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Migrants' bodies found near Ajo & Arivaca; Officials left other remains in desert cave for 16 months

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Migrants' bodies found near Ajo & Arivaca; Officials left other remains in desert cave for 16 months

  • A blue flag marking a water drop, maintained Humane Borders, in the Cabeza Prieta wilderness in August 2018.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comA blue flag marking a water drop, maintained Humane Borders, in the Cabeza Prieta wilderness in August 2018.

Humanitarian aid volunteers found the remains of up to four people in the Southern Arizona desert this weekend, while another set of remains reported in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument remained untouched by authorities for more than a year.

No More Deaths volunteers found the latest remains during searches this weekend.

They include the body of a man who died close to a paved road near Arivaca, southwest of Tucson, and the scattered remains that may be as many as three other people in the remote desert south of Ajo, Ariz.

In a Facebook post Wednesday, No More Deaths said that in March 2018, volunteers with Armadillos Búsqueda y Rescate, or Armadillos Search and Rescue, discovered a set of human remains in a cave just south of Bates Well on the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a 330,000-acre wilderness preserve about 110 miles west of Tucson. 

Over the last few years, No More Deaths has expanded their rescue operations from areas south of Arivaca to the Growler Valley, a remote stretch of desert west of Ajo that's inside the protected 860,000-acre Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, one of several such federal areas along the Arizona-Mexico border. 

No More Deaths has been joined by groups like the Armadillos, based in San Marcos, Calif., and the San Deigo-based Border Angels, who also search in California's deserts for people. 

Volunteers with the Armadillos contacted the Border Patrol's Border Search Rescue Trauma and Rescue unit, or BORSTAR, but more than 16 months later, on August 10, members of the Armadillos went to place on a cross at the site, and discovered the remains were still there, No More Deaths said.

Armadillos volunteers contacted No More Deaths to see if the skeletal remains had been recovered, and then "re-reported" the remains to officials. 

No More Deaths also said that volunteers sent a picture of the remains to an orthopedic surgeon who "confirmed that they were likely human and may have belonged to a child between 5 and 8 years old." 

Dr. Greg Hess, Pima County's chief medical examiner, said Thursday that a recovery was underway, and that officials would work on attempting to identify the remains, but did not know if the remains were from a child.

"We just don't know that until we can lay eyes on the remains," Hess said. 

It remains unclear why the remains were not recovered by officials over the last 16 months. 

Deputy Daniel Jelino, a spokesman for the Pima County Sheriff's Department, said that he could not "locate that particular case" after reviewing all calls related to human remains. 

"Any calls made to the Pima County Sheriff’s Department in regards to human remains are taken very seriously," Jelino said. "We will use all resources available to locate the remains in the desert."

When remains are discovered, they are turned over to the county's medical examiner, Jelino said. 

In the post, No More Deaths wrote that the cave was just a few hundred feet from a wash that's often patrolled by Border Patrol agents on ATVs, and the wash was "covered in fresh tire tracks." 

"This level of negligence and disrespect is shameful, but not uncommon," No More Deaths wrote. "We re-reported the remains (now the third time) and will follow up with the sheriff to ensure they do a proper recovery." 

Border Patrol officials annually highlight the agency's humanitarian efforts, including the deployment of rescue beacons—solar-powered towers that can include a beacon that can be activated by pressing a button—and special operations teams like BORSTAR, however, No More Deaths volunteers have argued that agency's efforts are not enough. 

Beacons can be difficult to see, and are often not in the Growler Valley itself, and volunteers have complained that the agency is often not responsive to requests for search-and-rescues. 

Since 2000, the remains of at least 8,000 people have been recovered along the U.S.-Mexico border, including at least 3,115 in Arizona. This is in part a consequence of "Prevention Through Deterrence," a Clinton-era policy that believed that by funneling people into the border's most remote and deadly corridors, people would stop trying. 

This has continued into the Trump administration, as the Department of Homeland Security, the parent agency for Border Patrol, has begun siphoning billions from other parts of the federal budget, including military construction funding and disaster relief, to build new walls along the border, including dozens of miles of new, taller 30-foot walls along the Cabeza Prieta and Organ Pipe Cactus refuges. 

Overall, the Tucson Sector has deployed 34 rescue beacons, including 10 in Cabeza Prieta, and eight either in, or near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

From October 1, 2018 to July 31, 2019, Tucson Sector agents have rescued 708 people, including 118 people who were encountered after activating a rescue beacon, said Peter Bidegain, a spokesman for the agency. 

Remains of three people found near Arivaca

About 15 miles south of Ajo, Arizona volunteers with No More Deaths and the group Border Angels went out to do a more "thorough search" of an area where two other groups—Armadillos Búsqueda y Rescate and Ni Un Migrante Menos Armadillos, or Not One Migrant Less, Armadillos—found human remains in previous months. 

There they found human bones scattered in two general areas "belonging to at least three separate individuals," said No More Deaths. 

"If several sets of human remains were discovered in one area and in one day, under any other circumstances that did not suggest they were refugees of color, this would generate public reaction and governmental action," said Jacqueline Arellano, with Border Angels.

As NMD volunteers have shifted toward Arizona's western desert, friction between volunteers and federal officials has increased dramatically. Over the summer of 2017, nine No More Deaths volunteers were cited with federal misdemeanors for entering Cabeza Prieta without permits, driving vehicles along administrative roads, and for leaving food, water and other supplies. 

This includes Scott Warren, who was not only prosecuted for leaving supplies in Cabeza Prieta in 2017, but faced federal charges after he was arrested by Border Patrol agents in January 2018 in Ajo at the "Barn," a remote building used by No More Deaths and other organizations used as a staging ground for humanitarian operations deeper in the desert. 

Warren faced one count of criminal conspiracy to transport and harbor illegal aliens, and two counts of harboring, but in June jury declared it was deadlocked.

Nonetheless, federal prosecutors announced on July 2 that they would pursue the harboring charges, and Warren will again face trial in November. 

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