As Trial Starts for Border Humanitarian Volunteers, New Documents Reveal Federal Bureaucrats’ Obsession With Stopping Activists

The activists are on trial for leaving lifesaving supplies along a deadly migrant route — or what the government considers “littering.”

Vultures circle overhead on May 27, 2017 in the Cabeza Prieta wilderness near Ajo, Arizona. (Photo by Caitlin O'Hara/Getty Images)
Vultures circle overhead on May 27, 2017, in the Cabeza Prieta wilderness near Ajo, Ariz. Photo: Caitlin O'Hara/Getty Images

Trump administration prosecutors argued this week that members of the borderland faith-based organization No More Deaths broke the law by leaving jugs of water and cans of beans for migrants trekking through a remote wilderness refuge in the Sonoran Desert. The arguments came in the first of a series of high-profile federal trials in Tucson, Arizona, where humanitarian aid volunteers are facing prosecution under a litany of charges.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Wright, who is currently spearheading multiple cases against members of the humanitarian group, assured Magistrate Judge Bernardo P. Velasco that the evidence would clearly show that on the afternoon of August 13, 2017, four No More Deaths volunteers — Natalie Renee Hoffman, Oona Meagan Holcomb, Madeline Abbe Huse, and Zaachila I. Orozco-McCormick — broke the law when they drove onto the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, just outside the tiny town of Ajo, Arizona, and left humanitarian aid supplies for migrants passing through the region.

Christopher Dupont, an attorney for the defendants, argued that by devoting their time to putting out food and water in one of the world’s deadliest regions for migrants traveling on foot — where a minimum of 3,000 people have died making their way north since 2000 — the No More Deaths volunteers were acting on deeply held principles to confront a “crisis of the soul” that has turned much of southern Arizona’s most remote federal lands into a “veritable cemetery.”

There are currently two sets of separated but related cases stemming from a Trump administration crackdown on humanitarian aid volunteers in southern Arizona. The most serious charges have been leveled against Scott Warren, a 36-year-old academic, whom the government charged with three felony counts of harboring and conspiracy, for providing food, water, and a place to sleep to two undocumented men over three days last January. Warren faces 20 years in prison if convicted and sentenced to consecutive terms.

In addition to the felony case, Warren, who was not on trial this week, is one of nine No More Deaths volunteers accused of violating regulations on the Cabeza Prieta Refuge. Those cases are divided into three trials, with the first now underway.

Trump administration prosecutors are seeking to present the actions of No More Deaths volunteers on trial this week as straightforward violations of straightforward regulations. But hundreds of pages of internal government documents and communications, obtained by The Intercept through a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, map the deterioration of negotiations between No More Deaths and federal land managers, ultimately leading to the prosecutions.

The documents, many of which have taken center stage at this week’s trial, reveal the central role a supervisory official at a remote U.S. Fish and Wildlife office played in driving the prosecutions. They also show that, while Fish and Wildlife officers have been critical in collecting bodies in the Arizona desert, they have also actively removed food and water left by humanitarian groups in order to keep people from dying, while maintaining blacklists of the humanitarian volunteers that placed the supplies in the desert.

The newly released materials illustrate how generations of hard-line border enforcement measures collide with government wilderness preservation priorities, creating a situation in which thousands of people have died and the actions of those working to prevent further loss of life have been criminalized in the name of environmental conservation.

Federal Land Managers Crack Down

The No More Deaths trial unfolding in Tucson right now has as much to do with land management as with immigration. Two and a half decades of U.S. border enforcement policy has intentionally funneled generations of migrants into the sprawling landscape of the Sonoran Desert. Much of the area on the U.S. side is administered by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the U.S. military. But these Interior Department agencies, as well the Department of Defense, have largely escaped the scrutiny their Department of Homeland Security counterparts receive on matters of immigration — despite the fact that thousands of migrants have lost their lives on the lands these agencies administer.

Stretching along nearly 60 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, with its administrative office in Ajo, nearly all of the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge’s 860,000 acres are federally designated wilderness, making it the largest stretch of wilderness — a place where the impact of human activity is intended to be as limited as possible — in the state of Arizona. Bordered by the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range, which are managed by the National Park Service and the Defense Department, respectively, the refuge is one-third of a patchwork of federal land roughly the size of Connecticut that is devoid of any permanent human habitation. There are just three public roads on Cabeza Prieta, including El Camino del Diablo, or “the Devil’s Highway.” Used by indigenous residents of the Southwest for more than 1,000 years, the Devil’s Highway garnered national attention in 2001, when a group of 26 migrants became lost on the road. More than half died of dehydration or disappeared in the days that followed.

