Warren believes that these moments merit an acknowledgement of humanity. And so, after years of recoveries, the 36-year-old has developed a modest ritual for the grim encounters. He goes quiet, lowers himself to the earth, collects the dirt around him, and then lets the soil pour through his fingers. The point, Warren says, is to take a moment to reflect or, as he puts it, “hold space.” It may not sound like much, but for him, this process and everything that attends to it is as sacred as anything one might find in a conventional house of God.
When a person dies, Warren believes, some extra-physical element of them remains, dwelling in the place where they passed. In the last six years, Warren has communed with the dead no fewer than 16 times in the desert outside Ajo, the tiny Arizona border town he calls home. Those bodies and fragmented sets of human remains have served as his window into the slow-motion disaster unfolding in the borderlands, one in which U.S. government policy funnels migrants into the desert, creating a black hole of disappearance and death of historic proportions.
In response, Warren has helped convene a network of Arizona humanitarian aid volunteers with roots that go back decades. Through sweat-drenched marches deep into the Sonoran Desert, this collective has expanded access to water and medical aid in one of the border’s deadliest and most remote corridors, and fueled a historic increase in the number of bodies accounted for there. Even for those who can’t be saved, the finding of human remains opens the door for bodies to be returned to grief-stricken families, providing answers to painful questions. In an alternate universe, one could imagine the efforts of Warren and his cohort being the kind of thing a society might actively support, or even prioritize. But that’s not what is happening in Arizona right now.
As the final hours of daylight faded on January 17, 2018, Warren stood outside a modest building cobbled together from darkened wood and gray metal sheeting on the outskirts of Ajo, about 40 miles from the border. Rusted gardening tools and sun-bleached license plates hung from its wall. At its peak was a sign constructed of four wooden planks: “The Barn.”
Largely through Warren’s care-taking and initiative, the Barn had evolved in recent years into a nerve center for humanitarian organizations. It was a place where men, women, and children trekking through the desert could find aid, and where young people came to learn about the violence, both real and imagined, that defines the United States’ southern border.
Warren scanned the horizon; he was expecting visitors, a group of high school students. A vast expanse of saguaros and creosote stretched out before him. As he turned his gaze east, down a rutted dirt road, something unusual came into focus: clouds of dust kicked up by a caravan of vehicles headed his way.
Across a broad desert wash, two men looked on. Though dressed in plainclothes, the pair were agents of the U.S. Border Patrol, part of a specialized anti-smuggling unit that had been investigating the Barn for months in a crackdown on the faith-based organization No More Deaths. That morning, No More Deaths, also known as No Más Muertes, had published a scathing report, complete with video evidence, implicating the Border Patrol in the destruction of thousands of gallons of water left for migrants in the desert. Now, it seemed, the Border Patrol was punching back.
The agents considered Warren a recruiter encouraging college students to join a criminal conspiracy that involved furthering migrants’ unlawful entry into the country by providing them with water and medical aid. For Warren, the timing of their arrival was not good. Inside the Barn that day were two Central American men, Kristian Perez-Villanueva, a citizen of El Salvador, and Jose Arnaldo Sacaria-Godoy, a citizen of Honduras, who had come to the property three days earlier after a harrowing trek through the desert.
An additional crew of Border Patrol agents and local sheriff’s deputies mustered at a motel down the road before setting off. As the convoy of mostly unmarked vehicles moved in, the agents in the brush ran toward the Barn. The first of the vehicles, a purple Dodge, pulled into the driveway, coming to a stop at Warren’s feet. Men with badges and guns piled out.
Warren told them that they were stepping onto private property and requested that they leave. The agents, who did not have a warrant, persisted. With weapons drawn, they swept through the Barn. The migrants were found inside, one of them hiding in a shower. Warren was handcuffed and arrested. He was accused of providing the men with food, water, clean clothes, and a place to sleep over three days. A month later, a grand jury indicted him on two counts of harboring and one count of conspiracy. If convicted and sentenced to consecutive terms, Warren could serve up to 20 years in prison.
We first met last May, at a coffee shop in Ajo. Warren wore blue Levi’s, a western shirt, and worn hiking shoes, his chin-length brown hair pulled back tight. Under normal circumstances, he would have been celebrating. He had just finished his first semester teaching at the Tohono O’odham Community College, the school for residents of the Tohono O’odham reservation up the highway. It had been a tough semester, Warren acknowledged, smiling as he settled into a seat in a back corner of the coffee shop. “I had the first day of class and then I got arrested the next day.” Still, it wasn’t all bad. Warren spoke fondly of his students at the reservation, all two of them. They helped keep things in perspective, but there was no denying that passing through the border detention system had left a cloud over a place Warren had come to love.
