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Pastor-led group seeks missing migrants in border desert

Óscar Andrade prays early Sept. 4 in the Ironwood Forest National Monument near Marana, Ariz., before searching for a missing Honduran migrant. The pastor heads a group, Capellanes del Desierto (Desert Chaplains), that provides recovery efforts for families of missing migrants. Andrade has received more than 400 calls from families in Mexico and Central America whose relatives, sick, injured or exhausted, were left behind by smugglers in the borderlands. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)

IRONWOOD FOREST NATIONAL MONUMENT, Arizona – After strapping on knee-high snake guards and bowing his head to invoke God’s protection, Óscar Andrade marched off into a remote desert at dawn on a recent Sunday to look for a Honduran migrant missing since late July.

The Tucson-based Pentecostal pastor bushwhacked for three hours in heat that rose above 100 degrees, detouring around a mountain lion, two rattlesnakes and at least one scorpion, before taking a break to call the aunt of another missing man. Andrade believed he found the young man’s skull the previous day.

“Much strength, my dear sister,” Andrade told her. “Sometimes we don’t understand, but there is a reason that God allowed this.”

On the fourth search for that 25-year-old man from the Mexican state of Guerrero, the pastor and his Capellanes del Desierto (Desert Chaplains) rescue and recovery group had found his ID card in a wallet 40 feet away from a skull and other bones, picked clean by animals and the relentless sun.

Since March, Andrade has received more than 400 calls from families in Mexico and Central America whose relatives – sick, injured or exhausted – were left behind by smugglers in the borderlands.

Forensic experts estimate 80% of bodies in the desert are never found, identified or recovered. But those that are, added to massive casualties like 53 migrants trapped in an abandoned trailer in San Antonio, Texas, in June and nine migrants swept away in the Rio Grande this month, point to one of the deadliest seasons on record on the always dangerous Southwest border.

Oscar Andrade speaks to volunteers with the rescue and recovery group Capellanes del Desierto (Desert Chaplains) at La Iglesia en el Camino (The Church on the Way), Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022 in Tucson, Ariz. The pastor heads a group that provides recovery efforts for families of missing migrants. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)

Fragile economies pummeled by the pandemic in Latin America, ruthless trafficking networks that control virtually all illegal crossings and shifting U.S. asylum policies that affect migrants of different nationality and family status in drastically different ways all contribute to the toll – as does the Southwest’s extreme heat.

Andrade, his group and an Associated Press journalist accompanying them on the six-hour search quickly came across evidence of distress on this popular smuggling route – abandoned backpacks and half-full water jugs, several days’ walk from the closest towns.

“To be out in the desert is more difficult than to be in a church,” said the 44-year-old pastor and father of three teens. “Our commitment is firstly with God, and with the families.”

The group didn’t find the missing 45-year-old Honduran, but planned to look again; it usually takes several trips to find remains in this desert.

It’s one of the deadliest corridors, according to aid groups and the U.S. Border Patrol, for migrants who, fearing being rejected under a pandemic provision called Title 42, try to evade authorities instead of turning themselves in right after crossing or applying for protection legally.

From staging camps guarded by cartel scouts in areas where the border has no fencing or bollard barriers, the migrants walk north for more than a week. They have to cross dozens of miles of desert mountains and dry washes before reaching major highways where smugglers’ vehicles will take them to destinations across the United States.

“Once a person told me, ‘How can I believe, look where my brother is, who always did praise and worship,’” Andrade recalled during the recent search. “For God, there are no mistakes. Yes, there are painful things, like the young man from yesterday, who died because of some blisters.”

Faith often motivates volunteer organizations providing aid along the border. The Capellanes, who search for the missing at least once a week, pray with the grieving families and don’t charge them for the searches. They work closely with law enforcement, notifying the Border Patrol of every search and then local authorities if they find human remains, as they have nearly 50 times.

Even then, the migrant’s body still has a long journey home. It takes time for authorities to retrieve the remains, which are then subject to forensic analysis to determine the cause of death and identification.

The medical examiner office for Pima County, covering migrant deaths also in two adjacent border counties in southern Arizona, received 30 migrant bodies found in July alone, about half of them dead less than three weeks, said Mike Kreyche of Humane Borders, an aid group that maps border deaths.

