Melissa del Bosque, The Border Chronicle, 9 April 2024

As safe corridors for migration disappear, more people risk their lives crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. And more people die. A new report by the nonprofit No More Deaths, along with a searchable map and database, documents the increasing number of migrant deaths at the border in New Mexico and far West Texas. Until now, not much research has been done on the deaths of people migrating through this section of the border. The project was led by Bryce, a No More Deaths volunteer (who asked that we not use his last name because the Far Right has recently been targeting the group). He, along with several others, have created the most comprehensive database to date of deaths in the Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector, which includes New Mexico and two counties in Texas, El Paso and Hudspeth.

The report covers 15 years, from 2008 to 2023, and it shows many disturbing trends, including the acceleration of deaths that has accompanied “prevention through deterrence,” the U.S. government’s strategy implemented in the 1990s to push migrants into more remote, dangerous crossings. That strategy is now morphing into something all the more tragic as people, increasingly women and children, are barred from accessing asylum and are dying at the doorstep of American cities and towns. In this Q&A, Bryce talks about documenting these deaths, and the discoveries that both shocked and angered him in creating this new report.

Why did you study this particular part of the border in New Mexico and far West Texas?

A couple of years ago, a few of us started getting interested in what’s happening in New Mexico, and whether there’s any need for humanitarian aid out there, just because we hadn’t really heard anything but assumed there must be something happening out there. Quickly, we noticed that there was not much data in general about the area. So I started doing public records requests. And pretty quickly, just with the first batch of data, we got about 20 deaths for 2022. We went to some of those locations to see if we’d see trails. And while we were checking out some of these locations, we found human remains right across the street from a cemetery and about 50 feet from a main road in Sunland Park [New Mexico]. It was not a remote place. It was right in town. So we started looking at the Sunland Park Fire Department’s social media page, and quickly realized that there was a lot happening and quickly. And then 2023 ended up being this record deadly year for the area.

It’s shocking that you found a dead person right there in the middle of Sunland Park. Can you tell me more about this person? Were they identified? How long had the person been there? And how could this have been missed by people who live there?

He was later identified as a man from Colombia. [His name was Johan Orozco Martinez, age 36.] He had been there for a couple of days. I’m not joking when I say he was right across the street from the Memorial Pines Cemetery, and near the shoulder of the road. Many cars drive this road, but I think typically people look toward the cemetery, and I guess they didn’t see him because they were looking in the other direction. He was in his 30s and so older than many of the usually young men you see, for instance, crossing through southern Arizona.

Two findings that really stand out to me from your report are the number of women who have died, and how increasingly people are dying within city limits and no longer just in remote areas that are hard to access. I mean, you found a person in the middle of Sunland Park. What’s going on, do you think?

The dynamics of migration are complex. But one thing that seems pretty clear is that the asylum policies in the last few years have led to an increase in some of these deaths, just from people trying to get asylum and being prevented either by metering or by turnbacks. And then feeling they have no choice but to cross through the desert. A lot of people who are crossing are older, they’re women, they’re people with health problems. The demographics, we found, were much different in the El Paso sector than in southern Arizona, with people being older and more than 50 percent of the deaths in 2023 being of women, which is unusual.

When did the deaths start increasing? And has the increasing militarization of the border and Operation Lone Star in El Paso contributed to these deaths?

Up until 2015, there were very few deaths in this area. But especially since 2018, the deaths have just been ramping up every single year. We were in New Mexico watching Operation Lone Star soldiers put up a barbed-wire fence between New Mexico and El Paso in an area where a lot of people cross. So once you’re in the United States, even crossing into Texas from the New Mexico side has become more deadly. And you can see National Guard in El Paso patrolling and pushing people back. The more enforcement, the more the deaths increase. In El Paso, there are what I call “moats” because if people climb the border wall, there’s an irrigation canal right on the other side, which at times can be moving very quickly. Then beyond that there’s multiple highways and more canals. So if someone is being chased by Border Patrol or Operation Lone Star, there are multiple deadly obstacles.