In 2014, amid a rise in missing persons reports coming in from the desert west of Tucson, No More Deaths began concentrating more of its humanitarian aid efforts in the so-called Ajo corridor, increasing water drops and exploration in the area. Soon, the number of human remains recovered in the region, particularly on Cabeza Prieta, began to increase. According to the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, 19 sets of human remains were found on the refuge in 2015; 19 more were recovered in 2016; and 32 were found in 2017. In an email to The Intercept, Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist at the medical examiner’s office, said 40 of the 46 sets of human remains located by humanitarian groups in southern Arizona since 2000 were found after the 2014 push began, adding that “of these, 38 were in the Ajo District of our sheriff’s office, with most being west of Ajo” — namely, in Cabeza Prieta’s Growler Valley, where No More Deaths has focused much of its work.

No More Deaths’ expanded operations in the Ajo area brought the group into contact with Sidney Slone, the Fish and Wildlife manager of the Cabeza refuge. Slone did not return a request for comment Wednesday. In 2017, he declined to comment on The Intercept’s coverage of the No More Deaths cases, citing the likelihood that he will be called as a witness in the upcoming trials. On Wednesday, the land manager’s prediction came true. Slone’s testimony, coupled with the emails he sent during No More Deaths’ push, illustrate his concerns regarding the humanitarian group — a major factor that led to the prosecutions.

New Permitting Process

At the core of the current case is an adjustment to Cabeza Prieta’s permitting process, which requires visitors to initial a passage agreeing not to leave food or water on the refuge. The change went into effect on July 1, 2017, as No More Deaths’ work was helping to drive a record increase in human remains recovered on Cabeza Prieta. Emails show Slone workshopped the adjustment through the late spring and early summer of 2017, in consultation with regional Interior Department and military officials at the bombing range. As Slone later explained in an interview with the Arizona Republic, the “beefed up” measures were intended to “make it really clear so there’s no question in someone’s mind what the rules are.”

In his testimony Wednesday, Slone described the change in the permitting process as a “clarification” of existing rules, aimed at addressing the “ongoing issue” of No More Deaths volunteers leaving food and water on the refuge. “It was a joint effort,” Slone testified, explaining that the change involved input from regional Interior and Defense Department officials.

The consequential change came after an April 28 meeting in which No More Deaths volunteers and the group’s longtime attorney, Margo Cowan, met with Slone and Mary Kralovec, the assistant refuge manager at Cabeza Prieta, to discuss expanded humanitarian aid work on the refuge.

As the meeting approached, Slone emailed colleagues laying out his vision of humanitarian work and the people moving through the Ajo corridor. “I have told these organizations that I favor the deployment of more rescue beacons which Border Patrol puts out (at our urging sometimes) for the purpose of saving lives over them putting out water,” Slone said in an email to U.S. Fish and Wildlife colleague Beth Ullenberg. The land manager added that he preferred the use of fixed, 55-gallon drums of water in mutually agreed-upon locations to address the problem of migrants dying on the refuge. Humane Borders, another Arizona-based humanitarian group, has used such drums for years, including on Cabeza Prieta. Slone explained that he preferred the drums in part because they do “not include putting out food and clothing.”

Putting out food and clothing — or doing anything that might aid an individual in continuing to move through Cabeza Prieta — is a concern that appears repeatedly in Slone’s communications.

Putting out food and clothing — or doing anything that might aid an individual in continuing to move through Cabeza Prieta — is a concern that appears repeatedly in Slone’s communications. Responding to a 2016 op-ed published on the anniversary of the 2001 Devil’s Highway tragedy, Slone told a Fish and Wildlife public affairs specialist that the “big problem” stemmed from the fact that most of Cabeza Prieta is designated wilderness and to put water where water is needed would require giving humanitarian aid groups access to administrative roads, thus threatening the protected areas.

