Frontera Fund News

Saving Lives on a Deadly Border


As border militarization ramps up, migrant fatalities are escalating. One humanitarian group is running up against the law – and the lawless – in its quest for No More Deaths.

Left Behind

The women’s smiles are as fragile as the brittle branches by their feet. For five days, they’ve been treading the border between life and death, after their smuggler deserted them with no food or water.

They may have survived any number of terrors on their 3,000-mile journey from Ecuador – machete-wielding bandits, gang rapists, abusive cops – but here in the Sonoran Desert, it’s possible to be killed by a blister. You walk too slow, you’re left for dead.

These two women survived… for now. They trekked through bone-chilling nights, past skeletal trees, to this bare-bones camp run by a dedicated skeleton crew. The camp is tucked away in an arroyo near the U.S.-Mexico line, but it also occupies a figurative location: the safe side on the border between living and dying.

It’s a place called No More Deaths.

A shrine at the No More Deaths camp commemorates suffering and loss.

A shrine at the No More Deaths camp commemorates suffering and loss.

The New Underground Railroad

No More Deaths’ co-founder, Reverend John Fife, chews tobacco, says “damn” and “hell,” and ignores inhumane laws to follow a higher calling. In short, he’s a man Jesus would enjoy having some wine with.

On a Friday morning in February, Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church, where Fife was pastor for 35 years and where he still volunteers, is following that higher calling. Homeless people and migrants line up for a hot breakfast, use the church’s work-finding service, and seek emergency medical care at its clinic. It’s a tradition of humanitarian aid Fife began in the 1980s when he launched the Sanctuary Movement.

“I don’t think we have any choice. We have to start smuggling people across the border.”

Back then, death squads in El Salvador and Guatemala were massacring whole villages, forcing thousands of refugees to seek asylum in the United States. But because the U.S. government was providing economic and military support for the death squads, Uncle Sam denied the migrants refugee status and flew them back to their executioners.

“So this damn friend of mine came to me,” Fife recalls, “and said, ‘I don’t think we have any choice. We have to start smuggling people across the border.’ And I said, ‘Really? How the hell do you figure that?’”

Fife was sure they’d be thrown in jail for at least two years. How could he abandon his congregation, his wife, and their two teenage sons?

Then Fife’s friend pointed to two times in history: the abolition movement, when Good Samaritans formed an underground railroad to smuggle slaves into freedom, and 1940s Europe, when the church almost completely failed to protect millions of Jews from death camps. The first folks got it right; the second didn’t, the friend said. “We can’t allow that to happen on our border in our time, can we?”

Fife couldn’t. “It was a pretty compelling argument,” he says.

Over the next decade, Fife – along with religious activists at nearly 500 churches and synagogues – provided sanctuary to about 14,000 Central Americans. Fife was sentenced to five years probation.

Then in the 1990s and 2000s, danger and death once again blackened the borderlands.

The border wall near Sasabe, Arizona.

The border wall near Sasabe, Arizona.

Drugs, Drones, and Death

The border wall’s rust brown poles sit just above tawny-green hills like spines on the back of a giant iguana. This unsightly intruder crept into the once-open borderlands as part of a government policy of “prevention through deterrence.” Deterrence by threat of death in the desert.

Shortly after Europeans pocketed the last chunks of the Berlin Wall as souvenirs of bygone oppression, the U.S. government began fortifying its own wall. They sealed off urban “Checkpoint Charlies” in California and Texas, believing the perilous Sonoran Desert would be a geographic barrier to migration. As if the perilous Atlantic Ocean had been a geographic barrier to their ancestors.

In 1992, 3,555 border agents patrolled the U.S.-Mexico line, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Every year since 2011, it’s topped 18,000.

The idea was simple: Make it more difficult and dangerous to cross, and people will stop coming. “But none of that’s worked, because [the government] never understood the desperation of poverty,” Fife says.

