[California Series in Public Anthropology] Jason De León, Michæl Wells - The Land of Open Graves_ Li

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Unformatted text preview: THE LAND OF OPEN GRAVES living and dying on the migrant trail Jason De León With photographs by Michael Wells university of california press A WhiteHouse.go Dedecatrd to discovering and sharing knowledge and creative visiin, authorea and schlarn this imert to perpetuate scholarship od the Schollordhip is to be creates...by awevking -Ralph Ealdo Emerson The publisher gratefully acknowledges the generous support of the Authors Imprint Endowment Fund of the University of California Press Foundation, which was established to support exceptional scholarship by first-time authors. THE LAND OF OPEN GRAVES california series in public anthropology The California Series in Public Anthropology emphasizes the anthropologist’s role as an engaged intellectual. It continues anthropology’s commitment to being an ethnographic witness, to describing, in human terms, how life is lived beyond the borders of many readers’ experiences. But it also adds a commitment, through ethnography, to reframing the terms of public debate—transforming received, accepted understandings of social issues with new insights, new framings. Series Editor: Robert Borofsky (Hawaii Pacific University) Contributing Editors: Philippe Bourgois (University of Pennsylvania), Paul Farmer (Partners In Health), Alex Hinton (Rutgers University), Carolyn Nordstrom (University of Notre Dame), and Nancy Scheper-Hughes (UC Berkeley) University of California Press Editor: Naomi Schneider THE LAND OF OPEN GRAVES living and dying on the migrant trail Jason De León With photographs by Michael Wells university of california press University of California Press, one of the most distinguished university presses in the United States, enriches lives around the world by advancing scholarship in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. Its activities are supported by the UC Press Foundation and by philanthropic contributions from individuals and institutions. For more information, visit . University of California Press Oakland, California © 2015 by The Regents of the University of California Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data De León, Jason, 1977– author.   The land of open graves : living and dying on the migrant trail / Jason De León ; with photographs by Michael Wells.    pages  cm.— (California series in public anthropology ; 36)   Includes bibliographical references and index.   isbn 978-0-520-28274-2 (cloth : alk. paper) —   isbn 978-0-520-28275-9 (pbk. : alk. paper) —   isbn 978-0-520-95868-5 (ebook)   1. Immigration enforcement—Social aspects—Arizona.  2. Immigration enforcement—Social aspects—MexicanAmerican Border Region.  3. Border security—Social aspects—Arizona.  4. Border security—Social aspects— Mexican-American Border Region.  5. Mexico—Emigration and immigration.  6. United States—Emigration and immigration—Government policy.  I. Title.   jv6475.d4 2015   325.73—dc23 2015016328 Manufactured in the United States of America 24  23  22  21  20  19  18  17  16  15 10  9  8  7  6  5  4  3  2  1 The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of ansi/niso z39.48-1992 (r 2002) (Permanence of Paper). For Ignacio Cruz, María José, A., N., y W. But home was a dream, one I’d never seen . . . —Jason Isbell US-Mexico border near Sasabe, Arizona. Photo by Michael Wells. Unidentified human remains from the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner. Photo by Michael Wells. Juan Bosco Shelter, Nogales, Mexico. Photo by Michael Wells. Migrant campsite near Green Valley, Arizona. Photo by Michael Wells. Storytelling, 2014. Photo by Michael Wells. José Tacuri with his sister and niece, Cuenca, Ecuador. Photo by Michael Wells. CONTENTS Introduction 1 part one. This Hard Land 21 1. Prevention Through Deterrence 2. Dangerous Ground 3. Necroviolence 23 62 part two. El Camino 87 4. 5. 6. 7. Memo and Lucho Deported Technological Warfare The Crossing 38 89 107 145 167 part three. Perilous Terrain 203 8. 9. 10. 11. 205 Exposure You Can’t Leave Them Behind Maricela We Will Wait Until You Get Here 12. Epilogue 220 238 265 280 Acknowledgments Appendix A. Border Patrol Apprehensions, Southern Border Sectors, 2000–2014 Appendix B. Border Patrol Apprehensions, Tucson Sector, by Distance from the Border, Fiscal Years 2010 and 2011 Notes References Index 289 297 300 301 325 349 Introduction Flies. I mostly remember the goddamn flies. It’s funny how memory works. I made a thousand mental notes of the scene— and wrote a good many of them down soon after the event—but only a couple of years later they now seem to be forgotten, buried, reduced to background noise. After spending just a few weeks on the US-Mexico border hanging out with the desperate people looking to breach America’s immigration defenses, I quickly learned that death, violence, and suffering are par for the course. It all started to blur together. Disturbing