What’s more, Slone said, groups like No More Deaths were already putting one-gallon jugs of water in the desert, adding trash to the refuge. “Even worse,” he said in the email. “They are now putting our [sic] protein shakes and canned foods. This is beyond saving lives, as the added food can help energize folks to hike another day or two, thus continue their journey. And unlike the deaths in 2001, almost all our illegal border crossing traffic on the Refuge is folks smuggling marijuana, not mom and pop looking for work.”

Slone, who this week testified that he is not a law enforcement official and does not have law enforcement experience, returned to the subject in March 2017, emailing the head of the Border Patrol’s Ajo station to express concern that the chief had told local residents that 95 percent of the “illegal traffic coming through the Ajo area” was “people looking for work and sanctuary,” while just 5 percent had to do with drug trafficking.

“I assume that they misunderstood what you said and that the opposite is true,” he wrote. “Many of these local folks putting out water and food think they are saving folks that are here seeking jobs or sanctuary. I tell everyone that the illegal traffic on the Cabeza Prieta is almost all drug smuggling.”

Negotiations Between Feds and Humanitarians

The April meeting between the Cabeza Prieta land manager and No More Deaths ended without a resolution, according to a summary of the conversation circulated by Slone and Kralovec. “In the end, they basically stated that they will do what they have to do and if we issue them citations, so be it,” Slone wrote, adding that the group was seeking a meeting with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson “to reach some accommodation.”

Scott Warren visits the site of the now closed copper mines, which operated until the 1970's. Scott's doctorate focused on the history of the town and it's role in shaping the border policies that are here today.

Scott Warren at the site of now-closed copper mines in the Arizona desert in July 2018.

Photo: Laura Saunders for The Intercept

As the permitting change was being finalized, the monitoring of No More Deaths volunteers on Cabeza Prieta intensified. In early June, Warren, the No More Deaths volunteer charged with three felonies, was stopped on the refuge while doing a water drop and told that he had strayed onto designated wilderness with his vehicle. By mid-month, Slone was informing other land managers that a change was coming — one that would respond to No More Deaths specifically.

In a June 19 email to Cabeza Prieta staffers that was referenced in court Tuesday, Slone wrote that he was in consultation with “Air Force and refuge solicitors” on the coming adjustments. In the meantime, he said, Cabeza Prieta staff were to withhold giving permits to Warren and the three other No More Deaths volunteers. “If folks come in for a permit and it appears that they are part of the No More Deaths group, get myself or Mary to talk with them,” he wrote.

When asked how his staff was to determine whether an individual was affiliated with No More Deaths, Slone told the court that there are “a number of ways.” Often, the land manager said, the volunteers would come in groups telling “the same story” about their plans to make a short hike onto the refuge. But Slone apparently knew better.

“If they were with No More Deaths, they had intentions to go out and put water out,” Slone testified — and he simply could not let that happen.

Five days after the permitting change became official, No More Deaths volunteers and the group’s longtime attorneys took part in a conference call with Arizona authorities. This time, representatives from nearly all of the major land management agencies were included, along with prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson. In a briefing document based on the meeting, Fish and Wildlife official Yurie Aitken noted that the Justice Department said that, with regard to humanitarian aid in the Ajo area, “95% of issues between the Government and NMD are with Department of Interior.” Aitken’s notes added that the Justice Department stated, “Tickets issued are dismissed/not prosecuted if the person shows up to court (DOJ has them ‘Commit’ to not violate again).”

“Not much (if anything) was agreed to and nothing was really proposed. NMD gave an overview of their efforts and expressed common goals they would like to work with the Government on to save lives.”

“Not much (if anything) was agreed to and nothing was really proposed,” Aitken concluded of the meeting. “NMD gave an overview of their efforts and expressed common goals they would like to work with the Government on to save lives.”

Aitken, too, appeared in court this week, taking the witness stand Wednesday morning. Under questioning from the No More Deaths defense team, he explained that his account of the U.S. Attorney’s Office’s position on the prosecution of No More Deaths volunteers was based on the words of an assistant U.S. attorney, whose name he could not recall.

According to a sworn declaration submitted on behalf of the No More Deaths defendants last year, the prosecutor’s name was Larry Lee. For years, veteran attorneys with No More Deaths say they enjoyed a positive working relationship with Lee. In 2017, however, as the conflict on Cabeza Prieta was festering, Lee left Arizona for another job. Wright and Nathaniel Walters, both assistant U.S. attorneys, have taken over their office’s No More Deaths-related work. The two have been aggressively prosecuting those cases ever since.