People have been dying in the desert for decades because U.S. policy deliberately funnels them there.
In Arizona, the border components of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” vision were not new ideas. As a petri dish for policies built on nativism, xenophobia, and racism — a place where former Sheriff Joe Arpaio funneled undocumented immigrants into a self-described “concentration camp” and oversaw a multiyear authoritarian reign fueled by illegal racial-profiling schemes — Arizona has earned a particular reputation on issues of immigration. And yet, Arizona is more than that. The state is also home to a network of people who regularly walk out into the desert in hopes of saving a life. This broad coalition of religious retirees and anarchists, medical professionals and working-class immigrants, believes that there are no mitigating factors — not immigration status or a backpack full of marijuana — that warrant a death sentence in the desert. For them, Warren’s prosecution is both a threat to a beloved member of their community and a blatant act of state intimidation.
But the underlying issues in Warren’s story go even deeper. People have been dying in the desert for decades because U.S. policy deliberately funnels them there. The Trump administration has doubled down on that approach, while adopting a strategy popular among far-right regimes around the world, in which humanitarian organizations working to keep migrants alive are prosecuted as criminal enablers. All of this comes amid increasing arrests and deportations of people who have lived in the U.S. for years, including parents of U.S. citizen children whose last border crossing might have been in a much different time, and who now have even stronger reasons to return home.
It’s been nearly a decade since Warren packed his 2000 Honda Accord for a weekend of camping in the desert, setting off on a drive that would alter the course of his life.
It was the summer of 2009, and the Arizona State University Ph.D. candidate was bound for the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a picturesque reserve that sits along the border. It was already late by the time he hit the road. As Warren drove south, the sun sank below the horizon and the stars came out. Tires humming along the pavement, nobody around for miles — Warren was in his element.
A little over 100 miles into his journey, Warren rolled into the sleepy downtown district of a tiny border town. To his left was a neatly kept plaza — white-painted buildings arranged in a horseshoe around a green grass park. What is all this doing here? Warren thought to himself. This, he soon discovered, was Ajo, an old company town with a rich and lethal history of boundaries imposed for profit and control.
Photos: Laura Saunders for The Intercept
Ajo’s population hovers around 3,000 residents in the off-summer months, then drops to half that when the heat comes on. To the east is the O’odham reservation. At 3 million acres, it’s the second-largest reservation in the country. For thousands of years, the O’odham traveled freely in the desert, until a line drawn by newcomers cleaved their homeland in two. Today, the O’odham are told, a wall is coming, one that will cement the separation of their nation. To Ajo’s north is the Barry Goldwater bombing range, an active arena for the practice of war, where American pilots fire on mock compounds designed to resemble war on terror battlefields. To Ajo’s west and south is Cabeza Prieta, the largest stretch of federally protected wilderness in the lower 48 states, bisected by the Devil’s Highway, a 1,000-year-old pathway that has long served as a setting for true and mythologized accounts of death and dying in the desert. Finally, to the south, is Organ Pipe. For most of the last decade, a majority of the national monument was closed to the public. After the murder of a park ranger by fugitives running from Mexican law enforcement, Organ Pipe earned the unfortunate moniker of most dangerous park in the country, even as it evolved into a site of dramatic post-9/11 security and surveillance expansions.
Devouring records of Ajo’s early days, interviewing residents and federal land management agents, Warren ultimately wrote his dissertation on Ajo. He traced its establishment as a copper mining town, the collapse of that endeavor, and the rise of a new force shaping life in the community: the modern American border security apparatus. Exploring the narratives of violence and exclusion that undergird the boundaries imposed around Ajo, Warren’s paper aimed to address what he called “the most persisting and controversial question of this place: Who belongs here and who does not?”
In 2013, Warren was scanning the local newspaper when a line in the police blotter caught his eye. “Recovered dead body in the desert,” it read. The casualness and the regularity with which such news was delivered drew Warren’s attention; passing references to painful deaths sandwiched between traffic accidents and neighbor disputes.
That summer, Warren tallied, deputies at the tiny substation of the Pima County Sheriff’s Department recovered seven bodies in the desert around Ajo.
The deaths were no surprise, and arguably no accident. “Prevention through deterrence,” the strategy that undergirds U.S. border enforcement, was born in the mid-1990s, after Border Patrol chiefs and Pentagon officials came together to address a problem. The politics of the moment were calling for an immigration crackdown. Recognizing that the “absolute sealing of the border is unrealistic,” the planners saw border cities as “areas of greatest risk for illegal entry.” So, one by one, those cities were flushed with agents and security infrastructure. “The prediction is that with traditional entry and smuggling routes disrupted, illegal traffic will be deterred or forced over more hostile terrain, less suited for crossing and more suited for enforcement,” the planners noted at the time. Acknowledging that those who strayed off traditional routes could “find themselves in mortal danger,” the planners wrote that “violence will increase as effects of the strategy are felt.”