images lost their edge. As an observer, you grow accustomed to seeing strangers cry at the drop of a hat. Tears no longer had the impact they once did. Tragic stories repeatedly told under the strain of a cracking voice transformed into well-worn hymns that lost their provenience and became difficult to seriate. I fought sensory overload so as to not lose sight of the big picture or the brutal details. I tried to write it all down so that I could later connect the observed realities to larger structural forces. This, at least, is what I kept telling myself I needed to do during my five years of fieldwork on the Arizona-Mexico border and later as I wrote this book. It’s what I told myself in this first encounter with death. It’s easier said than done. It didn’t matter, though, because on this day in July 2009 none of it could be comprehended, much less theorized. All I could do was stare at the flies and wonder how the hell they had gotten there so quickly. It happened on my first day conducting ethnographic research in the border town of Nogales, Mexico. I had spent the sweltering morning sitting in the 1 . 2    introduction shade talking with recently deported migrants. These were women and men who had just attempted and failed to walk across the Sonoran Desert of Arizona to illegally enter the United States. A few of them had been deported from elsewhere by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)1 in hopes that being placed in geographic proximity to the desert, where hundreds die each year while migrating, would be enough to deter them from attempting a crossing. I didn’t know his name, but I had seen him earlier in the day. Among the tired masses of deportees, he didn’t stand out. Recently repatriated people are easy to spot in Nogales because of the uniformity of their appearance: dark T-shirts with powdery salt rings under the armpits and circling the neck; sneakers that look like they have been through a meat grinder; dusty black backpacks stuffed with extra socks, a few cans of food, and whatever meager personal possessions they have managed to hold on to. Their brown bodies broadcast exhaustion and vulnerability like a scarlet letter. Faces show a mix of sorrow, weariness, fear, and optimism. They may have walked for three days lost, quenched a paralyzing thirst at a cattle trough where the water was mostly algae and swimming insects, been robbed at gunpoint by bandits, and raped by a Border Patrol agent before being deported.2 Still, the next time is going to be different. There is a husband waiting in Carrboro, North Carolina. A guaranteed job painting houses in Phoenix. A little girl with an empty belly back in the tiny village of El Manchon, Guerrero. Si Dios quiere, voy a pasar. The next time is going to be different. I don’t remember what he looked like when he was alive. In fact, I didn’t really notice him at all until I was making my way toward the convenience store a block from where I had been conducting interviews down on la linea3 in front of the Grupo Beta Office.4 Like many who get caught in the cycle of repeated crossing attempts, he decided to spend the morning drinking a c­a­ guama (quart-sized bottle of beer) while planning what to do next. I passed him a few hours prior as he headed to an abandoned field across from the store. I took more notice of the early happy hour he was having than of his actual facial features. All I remember is that he was tall and skinny and had a shaved head. The next time I saw him was when I spotted a crowd gathering near the abandoned field. I walked up to investigate and found myself standing behind a chain-link fence with several migrants, including a short bald man I would soon come to know as Chucho.5 For ten minutes Chucho and I stared in silent awe at the limp body flopped on the dirt. This dude had been dead for less than an hour and yet the flies were already there in full force. . introduction    3 They were landing on his milky eyeballs and crawling in and out of his open mouth. His head was turned and facing the crowd of migrants. He seemed to be staring right through everyone. We watched flies lay eggs on this man’s face for what seemed an eternity. Finally some Good Samaritan showed up with a Dallas Cowboys bedsheet and covered him up. A paramedic and a few of the neighbors milled around the corpse chatting, but no one seemed to be fazed. Death lay there like a casual summer breeze. I thought to myself that maybe this guy was headed to Dallas to wash dishes at an Applebee’s. Maybe he hated the pinches Cowboys6 after spending too many years in Philly doing landscaping jobs and rooting for the Eagles. No one seemed to know him. They just knew that he needed to be covered up to keep the flies away. I turned to Chucho for some insight into this spectacle. He shrugged and said, “This happens all the time. Some people get tired of trying to cross the border after many failed attempts. Some turn to drugs and alcohol to kill time. Who knows what killed him?” Reading the worry on my face, Chucho