On cross-examination Wednesday, Walters asked Aitken if anyone from the U.S. attorney’s offices had told No More Deaths volunteers that they had permission to enter Cabeza Prieta without permits, to drive on administrative roads, or to leave supplies on refuge grounds. Aitken said no.

Included among dozens of law enforcement incident reports stretching back to 2014, which were released to The Intercept, are grim accounts of Fish and Wildlife officers recovering bodies on the refuge, including both skeletal remains and the newly dead. In 2017, however, officers also began to describe encountering and removing humanitarian aid supplies on the refuge, and in at least one case, linking No More Deaths by name to the leaving of those supplies. As the encounters with his officers increased, Slone and his colleagues constructed a running blacklist of No More Deaths volunteers. A prominent figure on border issues in small-town Ajo, Warren was invariably the first person listed in the documents Slone had generated, though each of the current Cabeza Prieta-related defendants all eventually made appearances.

Throughout 2017, Slone regularly shared his expanding blacklists through email and formal letters with regional land management counterparts at the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Defense Department, urging them to join him in blocking No More Deaths volunteers from their lands. At one point, Randy English, an official at the military’s Barry M. Goldwater bombing range, reminded Slone that he could not pre-emptively bar individuals from receiving permits. “As discussed, until such time that they break the rules on BMGR West, I can’t really deny them a permit for BMGR West,” English wrote in a July email.

The Cabeza Prieta-related charges against the nine No More Deaths volunteers were simultaneously filed on December 6, 2017 — several months after the events in question actually took place — but it was clear as early as mid-summer of 2017 that Slone and other Cabeza officials hoped to see the No More Deaths volunteers punished in court. In a July letter to a Bureau of Land Management supervisor, sent the same day that No More Deaths volunteers met with regional land managers and U.S. attorneys in hopes of seeking a resolution, Slone said his office was “pursuing legal action against” Warren for driving on designated wilderness.

As The Intercept reported in September, Margot Bissell, a visitor services specialist at Cabeza Prieta, made similar comments in text messages to a local Border Patrol agent that same month.

Addressing his blacklists from the witness stand Wednesday, Slone testified that “folks on that list were folks that got caught violating rules and regulations.” He acknowledged, though, that not everyone who violates rules and regulations on Cabeza Prieta ends up on a government blacklist. Attorneys for the No More Deaths volunteers have argued that, in fact, Fish and Wildlife’s own records show that group’s members were specifically targeted. From 2015 to 2018, agents with the land management agency issued 14 citations for various violations of federal regulations or law in the Cabeza Prieta Refuge, the agency’s records show.

“None of these incidents were referred for prosecution or prosecuted, except for those involving No More Deaths volunteers,” the defense team noted in a September court filing.

Erasing Migrant Deaths

On Monday, before the current No More Deaths trial began, a hearing was held in Warren’s felony case that underscored a growing cloud of suspicion hanging over the No More Deaths prosecutions. At issue were secret communications, first reported by The Intercept, between government prosecutors and judge Velasco — the same judge Velasco overseeing the Cabeza Prieta-related cases.

Following the hearing, Warren’s attorneys filed a motion calling for “sanctions due to serious ethical violations” on the part of the Trump administration prosecutors. The lawyers argued for the indictment against Warren to be dropped, or at least for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Arizona to be disqualified from the case.

As the No More Deaths trials go forward, the court will consider actions in a fixed time and place. But the subtext of the cases go much deeper, raising critical questions about the complicated interplay between law enforcement, land management, and humanitarian groups in a borderlands environment that has taken thousands of human lives. Two months before the Cabeza Prieta charges were filed, Warren, the No More Deaths volunteer now facing the greatest amount of time behind bars, published an essay in the South Atlantic Quarterly, an academic journal, addressing those issues head-on. Warren wrote that the work of humanitarian aid volunteers in southern Arizona does not aim to legitimize “the physical presence of smuggling organizations on public lands along the border.”

“Rather, humanitarian aid drops of water, food, socks, and blankets serve to acknowledge the struggle of migrants and force land managers and the public to recognize the ongoing humanitarian crisis,” he wrote. “Simply put, the very presence of humanitarian aid forces land managers to publicly acknowledge a problem that they may wish to push into the remotest and least touristed areas of the desert, keeping it invisible to everyone but law enforcement personnel.”

Join The Conversation