Prevention through deterrence was meant to act in conjunction with the North American Free Trade Agreement. NAFTA would bring prosperity to the working Mexican, prevention through deterrence would make the dash across the border too big of a gamble, and illegal crossings would go down. Migration flows did indeed move away from cities once the policy was implemented, but the “hostile terrain” could not disperse the ineluctable forces that drive human beings to move. That’s when the dying began.
Experts can only guess at the true number of lives lost over the last two decades. At a minimum, more than 7,000 people have perished, though the true total is guaranteed to be higher. During the 1990s, the Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner dealt with an average of 12 migrant deaths annually. Over an 18-year period beginning in 2000, once prevention through deterrence was humming along, that number rose to 155 per year. According to the medical examiner’s office, 2,943 sets of human remains have been found in southern Arizona from 2000 to the present; a death toll nearly double Ajo’s summer population.
Warren teaches border studies, so when he picked up the paper and read about the bodies found outside town, he understood the forces and history behind it. But there’s a difference between studying a subject and living with it. For Warren, the question of what you do when you know people are dying outside your community wouldn’t go away.
For decades, the Ajo station was a small adobe building with a capacity for 25 agents. But in the mid-2000s, as President George W. Bush and then Barack Obama radically expanded the Border Patrol, things began to change. In 2013, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Department of Homeland Security agency overseeing the Border Patrol, heralded the construction of official housing in Ajo. The celebration was cut short by an Arizona Republic report revealing that CBP used $15 million in taxpayer money to construct more than 20 homes. According to the paper, the units cost an average of $600,000 apiece (CBP would later say the figure was closer to $340,000), while empty homes in long-struggling Ajo were available for $100,000 or less. “It’s disgraceful,” the late Sen. John McCain said at the time, adding, “People should be fired.”
Photos: Laura Saunders for The Intercept
As the Border Patrol’s housing was being finalized, the agency replaced its old Ajo station with a new $28.5 million facility. At 54,000 square feet, the base featured energy-saving lighting, solar-heated water, additional detention space, and a helipad. The station’s capacity ballooned to 500 agents. To honor the occasion, the Border Patrol opened its doors to the public in January 2013, inviting the people of Ajo to sign up for a “Citizens Academy” and see what the agency’s work was all about. The six-week program promised an opportunity to “participate in interactive demonstrations such as defensive tactics, tracking, and inspections for prohibited items.”
The opening coincided with a turning point in Warren’s life: a decision to move to Ajo full-time as he finished his dissertation. Warren thought the academy sounded interesting. He registered, passed the background check, and he was in. Although it was mostly a public relations effort sprinkled with unintentionally interesting moments, the academy had one clear benefit for Warren: It was a great place to meet people.
“When you think of how tiny our town is, and when you think of the number of bodies that were recovered last year, I can’t imagine that happening in any town in our country and not having people be up in arms.”
More than half of Warren’s classmates were volunteers with the Ajo Samaritans, one of three longstanding humanitarian groups operating in southern Arizona — the other two being Humane Borders and No More Deaths. All three groups were born out of the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, when religious leaders in the desert banded together to move Central American refugees across the border after it became clear that the Reagan administration was systematically, and illegally, denying their asylum claims. Using the Underground Railroad as their blueprint, nuns, priests, reverends, and parishioners smuggled hundreds of refugees into the U.S. so they could take sanctuary in houses of worship around the country. They were public about their work and, after four years, the government came after them with a 10-month undercover investigation.
The movement was infiltrated. More than 100 hours of tape documenting sermons and private conversations with clergy were secretly recorded. “Operation Sojourner,” as it was known, led to 16 federal indictments on more than 70 charges related to harboring, smuggling, and conspiracy, with 11 members of the faith community, including priests and nuns, facing decades in prison. The defendants mounted their defense to the public, rather than to Judge Earl H. Carroll, who had barred them from including any discussion of U.S. asylum practices in court. Following a majority of the defendants’ convictions in the spring of 1986, Carroll received a flood of letters from across the world, including from nearly 50 members of Congress, urging mercy. At sentencing, Carroll told the defendants that he would exercise leniency on the condition that they stop their sanctuary work. After a nun, Sister Darlene Nicgorski, politely informed him that would not be happening, Carroll relented, and the defendants were each given three to five years of probation.
The impact was far-ranging. Sanctuary work flourished in the years that followed and a civil suit filed by the defendants led to the creation of Temporary Protected Status for Central American refugees. It also brought together a network of people who decided to do something after bodies started showing up on the border in the late 90s.