Migrants kept coming. From 2003 to 2004, around a thousand people a day crossed the area around Sasabe, Arizona, Fife says. Every time a section of border wall was built, migrants either clambered over it (ladders lie hidden in the brush) or detoured through a more desolate and dangerous area.

As militarization increased, so did deaths.

In the early 1990s, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson saw about 10 migrant corpses a year. By 2000 it rose to 71. By 2010 it hit 225. Between 1998 and 2013, the U.S. Border Patrol recorded 6,029 deaths of assumed migrants, mostly from exposure to the desert.

“The cartels control everything – human trafficking and drug trafficking.”

In this increasingly dangerous imbroglio, Mexican drug cartels saw a business opportunity. Before border militarization ramped up, coyotes (human smugglers) were typically mom-and-pop operations, often with good intentions. Now the Sinaloa cartel patrols the road south of the border, barring migrants from passing unless they’re with a cartel-controlled coyote.

“When I was helping refugees cross back in the ’80s,” Fife says, “coyotes would charge about $250 to get from Nogales, Sonora to Phoenix. Now it’s $2,000 to $5,000, and the cartels have taken it over. They control everything – human trafficking and drug trafficking.”

To pay the exorbitant fees, many migrants become indebted to the cartels. “Most of the [immigrant] labor on this side is indentured servitude to the cartels,” Fife says. “And the women get shanghaied into prostitution.”

Fife says border militarization has also funneled drug and human trafficking through the Native American reservations on both the U.S. and Mexican side. “It’s been just awful for them,” he says. “The cartels have taken over whole villages. A lot of the stuff you see in Mexico about the cartels dominating people and communities is happening there.”

It’s not just the cartels profiting. Boeing got $1 billion from the federal government to build just 53 miles of a technology-based “virtual fence” in Arizona. Deemed ineffective and exorbitantly expensive after a few years, that project was canceled by the Department of Homeland Security in 2011.

But the government has continued to beef up the use of infrared sensors, radar, and Predator drones.

In 2014, Israeli defense company Elbit Systems convinced the U.S. government that the company did such a good job with the West Bank Barrier it should get the new $145 million contract for high-tech surveillance along the U.S.-Mexico border. As if it’s a good idea to model your border after the West Bank of Israel.

Surveillance towers near Sasabe.

Surveillance towers near Sasabe.

On the drive to camp, Fife points to a new surveillance tower. It’s a reminder of the militarization-spurred fatalities that prompted him to start No More Deaths in 2004. Now, the organization’s volunteers are the Florence Nightingales of the border’s virtual war zone.

Fear and Loathing in Arivaca

A sign on the dashboard of a dusty SUV parked outside the Humanitarian Aid office in Arivaca reads: “We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us.”

The Arizona town’s 700-odd inhabitants are mostly hippies and ranchers – some whose ancestors settled the land when this was Mexico. Many people in both groups distrust border patrol, whom they see as outsiders turning their friendly community into a police state.

About half the town signed a petition in 2013 to remove the border checkpoint on the main road. The checkpoint is a hassle for all locals but especially Latinos, who are stopped 26 times more than whites, according to a study by Arivacan community organization People Helping People.

Arivacans also feel border militarization has driven away tourism and business. Their feelings are not unjustified. A few minutes away and smack by the border wall sits the cautionary tale of Sasabe, a broken town of haggard houses and shattered shop windows.

No More Deaths' Arivaca office.

No More Deaths’ Arivaca office.

For Arivacans, the Humanitarian Aid office – a joint venture between No More Deaths and People Helping People – provides a way to bypass Big Brother when migrants knock on their doors asking for help. No More Deaths will provide the migrants with food, water, shelter, and emergency medical care, and volunteers never call the authorities unless migrants want to turn themselves in.

But No More Deaths has their own squabbles with border patrol.

In 2005, border agents arrested two volunteers and charged them with felonies. The court threw out the charges. Then border patrol started citing volunteers for littering (i.e. leaving life-saving water jugs on migrant trails). The court threw out those charges.