continued, “You watch. No one will remember this tomorrow. It’s like it didn’t even happen.” He was right. I would ask migrants the following day about the dead body in the field three hundred feet from the Grupo Beta Office, and no one would know what I was talking about. It was almost as if it didn’t happen. This book is about the violence and death that border crossers face on a daily basis as they attempt to enter the United States without authorization by walking across the vast Sonoran Desert of Arizona. If you live in the United States, you already know about many of the people you will meet in these pages. They pick your fruit, detail your cars, and process your meat. They toil in occupations that US citizens can’t or won’t do.7 Keep in mind, though, that not everyone who crosses the desert is a first-timer. In the Obama era of mass deportations, close to 2 million people were removed from the country through fiscal year 2013.8 Many of these deportees are now running scared across Arizona’s Mars-like landscape to reunite with family members or simply return to the only place they have ever called home. My argument is quite simple. The terrible things that this mass of migrating people experience en route are neither random nor senseless, but rather part of a strategic federal plan that has rarely been publicly illuminated and exposed for what it is: a killing machine that simultaneously uses and hides behind the viciousness of the Sonoran . 4    introduction Dallas Cowboys death shroud, Nogales, Mexico, 2009. Photo by author. Desert. The Border Patrol disguises the impact of its current enforcement policy by mobilizing a combination of sterilized discourse, redirected blame, and “natural” environmental processes that erase evidence of what happens in the most remote parts of southern Arizona. The goal is to render invisible the innumerable consequences this sociopolitical phenomenon has for the lives and bodies of undocumented people. . introduction    5 Those who live and die in the desert have names, faces, and families. They also have complicated life histories that reflect an intimate relationship with transnational migration and global economic inequality. We just rarely ever get to see them up close as they make these terrifying journeys or hear them describe this process in their own words. In what follows, I bring into focus the logic and human cost of the US border enforcement monster known as “Prevention Through Deterrence,” a strategy that largely relies on rugged and desolate terrain to impede the flow of people from the south. I also present stories of survival, failure, and heartbreak that happen on la linea and beyond from the perspective of those who directly experience this unique security apparatus. Documenting these largely undocumented stories and giving the reader an up-close look at faces and bodies can perhaps help us remember tomorrow that people lived and died in this desert today. border stories Keeping track of the sheer number of publications that focus in some way on the US-Mexico divide is an impossible task. It seems as though every month a new exposé hits the shelves and tantalizes the public with the trials and tribulations of the troubled geopolitical margin where the phrase “the Third World meets the First World” is still thrown around as if it means something. We don’t like to admit it, but the United States is simultaneously afraid of and intrigued by its southern border. The general public can’t shake its love of the movies, news programs, reality television shows, and tell-all books that reassure us that this is in fact a zone that is “out of control.” If you’re a writer, toss in words like danger and violent and come up with some creative (or not so creative) uses of war metaphors, and you’ve got yourself a best-selling piece of immigration pornography. Don’t get me wrong, there are many excellent books written about the border. It is a place full of captivating tales and complex histories, but also a wellworn path that many others have mapped out better than I ever could. Rather than giving you a history lesson that you could learn elsewhere, this book abruptly starts in 1993, the year that the policy later coined “Prevention Through Deterrence” (PTD) was first deployed in El Paso, Texas. At the time, PTD was just an off-the-cuff homegrown preventive measure against the unsightliness of brown-skinned illegal fence jumpers and the subsequent chaos the Border Patrol caused by chasing them through poor Latino . 