Rev. John Fife of the Southside United Presbyterian Church in Tucson was one of those people. Fife was a co-founder of the Sanctuary Movement, described by government prosecutors as its “mastermind.” Over several rounds of coffee at a Tucson diner last spring, he laid out the chronology of the movement’s successors. First, there was Humane Borders, which got its start in 2000 by putting fixed, 55-gallon water drums in the desert. Next came the Samaritans, who, instead of being tied to fixed locations, dropped jugs of water in known migrant crossing areas. If migrants in distress were encountered, they would be given medical attention. No More Deaths, the next organization in the lineage, dropped water and provided medical aid as well, Fife told me, but it also documented abuses on the border, staking out space as “the most aggressive organization to challenge Border Patrol violations of human rights.”
“If you look at the founding principles of the Sanctuary Movement and No More Deaths, they’re the same,” Fife explained. It’s the philosophy of “civil initiative,” the idea that when the government isn’t fulfilling its obligations — by systematically denying asylum claims, for example — it’s up to civil society members to step in.
The Samaritans Warren met were retirees, mostly, and their group came about the typical way: through church. “When you think of how tiny our town is, and when you think of the number of bodies that were recovered last year — like 58 or 60 bodies that were recovered here — I can’t imagine that happening in any town in our country and not having people be up in arms,” Mimi Phillips, a longtime Ajo Samaritan who Warren met at the Border Patrol academy, told me. “It’s just kind of a stunning awareness,” she said. “When that starts to sink in, you have to do something. You don’t want to be a cemetery. These are human lives.”
Photos: Laura Saunders for The Intercept
Getting potentially lifesaving aid to people passing through the desert outside Ajo had become increasingly challenging in the years before Warren came to town, said Kathy Sicora and her husband, Carl, two original Ajo Samaritans. For years, the Sicoras put out water on a weekly or biweekly basis. But as law enforcement has pushed border crossers deeper into the desert, putting water where it’s needed most has become more difficult. “It’s been harder and harder for us in Ajo to find where the trails are,” Kathy told me. “People are dying, but it’s just further than we can go.” When Warren showed up in Ajo ready to work, it made a difference. A young, healthy person who could walk! Kathy remembers thinking. For Warren, the idea of not responding was not an option. “Once you realize what’s going on and have a more complex understanding of it — how could I not?” he said.
Warren impressed the veteran Samaritans. Phillips described him as “a stunning listener.” Kathy added, “He’s become inspirational.” But inspiration alone would not be enough to meaningfully confront the pattern of disappearance and death encircling Ajo. Doing that would require fresh legs, a sturdy back, and a willingness to trudge deep into the desert year-round — attributes the Samaritans lacked. So, in early 2014, Warren packed for another trip.
Arivaca, Arizona, is about 2 1/2 hours southeast of Ajo, just north of the border, on the outskirts of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. No More Deaths has based its operations out of the area for nearly a decade and a half. The group’s home base, Byrd Camp, is named after Byrd Baylor, a best-selling author of children’s books who lives nearby and opened her property up to the organization around 2004. For more than 10 years, Byrd Camp has served as the geographic epicenter of No More Deaths’ work, with volunteers from around the country cycling through every year, camping and carrying water into the desert, and providing medical care to migrants.
With their dusty hiking boots, cutoff jean shorts, and tattoos, No More Deaths is culturally and demographically distinct from the Samaritans. Younger and more physically ambitious, the group couples its desert aid with a critique of U.S. border policy. The core members of the organization live in Arizona year-round. A disproportionate number work in the medical field as nurses, paramedics, and EMTs. Others are social workers or international aid workers who devote time to the cause when they’re stateside. Most are women. Many come from the world of environmental activism, and the influence of horizontal, leaderless organizing is evident in the group’s public messaging, its distrust of the media’s tendency to oversimplify, and its awareness of American law enforcement’s treatment of social movements across generations.
With their dusty hiking boots, cutoff jean shorts, and tattoos, No More Deaths is culturally and demographically distinct from the Ajo Samaritans.
No More Deaths is not shy about what it sees as the source of the humanitarian crisis on the border. The organization has long called for abolishing the Border Patrol, on the grounds that it is the primary agency responsible for implementing a policy that’s contributed to more deaths than Hurricane Katrina and September 11 combined, and the group has published several detailed reports on abusive Border Patrol practices observed in the field and described by migrants in the desert. Still, the group does work in dialogue with law enforcement, and its volunteers are careful to point out that their work is legally in line with humanitarian organizations around the world.