Then, Fife recalls, “I was [in camp] one morning when 25 border patrol agents rode in on horseback like they were Custer’s cavalry. They threatened us with felonies, but nothing ever came of that except a lot of work for our legal team. Then they started slashing our water bottles on migrant trails. So we put a video camera and caught them in living color and gave it to the media. And then they wanted to negotiate.”

Why so much animosity toward volunteers trying to give dying people water? “If your whole border enforcement strategy is dependent upon death as a deterrent,” Fife explains, “then we’re a problem.

“The problem I have,” he continues, “is that they keep doing that same strategy even though they know it hasn’t worked, and that it’s going to kill several hundred people this year. And that deterrence policy extends… to detention practices and really cruel stuff directed at migrants [such as] withholding food and water for a couple days, taking their medicine and not providing medical treatment, turning up the cold in the detention facilities so people are huddling together. All that has to be intentional. It all fits into this policy of deterrence.”

Camp of Hope

The dirt roads leading to the No More Deaths camp look like they’ve been chewed up by a monster. The terrain, in turn, chews up the SUVs that volunteers drive every day to place water, food and supplies along 2,500 miles of carefully mapped migrant trails in this area alone. This is difficult country.

No More Deaths camp near Arivaca.

No More Deaths camp near Arivaca.

Migrants come to the camp too thirsty and starving to stand. They have heat stroke or hypothermia. Some vomit blood. Their blistered feet resemble raw hamburger. Many fall and break bones while hiking under cover of night. They are lost, penniless, afraid, abandoned.

“A lot of people walk in and have no idea who we are and are terrified that they’re going to be kidnapped or held hostage,” says volunteer Catherine Gaffney. “It takes a lot of desperation to walk into a stranger’s property and ask for help.”

They are farmers driven off their fields, pregnant women, grandparents, battered wives, diabetics with dangerously infected wounds, children searching for their parents, and even drug cartel members. No More Deaths doesn’t question people’s motives. Humanitarian aid for all humans, they say.

“These folks are the most courageous and resourceful people I have ever met.”

Camp volunteers give food, water, shelter, and emotional support to people who may not have seen a friendly face for a long time. Inside a Red Cross tent repurposed from the Iraq War, they offer emergency medical care.

Beds for migrants at the No More Deaths camp.

Beds for migrants at the No More Deaths camp.

Thanks to a recent Red Cross partnership, the camp also provides a solar-powered phone. The phone is a financial lifesaver for migrants who’ve been abandoned by their coyote, Gaffney explains. “Very often their coyote is going to call their family members and say, ‘I’m here in Tucson with your loved one. Send me $3,000 for the next step.’ So [migrants are] trying to get in touch with their families as soon as possible to say, ‘Don’t give any money to that guy; he left me in the desert four days ago.’”

The phone is also an emotional lifeline. It allowed the two Ecuadorian women now recuperating in the camp to call their families in South America and New York and tell them they survived their ordeal. In a few days, it will allow them to tell their loved ones whether they’ve decided to turn themselves to La Migra, or to forge on through the dangerous desert.

“No More Deaths camp is this amazing place because a lot of people who come in have really lost any hope,” Gaffney says. “[Then] people recover from dehydration, malnutrition, injuries and start to think, ‘I have options. Maybe my life isn’t over.’ Seeing that change of fortune, it’s something that makes us able to keep doing this.”

No More Deaths volunteers can’t offer any assistance to migrants after they leave camp because border patrol could arrest them for human smuggling. That would jeopardize their work of saving lives, Fife says. All they can do is send migrants off with food, water, and a map, and tell them, “Buena suerte.”

It upsets Fife that they can’t do more, but he does have a lot of faith in the migrants. “They are the most amazing people I have ever encountered,” he says. “With the exception of some refugees in war zones… these folks are the most courageous and resourceful people I have ever met.”