Things That Matter

2020 Was The Deadliest Year On Record For Migrants Crossing The Arizona Border

There is no one reason for the record-breaking number of migrant deaths along the Arizona border with Mexico. Between the cruel border policies of the Trump administration, an increase in hostility by US Border Patrol toward humanitarian aid workers, and record-breaking heat in the state, all combined to create the dangerous and deadly conditions.

However, one thing is clear: more must be done to avoid the needless loss of life for those simply seeking a better opportunity for themselves and their families.

The remains of at least 225 people have been found scattered throughout the Arizona desert, so far.

2020 has been the deadliest year on record for migrants crossing into Arizona, with the remains of at least 225 people being discovered across the desert. This is a significant uptick from last year, when 144 remains were found; from 2018, when there were 128; and from 2017, when there were 124, according to data compiled by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office and Humane Borders, a Tucson-based human rights group. The previous record was in 2010, when 224 remains were found in the Arizona desert.

Since 1998, at least 7,000 migrants are believed to have died along the US-Mexico border, maybe many more, as record-keeping is patchy.

“These people are not just numbers,” said Tony Banegas, executive director of the Colibri Center for Human Rights, an organization in Tucson working to identify migrant remains and helps families find missing loved ones.

“These are human beings with families and aspirations. They went to great lengths to make the journey, [only] to become just a grave in the desert.”

Visualizing the numbers can be overwhelming to comprehend.

Credit: OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants / Humane Borders

Since 2013, migrant rights advocates and health officials have published an online database mapping the deaths of people identified as migrants in Southern Arizona. The public database was set up to help researchers, family members searching for a missing person, and humanitarian aid workers, who could use the information to identify where to leave more water. The map shows a red dot for every body recovered: 3,365 since 2001. 

The red dots, even for a single year, can look overwhelming. It’s important to remember each red dot represents someone’s loved one who died trying to reach the United States. 

Experts point to the record-breaking heatwaves that baked the Arizona deserts in 2020.

Arizona is no stranger to hot weather and most migrants who attempt the border crossing are well aware of the dangers the heat poses, but few come well-prepared.

According to Greg Hess, chief medical examiner in Pima County, “the heat is likely the biggest contributing factor for the uptick of remains that we are finding.” This year, Arizona broke many records with nonstop extreme heat for months, and with the least amount of rain during the summer.

But Trump’s cruel immigration policies also had an outsized effect on migrant safety.

Since March, the Trump administration used the pandemic to seal shut an already virtually closed U.S.-Mexico border to migrants who turn themselves in to border agents and to asylum seekers. These cruel and inhumane policies forced many of them to make the dangerous trek through the Arizona desert.

“They can’t apply for asylum, so their options are considerably cut down and they’re forced into more and more dangerous situations,” says Montana Thames, a humanitarian aid worker with No More Deaths, an advocacy group that seeks to aid migrants crossing in the desert. “Plus, wall construction is happening closer to Nogales and Sasabe, where there are more resources—so because of the wall constitution, they have to go to more dangerous and more remote parts of the desert.” 

Making matters worse, as part of the changes to border policy since the pandemic started, Border Patrol has been immediately sending people they apprehend in the desert, many of whom are already in bad shape—often dehydrated and disoriented—right back to the border to be released into Mexico.

Migrant aid groups also saw their work threatened by U.S. Border Patrol.

For years, the number one cause of death among migrants crossing through the desert has been exposure to the elements, resulting in hypothermia or hyperthermia. As a result, aide groups like No More Death have been leaving food and water and stations throughout the desert.

The organization has long had a functioning relationship with Border Patrol, and there was even mutual respect between the two. But this year, aid workers say previous agreements with Border Patrol seemed to go out the window.

Over the summer, Border Patrol raided a No More Deaths camp 10 miles north of the border that had been running since 2004. Heavily armed agents then conducted a second raid in the middle of the night just days later. The agents confiscated phones and records of the migrants who had passed through the camp.

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Smugglers Are Tagging U.S.-Bound Migrants With Color Coded Wristbands And Here’s Why

Things That Matter

Smugglers Are Tagging U.S.-Bound Migrants With Color Coded Wristbands And Here’s Why

WENDELL ESCOTO/AFP via Getty Images

As the United States experiences a so-called surge of people attempting to enter the U.S., human traffickers and smugglers are working double time as they try to capitalize on the increased movements.