No More Deaths’ interactions with law enforcement have ebbed and flowed with the times. During a summer heat wave in 2005, No More Deaths volunteers Shanti Sellz and Daniel Strauss were arrested and charged with multiple felony smuggling and conspiracy counts, after driving three seriously ill migrants to John Fife’s church for medical care. The 23-year-olds faced 15 years in prison. It was a galvanizing moment for southern Arizona’s humanitarian aid community, the most significant since the Sanctuary Movement prosecutions two decades before. At trial, U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins tossed the charges, ruling that the pair was abiding by a protocol that they understood to be in line with the law, which No More Deaths had followed for years in full knowledge of the Border Patrol without ever being targeted for arrest. The state took another swing at No More Deaths in 2008, after U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials found Daniel J. Millis and handful of other volunteers in an SUV loaded with water jugs on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. Millis, who had recently found the body of a 14-year-old girl on the refuge, was convicted of littering. His case rose to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, where his conviction was overturned in a 2-to-1 vote.
During the Obama administration, volunteers began finding their water jugs slashed. They set up cameras during their water drops and in 2013, captured video of Border Patrol agents destroying the water supplies. The humanitarian group turned the footage over to the media. “That’s when we reached the agreement that they would respect the camp as a humanitarian aid site, that they would not threaten No More Deaths volunteers in the field, and that they’d train their agents on the Red Cross standards,” Fife said.
While no senior Border Patrol agent ever signed a document formalizing the arrangement, it was seemingly still in effect when Warren pulled into Byrd Camp in 2014. He came with a simple invitation, asking volunteers to make a trip out to Ajo to do some aid work with him and the Samaritans there. As it happened, No More Deaths was receiving an increasing number of missing persons reports from the Ajo area. With a multiyear build-up in enforcement around Arivaca, volunteers suspected that migration patterns were moving away from nearby Nogales.
After years of work, No More Deaths volunteers had built a sophisticated operation for saving lives in one corner of Arizona, but as they would soon learn, Ajo is not Arivaca.
In 2001, the Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner and Humane Borders teamed up to map migrant deaths in the Sonoran Desert. The fruit of that collaboration, the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants, today offers a remarkable visualization of prevention through deterrence in action. Selecting for the roughly 3,000 cases currently recorded by the OPCME, the map presents southern Arizona, scarred by a blood-red sea of dots — each one reflecting a body or a set of human remains found in the desert.
Few people on the planet could claim a deeper familiarity with what that map reflects than Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist at the OPCME with more than 20 years on the job. When a person dies in the desert, Anderson told me, there are two forces in tension. One is the desert’s climate. “In those 120-degree temperature days without rain, a body, within a few hours, has a rock-hard nose, earlobes, and fingertips. We routinely have to soften fingertips with a solution we have here, so we can put ink on them to print them,” he explained. “That happens within a few hours. Within a few days, all the moisture is out of the body, and it’s wicked into the desert sand.” This process, Anderson said, leaves an outline of the deceased. “You can imagine the chalk that we all see on television, police crime scenes and things like that. There’s an actual decomposition fluid outline — if a body lays there and isn’t disturbed by animals — that stays in the desert for years.”
Mummification and human outlines in the sand might make finding and identifying dead bodies straightforward, if not for the second force at work in the desert: scavengers. Vultures, coyotes, and insects are all present in the Sonoran Desert ecosystem. “They start with the fingers and the face,” Anderson said, “the two areas that, routinely, we use to identify people. Those are gone in one day.” Not only that, he added, but animals routinely tear off arms and legs and other body parts. “A coyote mother could carry that back to her den,” Anderson said. “And coyotes are known to range for five or 10 miles.”
The absence of dots in a particular area on the OpenGIS map does not mean the absence of deaths there. On the contrary, it is far more likely that those regions have simply not been thoroughly explored. The Ajo corridor is a prime example. Sometimes referred to as Arizona’s “west desert,” the corridor is hotter and more remote than Arivaca, where No More Deaths has historically focused its operations. That difference was not lost on Catherine Gaffney, a veteran volunteer with the group. Gaffney came to Arizona in 2009, the same year Warren moved there. The two met during Warren’s 2014 visits to Byrd Camp, and Gaffney was part of the original group of volunteers who began making trips west. Compared to Ajo, she said, “Arivaca seems like a teeming city.”
“You’ve got these 20-, 30-mile stretches of no roads, no visible signs of help, or people or civilization whatsoever,” Gaffney explained. “You feel like you’re on the moon.”
For many migrants coming through the Ajo corridor, the last stop before crossing north is Sonoyta, a Mexican town in the state of Sonora. Historically, the west desert has attracted border crossers who cannot afford to be crossed elsewhere. “From what I’ve heard, people pay like half the rate to cross through the Ajo area as opposed to the Nogales area,” Gaffney said. “It’s cheaper,” she added, “because it’s horrible.”