That puts 2022 on track to match the last two years, when cases were almost double other years in the last decade recorded by the office. Along the entire U.S.-Mexican border, since last fall Customs and Border Protection agents stopped migrants for crossing the border illegally more than 1.8 million times, historically an extraordinarily high number. The agency recorded 557 Southwest border deaths the previous year, the highest since it began tracking them in 1998.

U.S. Border Patrol agent Jesus Vasavilbaso looks into Mexico on Sept. 8 at a breach in the 30-foot-high border wall where a gate was never installed because of a halt in construction in Sasabe, Ariz. The wall, in a region at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains located in the Tucson sector, is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border, with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)

Given how quickly a body decomposes in the desert, unless it’s found within a day of dying, identification might require expensive DNA analysis, said Dr. Greg Hess, chief medical examiner for Pima County.

“The desert does a good job covering up crimes,” said Mirza Monterroso, the missing migrant program director for the Colibrí Center, a Tucson-based group that has recorded 4,000 missing migrants – 1,300 in Pima County alone – from reports from 14 countries and 43 U.S. states.

Unless there's a lucky break, like dental records, it might take up to a year to confirm if the remains Andrade found are indeed the young Mexican man’s, Monterroso said.

His aunt, who asked the AP not to use their names because his parents haven’t been told yet of Andrade’s discovery, said she still hopes for a miracle. But otherwise, “we fought to the end to recover what little is left.”

“My nephew’s dream died at the border, but a person shouldn’t end up like this,” she said. “They left him in the desert because he had injured his feet.”

A 38-year-old father of two from Mexico City nearly died the same way recently after he developed debilitating foot blisters near the Baboquivari Peak, just 14 miles north of the border in Pima County.

Without food or water, he called 911 and was helped down the mountain by Daniel Bolin, an agent with the Border Patrol’s search, trauma and rescue team who said this was his fifth rescue this year in the same spot.

Facing almost certain expulsion to Mexico, the man, who gave his name as Leonardo, said he came to the United States after losing his business during the pandemic.

“But now I don’t think I’ll come back here. I’m too old to walk,” he said.

Asked about his future, he murmured “I don’t know” and burst into sobs.