Cartels and human traffickers have long run their smuggling operations like a legitimate business but they’ve only got more advanced in how they move people across the border region and one key tool: color-coded bracelets. These bracelets almost act as passports for migrants to safely cross a cartel’s territory without interference or threats of violence. But what do these bracelets mean and how are they fueling the problem of human trafficking?

Plastic bracelets are being used by cartels to identify migrants in their territory. 

U.S. border agents carried out nearly 100,000 apprehensions or rapid expulsions of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border in February, which is the highest monthly total since mid-2019. With the increase in people attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, cartels are managing this migration of people over their territory and trying to make money off the humanitarian crisis. 

Many cartels have implemented a color-coded bracelet system that identifies those migrants who have paid for permission to cross their territory. In the Rio Grande Valley sector, Border Patrol agents have recently encountered immigrants wearing the bracelets during several apprehensions, Matthew Dyman, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, told Reuters.

The “information on the bracelets represents a multitude of data that is used by smuggling organizations, such as payment status or affiliation with smuggling groups,” Dyman said.

The color-coded system isn’t totally understood.

Credit: ED JONES/AFP via Getty Images

Migrants can pay thousands of dollars for the journey to the United States and human smugglers have to pay off drug cartels to move people through parts of Mexico. This is a money-making operation and cartels want to pay close attention to who has paid. The bracelets may just be a new way to keep track.

Criminal groups operating in northern Mexico, however, have long used systems to log which migrants have already paid for the right to be in gang-controlled territory, as well as for the right to cross the border into the United States, according to migration experts. In fact, in 2019, smugglers kept tabs on rapidly arriving Central American migrants by double checking the names and IDs of migrants before they got off the bus to make sure they had paid. 

One man, a migrant in Reynosa – across the border from McAllen, Texas – who declined to give his name for fear of retaliation, showed Reuters a picture of a purple wristband he was wearing. He told them that he had paid $500 to a criminal group in the city after he arrived from Honduras to ensure that he wasn’t kidnapped or extorted. He said once migrants or their smugglers have paid for the right to cross the river, which is also controlled by criminal groups, they receive another bracelet.

“This way we’re not in danger, neither us nor the ‘coyote,’” he told Reuters.

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Police In Tulum Killed A Refugee By Kneeling On Her Neck And Mexicans Want Justice

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Police In Tulum Killed A Refugee By Kneeling On Her Neck And Mexicans Want Justice

PEDRO PARDO/AFP via Getty Images

So many of those attempting to reach the United States – or even Mexico in some cases – are already fleeing extreme violence, poverty, and fear. Refugees from Honduras and El Salvador (among other countries) are hoping to find a better life faraway from the corruption and danger that they face in their home countries.

But what happens when those same people fleeing violence in their home countries are met with state-sponsored violence on their journey to a better life? Unfortunately, at least one refugee, 36-year-old Victoria Esperanza Salazar, a mother of two teenage daughters, has lost her life while hoping for a better one.

Four police officers are in custody after the killing of a woman from El Salvador.

Four municipal police officers are in custody and under investigation for murder following the death of a Salvadoran woman who was violently pinned to the ground while she was being arrested in Tulum.

Video footage shows a female officer with her knee on the back of 36-year-old Victoria Esperanza Salazar, a mother of two teenage daughters who was living in Tulum on a humanitarian visa.

In the footage, Victoria, who was apparently arrested for disturbing the peace, can be heard moaning in pain and is seen writhing on the road next to a police vehicle as she was held down for more than 20 seconds. Three male police are also present, one of whom appears to help the female offer restrain Victoria. Footage then shows officers drag her limp body into the back of a police truck.

Many are comparing Victoria’s murder to that of George Floyd.

Many in Mexico are comparing Victoria’s death to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last summer, who also died pinned under an officer’s knee. Video shared on social media shows a police officer leaning on Salazar’s head and neck and she cries out, and then goes limp. Officers then drag her body into the back of a police truck.

Mexican officials have largely condemned the officers’ actions and the Attorney General said that the officers — three men and one woman — will be charged with femicide. The charge of femicide carries a penalty of no less than 40 years in prison. The police actions violated the national law on the use of force, the Attorney General’s Office said. 

Victoria’s death comes as millions of Mexican women demand that the authorities do more to combat gender violence in Mexico, where an average of 11 women are killed every day. Her alleged murder also occurred as Mexican authorities ramp up enforcement against mainly Central American migrants traveling through Mexico to seek asylum in the United States.

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