Before border security became a multibillion-dollar national security priority, a migrant heading north could do so without a guide. Today, that’s rare. A buildup in drug and migrant interdiction infrastructure on the U.S. side of the border has been met with an economy for moving drugs and migrants on the Mexican side. In years past, a person walking from Sonoyta might set their sights on Ajo, a dot in an uninhabited area the size of Connecticut, as a place to be picked up and driven into the interior of the country. Due to the Border Patrol’s checkpoint on the only paved northbound route out of Ajo, migrants today can expect to walk roughly 80 miles to link up with a ride. As Warren noted in his dissertation, “Whereas Ajo used to be journey’s end, it is now the halfway point.” While drug trafficking outside Ajo is real, it is overwhelmingly marijuana carried by exploited and expendable backpackers. Organized criminal groups in Mexico prefer to move their high-dollar goods through U.S. ports, sometimes with the help of corrupt U.S. border agents.
Due to the Border Patrol’s checkpoint on the only paved northbound route out of Ajo, migrants today can expect to walk roughly 80 miles to link up with a ride.
As the 2014 humanitarian push into the west desert got rolling, Dr. Carol Johnson, a retired Ajo physician opened a property she owned to the volunteers coming into town. The five-acre spread included a shed and a larger, house-like structure. Johnson called it the Barn. “I originally bought it as sort of community property to be used for community gardens and the food movement,” she told me. “No matter what your crime is or whatever else we might think you have done wrong, that’s not an excuse for letting you die in the desert,” she said. “I’m a doctor. We try not to let people die.”
The Barn became Warren’s home away from home. Johnson gave him a key and he kept the place up, doing repairs and making sure that volunteers had what they needed. In the rare event that a migrant in distress came through, a doctor would be called and the migrant would have the option to summon an ambulance.
In time, the volunteers using the space expanded beyond No More Deaths and the Samaritans. Warren met people like César Ortigoza, co-founder of Armadillos Búsqueda y Rescate, Armadillos Search and Rescue, an immigrant-led humanitarian organization and one of the most aggressive civilian groups doing search and recovery working in the Sonoran Desert. For Ortigoza, a naturalized U.S. citizen who crossed the border alone at age 15, the Barn became a place where his team could lay their heads after making the drive from San Diego, allowing them to better respond to a never-ending stream of tips from families reporting missing loved ones. “If it wasn’t for the expenses, I would love to be out there every single day,” Ortigoza told me. “It’s really needed.”
By the end of 2014, the Ajo collaboration was beginning to show results. No More Deaths and the Samaritans increased the number of water jugs dropped in the desert from a few dozen a week to several hundred. A series of grim discoveries cemented the volunteers’ resolve. In early 2014, a pair of hikers searching for World War II aircraft relics on Cabeza Prieta walked into an Ajo Samaritans meeting. They had found skeletal remains. “Scattered but complete,” Warren remembered, “a skull and several bones.” The hikers called the authorities but remained shaken and insistent that a complete recovery be done. Warren and a half-dozen volunteers joined them in returning to the spot where the remains were found. “It was clear that the deputies had been there, and they had recovered the skull and some other bones,” Warren said. “But there were still several other bones that were just there — like seven or eight additional bones that we found.”
In the span of 10 minutes, the volunteers not only recovered additional pieces of a human body, they also found a Mexican ID card. Trinidad Ramon López Ayala was a 23-year-old from Sonora. A memorial of stones and a wooden cross, draped with red rosary beads, were left to mark the spot where his remains were found.
Warren and the groups he worked with located human remains in the Ajo area in May, June, July, and December of 2014. Dozens more turned up in the years that followed.
In 2016, as Trump secured the Republican nomination and then the presidency, expanded desert aid work around Ajo turned up more human remains than ever before, setting the volunteers on a collision course with newly emboldened federal officials who might have preferred the crisis remain hidden.
At the core of the Trumpian approach to border security is the idea of “unshackling” a previously constrained army of federal agents to enforce immigration law with the heaviest hand possible. Part enforcement doctrine and part political gamesmanship, the strategy sprang from a courtship that began before the reality TV star made his run for the White House. During the Obama years, a relationship was kindled between Breitbart executive Steve Bannon and then-Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions. The two had common interests. Bannon’s worldview had been shaped by white nationalist visions of migrant hordes overrunning white Western society, and he embraced the European far right’s approach to migration. Sessions, meanwhile, had long been celebrated by the most influential anti-immigration think tanks in the country — organizations the Southern Poverty Law Center considers hate groups — as a visionary leader fighting to return the country to its glory days, when strict immigration quotas were used to keep America white.
