin Reineke, an anthropologist who works with the Missing Migrant Project, part of the nonprofit Colibrí Center for Human Rights, reports that the Tucson morgue alone has a catalog of more than 800 bodies awaiting identification. The project itself has a database of more than 1,500 missing people who were known to have crossed the border. Just a day in the desert sun, Reineke says, can render a corpse unrecognizable. First it distends; then the skin cures and blackens, often disappearing altogether, leaving T-shirts, jeans and sneakers hanging off bones. Going through pockets and backpacks trying to identify remains, Reineke has found handwritten letters, sewing kits, English-Spanish dictionaries, faded photographs, prayer cards, children’s drawings and slips of paper with an address and the words mi mamá. The Washington Post writes that the Brooks County sheriff’s office in South Texas keeps three white binders containing photos of the remains of dead migrants: “They are a gallery of horrors.”
Most die of dehydration, hyperthermia or hypothermia, but over the years migrants have testified to witnessing men wearing camouflage and driving civilian vehicles shooting and killing other migrants. Organized vigilantism started around 2000, when a group of ranchers in Cochise County, Arizona, began forming armed patrols of the border and issued a call for volunteers to join them. An anonymous flier was distributed among campgrounds in the Southwest inviting outsiders to bring their RVs, scopes, guns, signal flares and halogen spotlights to have some “fun in the sun” by joining a “Neighborhood Ranch Watch.” The border became a magnet for white supremacists, Nazis, nativists and militia members, many of them from the diverse right-wing “patriot” groups that had gained strength in the United States throughout the 1990s, since the end of the Cold War. Mexican consuls in border cities began receiving reports from migrants that they were being “hunted,” held at gunpoint, cursed and abused, and threatened with dogs. Others were shot, some killed. One unidentified male body was found in Cochise County with rope burns around the neck, as if lynched. Posses were capturing Mexicans and marching them by the score in coffles to be turned over to the Border Patrol. “Humans. That’s the greatest prey there is on earth,” said Roger Barnett, one of the Arizona ranchers often credited with starting the patrols.