6    introduction neighborhoods where it was impossible to figure out who belonged and who didn’t.9 By placing a gaggle (or is it a “murder”?) of crew-cut Border Patrol agents in combat boots and crisp green uniforms in and around downtown El Paso, the immediate goal of discouraging boundary offenders from attempting to hop the fence in these populated areas was achieved. Frustrated, but undeterred, these scrappy individuals, many of whom were locals from Ciudad Juárez simply commuting to work in Texas, went to the edge of town where the fence magically disappeared and agents were few and far between. Business quickly got back to normal. Everything changed, though, after the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994. The United States promised economic prosperity for its southern neighbor if it would only open up its ports of entry and take shipment of cheap goodies. Soon after Mexico signed on the dotted line, it found itself drowning in a pinche montón10 of subsidized gringo corn that crashed their economy and put millions of peasant farmers out of work. As they had done in previous generations when things were bad in Mexico or when los Yanquis needed cheap labor,11 this impoverished population started making their way north by the hundreds of thousands. Optimistic campesinos lined up in Tijuana, Juárez, and Reynosa and waited their turn to try and get past la migra so that they could join the US undocumented labor force.12 This NAFTA-induced human flood now meant there were hordes of fence hoppers in San Ysidro, California, and McAllen, Texas. Once again, the Border Patrol needed a way to reduce the bad press that comes with an avalanche of poor people spilling onto the streets of border towns daily. That little experiment in El Paso to push the Spanish-speaking invaders to the edge of town soon became a nationwide security paradigm that is still in place today. The basic premise was, and continues to be, that if they can’t stop the huddled masses, at least they can funnel them into remote areas where the punishment handed out by difficult terrain will save money (or so some foolishly thought) and get this unsightly mess out of public view, which it did. Between 2000 and 2013, approximately 11.7 million people were apprehended while trying to make the illegal pilgrimage to the United States via Mexico. During this same period, 4,584,022 of these arrests occurred in the Border Patrol jurisdiction known as the Tucson Sector, a craggy, depopulated, and mountainous patch of land that stretches westward from New Mexico to the Yuma County line in Arizona.13 If you include the neighboring Yuma Sector during this same period, the number of arrests in this state climbs to . introduction    7 Yuma El Centro San Diego Tucson El Paso Big Bend Tucson Pacific Ocean El Paso Altar Nogales Del Rio M EX ICO 0 Laredo Rio Grande Valley 200 miles Location mentioned in text Gulf of Mexico Border Patrol sectors and locales mentioned in the text. 5,304,345 people. This is equivalent to the population of Houston, Texas. It’s no wonder Arizona hates immigrants;14 for close to two decades the federal government has been using that state’s backyard as a gauntlet to test the endurance of millions of border crossers and has often left local communities holding the medical bill.15 Still, everyone knows that if you survive this death race, the backdoors of US stockyards, carpet factories, meat rendering plants, and sushi restaurants are wide open. Much of what is described in this book took place in the strip of desert just south of Tucson between the Baboquivari and Tumacácori mountain ranges. This beautiful and challenging landscape has been home to the indigenous Tohono O’odham16 (“Desert People”) and their ancestors for millennia. Long before the arrival of colonial-era Spaniards seeking gold and Christian converts, nineteenth-century American geological surveyors itching to draw new maps, and twentieth-century Border Patrol agents,17 the O’odham people were cultivating a set of cultural traditions and practices that has allowed them . 8    introduction to thrive in an environment that to most outsiders appears too barren to sustain agriculture or human life.18 As ethnobotanist Gary Nabhan writes: “The perspiring and panting in the middle of the saguaro forests—they are part of the raw intimacy the [O’odham] maintain with the desert. Somewhat ugly to the outside eye, this routine is an honest indicator of the strong bonds between the Desert People and their surroundings. Instead of running away from the desert during its driest, hottest time, some still run to the heart of it.”19 O’odham poet Jeanette Chico sums up this intimacy: “When I walk in the desert the animals stop and look at me as if they were saying ‘Welcome to our home.’ ”20 Unlike the Desert People, the border crossers who pass through this region do not share in the cultural acumen that conceptualizes this landscape as inviting. Try to envision what it is like going from the lush tropical lowlands of Veracruz or the cool mountains of Oaxaca to the sparse and smoldering desert. Migrants will tell you, “I never imagined it would be like this.” How could they? They are fugitives traversing a deadly alien planet. The Border Patrol counts on this. This terrain is that federal agency’s not-so-secret weapon, and the migrant injuries and death toll provide evidence that it is a painfully effective one. What’s agonizing for the O’odham is that the American federal govern...
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