Sessions’s communications man in the Senate, Stephen Miller, who just a few years earlier was working on projects with ethno-nationalist Richard Spencer, brought his boss into dialogue with Bannon through radio interviews and scoops provided to Breitbart. The three men were quick to hitch themselves to Trump’s presidential campaign. In a March 24, 2016, interview with Brandon Darby, the former left-wing activist turned FBI source who leads Breitbart’s Texas coverage, Miller promised to “work closely, directly, and intimately” with the Border Patrol’s union to develop policy if Trump took the White House. “They are going to be sitting with us to craft a policy that works for America and for them,” he vowed. The union endorsed Trump the next week. Months later, Trump himself appeared on “The Green Line,” the union’s Breitbart-sponsored podcast. “You will be given the tools, believe me,” Trump said. “Right now, the Border Patrol is not being taken care of. They’re not being respected the way they should.”
For No More Deaths, Border Patrol enthusiasm for candidate Trump was evident on the hills surrounding Byrd Camp, where volunteers say Border Patrol agents used their megaphones to urge them to “vote Trump!” Once in office, the president’s anti-immigrant brain trust wasted no time. In April 2017, Sessions, who had become the most powerful law enforcement official in the country, flew to Arizona to announce a new prong of the administration’s immigration enforcement strategy. Standing in the sun on the Arizona side of Ambos Nogales, the attorney general described the region as a war zone beset with murder and beheadings. He then rattled off a list of offenses he was directing his prosecutors to prioritize. The first among them: transportation and harboring of aliens.
“This a new era,” Sessions warned, his excitement building as he gripped the lectern with two hands. “This is the Trump era.”
In southern Arizona’s humanitarian community, Arpaio’s reign as sheriff and the explosion in deaths resulting from prevention through deterrence left a clear lesson: When hard-liners start talking about cracking down, get ready. For Gaffney, Sessions’s visit to Nogales was one of those moments. “I just remember thinking, He’s talking about the Tucson humanitarian community,” she said. “Maybe not No More Deaths specifically, but he came here because of the legacy of the Sanctuary Movement, because it’s a place where there’s a very organized, longstanding history of solidarity and humanitarian response.”
Three months later, in the midst of a heat wave, the Border Patrol made a provocative move. Around 4:30 p.m. on June 13, agents approached the Byrd Camp gate, explaining that they were in “hot pursuit” of a group of migrants and wanted onto the property. Four men were indeed there, having shown up after days of walking in the desert. According to a doctor working with No More Deaths, the migrants, like others before them, were suffering from serious heat-related illnesses.
“We’re not here to arrest any citizens. We’re just here to take the bodies.”
The Border Patrol did not have a warrant. No More Deaths would not let them pass. A blast went out to volunteers as the agents began setting up 24-hour surveillance positions surrounding camp. All vehicles leaving the premises were stopped and searched. Margo Cowan, an immigrant rights defender since before the Sanctuary days and a longtime No More Deaths attorney, entered into a series of discussions with the agency. On day three of the standoff, the Border Patrol got its warrant. A convoy of 15 trucks delivered approximately 30 agents to the scene, some carrying rifles. A helicopter monitored from above and an agent with a camera filmed from the ground as the agency live-tweeted the raid.
“We’re not here to arrest any citizens,” Gaffney recalled one of the agents saying. “We’re just here to take the bodies.”
The Border Patrol got what it was looking for. The migrants, later described by CBP as Mexican citizens, were arrested. A post on the conservative website Judicial Watch published after the raid, sourced to anonymous but “outraged Border Patrol officials,” described anger rippling through the Tucson sector at the fact that agents were forced to wait for a warrant before entering the camp.
According to Cowan, senior agents told her that the men had been tracked from the border to the Byrd Camp gate — a journey that can cover anywhere from 16 to 18 miles and take multiple days. Volunteers questioned why they weren’t arrested sooner. The search warrant for the operation described a sensor being triggered at 4:25 in the afternoon, capturing an image of the men just minutes before they arrived at camp, suggesting that the aid station was under surveillance. Cowan believed the Border Patrol deliberately waited to make the arrests, sending a message that the border was under new management.
“I think that this was a setup,” she told me.
Six days after the raid, Robin Reineke, a cultural anthropologist and co-founder of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, was at her desk in Tucson. Across from her were two senior Border Patrol agents. Reineke was not happy.
Since 2006, Colibrí has been a critical node in the humanitarian network responding to migrant deaths in the Sonoran Desert. Sharing a space in the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, Reineke’s small team fields calls from family members whose loved ones have disappeared and manages a database of migrant missing persons cases (currently totaling more than 3,000 individuals). The calls and the database, combined with access to medical examiner case files and a close working relationship with consulate officials in Tucson, are used to repatriate the remains of people who are found.