In 2022 there was a two-week period when 15 people died in the canals, one right after the other. This was during irrigation season in El Paso. Water is released from a reservoir in New Mexico into the canals and the river to irrigate farmland further east of El Paso. When that happens, the water can be going like 20 miles per hour. Unless somebody physically rescues you, there’s no way of getting out once you’ve fallen in. I watched a news broadcast in El Paso where they made a public service announcement about drowning deaths in El Paso, saying like, “Irrigation season is here, stay away from the canals, watch out for drowning.” But if you read all the autopsy reports, it’s almost all migrants dying. Because the medical examiner doesn’t flag whether it’s a migration-related death, you end up getting these weird statistics about drowning deaths being on the rise in El Paso. And so they’re directing these public safety messages toward El Paso residents who are actually in very little danger of drowning. And the people who are in danger of drowning, the migrants, have no idea.

Did you also find an increase in the deaths of children?

Definitely, yes. In 2018, two eight-year-old Guatemalan kids died. There’s a lot of teenagers dying, crossing the border wall, a lot of them drowning in El Paso city itself. For instance, there was a Russian man and his teenage daughter who both fell into a canal and drowned. They were running from Border Patrol agents. I believe that happened in 2021. We saw fewer deaths of younger people in New Mexico.

You also found that Customs and Border Protection is significantly undercounting deaths related to enforcement. Can you talk about this finding?

CBP is supposed to keep track of migrant deaths and CBP enforcement-related deaths, but we found that the agency is severely undercounting them. There’s been a lot of documentation in the past, talking about that fact, but there hasn’t been a whole lot of quantifying that undercount. Aside from the Arizona data that the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner and Humane Borders have reported. For example, in one year we found 39 deaths, while CBP reported only 10 deaths.

We looked at investigator reports and so we were able to read the narratives, and learn circumstances around the deaths. We were able to see if someone was chased by Border Patrol, either on foot or by vehicle, or if they died in Border Patrol custody. We found that Border Patrol had tried to underplay some of these deaths.

We found that 15 percent of all migrant deaths in the El Paso sector were caused directly by Border Patrol due to chases or use of force, also due to custody deaths, or falls from the border wall. Humane Borders doesn’t track deaths related to Border Patrol enforcement. So this is the first instance that I’m aware of, where we are able to quantify the CBP undercount of Border Patrol-related deaths.

For 2022, for instance, we found 16 deaths that should have been reported by CBP as CBP-related deaths. CBP had only reported six of those deaths. Of the 16 we found, I think it’s still an undercount, because a lot of the investigative reports use vague or passive language about a person “jumping into the canal,” for instance. So you don’t know if the person was actually chased. So we only included cases where it’s very explicit.

What surprised you most in working on this report?

It’s really just shocking how close to help a lot of people died. I’m used to southern Arizona, where the terrain and trails are very remote. But we found people dying across the street from the cemetery, people dying a short walk from the Dollar General store. We’ve had this narrative of “prevention through deterrence” for the last few decades, which has pushed people away from cities into remote areas where they’re more prone to dying from heat exposure or something else. But now the border is militarized to the point where even Sunland Park, this suburb of El Paso, can be as deadly as the middle of nowhere in southern Arizona.

Last June, for instance, something like 40 percent more people died in Doña Ana County in New Mexico than the entire state of Arizona. Most of these deaths were close to the highway or close to a town. It’s a dynamic that has not really been studied. And the fact that it’s been happening for years without anybody really noticing is really scary.

With these findings, are No More Deaths and other humanitarian groups mobilizing to do search-and-rescue and water drops in this area?

Like Texas, much of the land in New Mexico where people are dying is privately owned land, so it’s difficult to access for humanitarian groups.

We’ve been going there about once a month for the past year to try to organize some support. There’s a group that doesn’t have a name yet that we’ve started to work with, that’s putting out water in some of these areas. There’s another group from southern Arizona that has moved over to New Mexico to search for remains in the desert.

We’re hoping the news will spread and that others will join to help. We have some money to help out some groups that are forming. We’re really hoping that groups will form on their own for search-and-rescue and putting out water. Because right now, Border Patrol is the only game in town if you call 911 as a migrant. And Border Patrol has a horrible track record of actually helping anybody.