Sam Karas, Big Bend Sentinel, 10 April 2024

FAR WEST TEXAS — On March 18, the nonprofit advocacy and rescue group No Más Muertes (No More Deaths) released a groundbreaking report detailing migrant deaths in Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) El Paso Sector, which spans all of New Mexico, El Paso and Hudspeth County. Data collected by the nonprofit suggests that the rate of migrants dying along the southwest border is skyrocketing — in their findings, No Más Muertes alleges that CBP is underreporting these deaths by as many as four times their actual figures. 

The study contains two parts: an interactive map showing all of the deaths the nonprofit was able to identify over the past 15 years, and a formal report that includes recommendations for new best practices for law enforcement. The data were cobbled together from numerous sources, including information requests from the University of New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator, the El Paso County Office of the Medical Examiner, and justice of the peace precincts 1 and 2 for Hudspeth County — all agencies that handle the identification and repatriation of migrant remains. 

The report also includes testimony from the nonprofit’s volunteers, many of whom are tasked with conducting search and rescue efforts for migrants in distress. They emphasize that the figures calculated represent a small fraction of the reality on the ground. “The true death toll will never be known,” it reads. “We can only imagine how many remains are never found in the more remote areas of the Chihuahuan Desert, where so many migrants cross.” 

In the Big Bend Sector — encompassing perhaps the most remote and treacherous terrain of any southwestern Border Patrol territory — last year’s official death count was 6, with 79 total rescues. 

The latter scenario is what most Americans picture when imagining the journey of migrants across the United States-Mexico border, but the report paints a grisly reality, with many dying in urban areas just feet from help. One dot on the map marks Jonatan Oliva-Reyes, a 23-year-old from Guatemala, dying of heat stroke just yards from the Santa Teresa Country Club. “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,” a volunteer told Melissa del Bosque of The Border Chronicle.

The report also highlights a 50% jump in the number of deceased women — crossing in the more remote parts of the sector has traditionally been a pursuit for younger men. “We believe these higher numbers of female deaths are connected to recent and continuing restrictions on asylum, and closures of ports of entry to asylum seekers,” the report reads. 

Findings distilled by No Más Muertes allege that CBP is underreporting these figures across the board — but has been particularly irresponsible in their reporting of the 15% of deaths caused by or involving the agency, which include use of force, high-speed pursuits and falls from the border wall. 

A spokesperson for CBP told The Big Bend Sentinel that this allegation is a misunderstanding of the way the agency reports its data. In addition to the deaths CBP is required to report, the federal Missing Migrant Program reports deaths of people not in CBP custody that were discovered by Border Patrol agents or local first responders. Both sets of data also include in the category of “CBP-related deaths” migrants who succumb to injury or illness while being rescued or after calling for help through official channels. 

Per their website, CBP is attempting to address the crisis by providing as many resources as possible for migrants in distress. “Smuggling organizations often abandon migrants in remote and dangerous areas, where severe heat, exposure, and miles of unforgiving desert pose countless threats to migrants,” they write. “Preventing the loss of life is core to our mission … tragically, the number of deaths in these harsh environments is still too high.”

A report presented to Congress by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in 2022 said that while CBP’s Missing Migrants Program, launched in 2017 and fully implemented in 2021, was a step in the right direction, the agency still has quite a ways to go. The GAO found that the reporting “did not include data limitation disclosures” — at the most basic level, a disclaimer that the report did not include every death along the border. “The language in the report makes it unclear what the data include,” the office wrote.

In response, No Más Muertes includes in their list of recommendations that CBP-related death data be collected by an entity outside the agency — CBP’s Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) currently handles this task. While the OPR is technically separate from Border Patrol — and thus removed from the vast majority of migrant deaths, the nonprofit believes they’re not separate enough.

In the end, accurate data collection and education won’t put a stop to the inflated numbers. “Data and transparency will never bring back the lives lost, or stop the ongoing crisis of death and disappearance that is a direct result of US border policy,” their report reads.