The border between the United States and Mexico, at right, cuts through the Sonoran Desert at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. This section of the border consists of wall, bollards or no barrier at all and has become a corridor of choice for migrants who don't turn themselves in right after crossing or apply for protection legally. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)
A group of migrants are processed after being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents in the desert at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
Migrants climb through a fence in the desert at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains after they were apprehended Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. by U.S. Border Patrol agents. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
A migrant has his handcuffs removed before transport after being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border, with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
Oscar Andrade, who heads a group that provides recovery efforts for families of missing migrants, compares his photo of a worn shoe next to a human skull, top, with a photo of the same brand of shoe sent by a relative of a missing Mexican migrant, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, in Tucson, Ariz. During the pastor's fourth search for the missing man, he found his ID card in a wallet 40 feet from skeletal remains picked clean by animals deep in the Tohono O'odham Reservation. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)
Mirza Monterroso, a forensic scientist and missing migrant program director for the Colibrí Center, a Tucson-based group that works with the Medical Examiner's office, looks at items found with missing migrants' remains, Wednesday, Sept. 7 2022, at the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, Ariz. The items her office collects are helpful with identifying remains of missing migrants. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)
Migrants are handcuffed after being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents in the desert at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
The wall along the border between the United States and Mexico, at right, abruptly ends as it cuts through the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. This border section consists of wall, bollards or no barrier at all and has become a corridor of choice for migrants who don't turn themselves in right after crossing or apply for protection legally. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)
A migrant is led to transport after being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
A 12-year-old migrant boy is questioned after being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
La Iglesia en el Camino (The Church on the Way) Pastor Óscar Andrade, right, searches with volunteers, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022 , in the Ironwood Forest National Monument in Marana, Ariz., for a missing Honduran migrant. Andrade heads a group that provides recovery efforts for families of missing migrants. Andrade has received over 400 calls from families in Mexico and Central America whose relatives, sick, injured or exhausted, were left behind by smugglers in the borderlands. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)
Azhar Dabdoub moves newly arrived caskets inside his funeral home, Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022, in Tucson, Ariz. The caskets are customized with a small viewing window so families can see something of their relative, even if just a small belonging Dabdoub tapes to the glass. Last week he sent the bodies of five migrants to Guatemala and one to El Salvador. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)
U.S. Border Patrol agent Jesus Vasavilbaso, aided by a Black Hawk helicopter, searches for a group of migrants evading capture in the desert brush at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
A 38-year-old man from Mexico City, left, is helped down a mountain by Daniel Bolin, a search, trauma and rescue agent with the U.S. Border Patrol, right, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The migrant called 911 after nearly dying atop Baboquivari Peak after developing debilitating foot blisters with no food or water. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)
The rugged Baboquivari Mountains cut through the Sonoran Desert as seen from a US Customs and Border Protection helicopter, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. This desert region located in the Tucson sector is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. his section of the border consists of wall, bollards or no barrier at all and has become a corridor of choice for migrants who don't turn themselves in right after crossing or apply for protection legally. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)
Oscar Andrade speaks to Capellanes del Desierto (Desert Chaplains) rescue and recovery group volunteers at La Iglesia en el Camino (The Church on the Way), Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, in Tucson, Ariz. The pastor heads a group that provides recovery efforts for families of missing migrants. Andrade has received over 400 calls from families in Mexico and Central America whose relatives, sick, injured or exhausted, were left behind by smugglers in the borderlands. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)
Migrants are led through desert at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains after being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. by U.S. Border Patrol agents. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
The International border wall, with Mexico to the top, abruptly ends as it cuts through the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. The border consists of wall, bollards or no barrier at all and has become a corridor of choice for those who don't turn themselves in right after crossing or apply for protection legally. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)
U.S. Border Patrol agents and an Arizona Fish and Game Officer search for a group of migrants evading capture along a road at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
U.S. Border Patrol agents, aided by a K-9 and a Blackhawk, search for a group of migrants evading capture at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
A 12-year-old migrant is searched before transport after being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
A 38-year-old man from Mexico City sits in a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. after being rescued by a U.S. Border Patrol agent. He nearly died atop Baboquivari Peak about 14 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border after developing debilitating foot blisters with no food or water. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
A U.S. Border Patrol agent patrols along the 30-foot high border wall, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, in Sasabe, Ariz. Dramatic elevation drops, mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months are common along the wall in this region at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains in the Tucson sector. This stretch is one of the deadliest along the international border. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
Yovani Santos, a volunteer with the rescue and recovery group Capellanes del Desierto (Desert Chaplains), holds his new CPR accreditation card, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2022, in Tucson, Ariz. The group has received over 400 calls from families in Mexico and Central America whose relatives, sick, injured or exhausted, were left behind by smugglers in the borderlands. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)
A migrant is searched before transport after being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
Casey Russell, an air and marine interdiction agent with U.S. Customs and Border Protectio, patrols above the 30-foot high wall along the border with Mexico, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, in Sasabe, Ariz. Dramatic elevation drops, mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months are common along the wall in this region at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains in the Tucson sector. This stretch is one of the deadliest along the international border. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
Apprehended migrants are processed by U.S. Border Patrol agents in the desert brush at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
A migrant answers questions after being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents in the desert at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
U.S. Border Patrol agents, aided by a dog and a Black Hawk helicopter, search for a group of migrants evading capture at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. TThe desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)
A mountain lion is seen early Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022, in Ironwood Forest National Monument near Marana, Ariz. Wild animals are one of many threats migrants face while crossing the desert. Volunteer group Capellanes del Desierto (Desert Chaplains), headed by La Iglesia en el Camino (The Church on the Way) [cut] Oscar Andrade, provides recovery efforts for families of missing migrants. The group has received over 400 calls from families in Mexico and Central America whose relatives, sick, injured or exhausted, were left behind by smugglers in the borderlands. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol Air and Marine Operations Air Interdiction Agent Casey Russell searches above the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one of the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Giovanna Dell’Orto/Associated Press)
Migrants are processed after being apprehended by U.S. Border Patrol agents in the desert at the base of the Baboquivari Mountains, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2022, near Sasabe, Ariz. The desert region located in the Tucson sector just north of Mexico is one the deadliest stretches along the international border with rugged desert mountains, uneven topography, washes and triple-digit temperatures in the summer months. Border Patrol agents performed 3,000 rescues in the sector in the past 12 months. (Matt York/Associated Press)