When his parents died, Diego was finally free to leave Mexico and reunite with his pregnant wife and brothers in the United States. He departed from his hometown Acatlán de la Cruz and headed toward Arizona and California. He paid a guide, joined a group of migrants like him and started his journey. It was summer. Temperatures in the desert can reach more than 45ºC. After a week his knees began to fail. He stopped. The group and his guide kept going without him.
In the 1990s, illegal border crossing was found in urban areas of Texas, Arizona and California, where seasonal migration had already been occurring for generations. When American officials eventually tightened controls on those sections, they assumed migrants wouldn’t risk traveling across other, riskier border regions. They were wrong. “Policies underestimated the desperation migrants felt and the hardships they were fleeing,” says Chelsea Halstead, program manager at the Missing Migrant Project. Migrants turned to the Sonoran Desert and the Rio Grande, cutting through private ranches and indigenous reservations.
Recorded illegal movement around the border decreased from over 1.5 million in 1998 to less than 360,000 in 2012, but in the same period yearly casualties among illegally-crossing migrants almost doubled. The Sonoran, considered the hottest desert in North America, has claimed most victims, with challenging conditions and poor preparation the biggest contributors to the carnage. “Because the guides often mislead them about the duration of their journey, the crossers are often ill-equipped with the wrong clothes, the wrong footwear and insufficient rations,” writes photographer Jonathan Hollingsworth in Left Behind, a photo book about the crisis along the border. Migrants experience disorientation, hallucinations, muscle cramps, heat stress, loss of consciousness and heart problems. Corpses are usually discovered by Border Patrol and NGO personnel, but sometimes it’s hikers, hunters and farmers who stumble upon them.
When found and taken to the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, Diego was unrecognizable, his body already decomposing and his skin blackened. Robin Reineke began to examine his clothes and belongings, looking for clues of his origin. Reineke is the person who started the Missing Migrant Project, a project that collects personal information of missing crossers from family and friends who call in, and sends it to the local forensic office. If the profile matches an unidentified body, then the corpse is sent back. Otherwise, bodies are put inside a cooler, their belongings guarded inside a locker and filed under the name John Doe or Jane Doe, depending on whether they belonged to a male or a female.
“Black sweatshirt with Lifeguard logo,” “Size 33 khaki colored trousers,” “Yellow metal watch with blue face Salco.” As it’s impossible to predict what sort of detail is going to be mentioned by the caller, the information recorded by the forensic physicians is detailed. Among Diego’s belongings, a small plastic prayer card caught Reineke’s attention: on one side, it featured the image of an apostle, on the other, one word scrawled in tight letters. Reineke asked Spanish-speaking friends for a translation, but no one seemed to know the word’s meaning. An online search had no more luck.
A couple of weeks later, the Missing Migrant Project phone rang. A missing man’s brother left a description of clothes that corresponded to Diego's information at the forensic office. When Reineke sent the man a picture of the plastic prayer card, he said the card belonged to his brother and the scribble on the back was the name of their hometown: Acatlán. “It took some more science to identify the remains and send them home, but the connection happened due to this meaningful object, significant for him and his family,” explains Reineke.
More than 6,000 people have died while trying to cross the border since 1998. One third have never been identified or buried, according to the Missing Migrant Project. Today, Diego’s body rests in the cemetery of Acatlán de la Cruz. Not long after his death, Diego's son was born in the United States, an American citizen.
Photos by Jonathan Hollingsworth