In the summer of 2017, Reineke learned that the Border Patrol was discouraging migrant families from working with Colibrí and called a meeting with agents Mario Agundez and Pedro Alonso Jr. to get to the bottom of it. “It was a tense meeting and I was angry with them going in, because it’s not their place to be doing that,” she recalled. “They were preventing our humanitarian aid too, by telling the consulates not to work with us.”
At the time, Agundez and Alonso Jr. were the faces of the Border Patrol’s Missing Migrant Program, piloted in 2015 as the agency’s latest effort to provide a humanitarian face to its work. Reineke said the agents told her that their priority was saving lives. Reineke pointed out that raiding a humanitarian aid camp during a heat wave, while people were receiving medical care, did not reflect that priority. It was at that point, she said, that Agundez turned aggressive.
“They have messed with the wrong guy,” Reineke recalled Agundez saying. “This time, they have gone too far and they’re going to regret it.”
The encounter, which she would later repeat in a sworn court declaration, left Reineke shaken. The next morning, she sent an email to an old friend and longtime No More Deaths volunteer. “I am probably not telling you anything you don’t already know,” Reineke wrote, but “the tone made me scared for you all.”
The Byrd Camp raid was only the most visible in a series of No More Deaths encounters with law enforcement during Trump’s first year in office.
In December 2016, a month after Trump’s election victory, Warren and the humanitarian groups working around Ajo launched a new volunteer program that ventured deeper into the Cabeza Prieta wildlife refuge. During the first week of the push, the volunteers discovered five sets of human remains in five days. Nearly all were recovered in the Growler Valley, a remarkably remote stretch of terrain on the refuge. The following summer, César Ortigoza and members of Aguilas del Desierto were granted a rare opportunity to search a portion of the nearby Barry Goldwater bombing range.
“That day we found eight remains,” Ortigoza recalled. “Eight different heads.”
Photos: Laura Saunders for The Intercept
For volunteers in the Ajo area, finding dead bodies became both a painful routine and a rare window into the loss of life in the west desert that previously did not exist. According to Anderson, the Pima County forensic anthropologist, records show humanitarian groups involved in the recovery of 77 sets of human remains in Arizona since 2000; 63 of those recoveries were made after the 2014 push began; 57 were reported around Ajo, most west of town, in places like the Growler Valley.
Given the heightened activity, and the rhetoric coming from the new administration, No More Deaths’ leadership took part in repeated meetings with Arizona law enforcement and land managers in 2017 to ensure that the group could continue its work.
On April 12, the day after Sessions’s Nogales visit, Fife, the Sanctuary Movement co-founder, and a group of No More Deaths volunteers met with the Border Patrol Tucson sector’s interim chief, Felix Chavez, and Assistant U.S. Attorney Anna Wright. In a sworn court declaration, Fife later said that he asked Chavez if his agency’s agreement with No More Deaths was still in place, and that he left the meeting “with the firm understanding the agreement had been affirmed.” The dialogue continued after the Byrd Camp raid. On July 6, Warren joined Fife and veteran No More Deaths attorney William Walker for a meeting with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Tucson. Several land managers teleconferenced in. According to the accounts of multiple individuals present at the meeting, Assistant U.S. Attorney Larry Lee left those involved with the impression that his office was not interested in prosecuting No More Deaths volunteers. A Fish and Wildlife official who attended the meeting noted that “95% of issues between the Government and NMD are with Department of Interior” and added that “Tickets issued are dismissed/not prosecuted if the person shows up to court (DOJ has them ‘Commit’ to not violate again).”
But while federal officials were taking meetings with No More Deaths, they were also developing ways to stop the organization from doing its work. In late April, No More Deaths attorney Margo Cowan and three volunteers met with Sidney Slone and Mary Kralovec, Cabeza Prieta’s manager and assistant manager, respectively. The volunteers were seeking access to administrative roads on the refuge for the purpose of conducting rescue and recovery operations. Slone opposed the idea, taking the position that Border Patrol rescue beacons are better suited for rescuing migrants, that No More Deaths’ operations produce litter, and that most of the individuals trekking through the refuge are drug traffickers.
The days of No More Deaths calling on a trusted contact to resolve issues in the borderlands were through, just as surveillance in Ajo was mounting.
Following the meeting, Slone began workshopping a change to the permitting process for the Ajo corridor that would target No More Deaths directly. Because the west desert is littered with unexploded military ordnance, and because it is so remote and lacking in basic resources — like safe drinking water — land managers have long required would-be visitors to sign an agreement acknowledging potential risks. As No More Deaths was expanding its operations, Slone spearheaded an adjustment to the paperwork, requiring visitors to agree not to “abandon” personal property on Cabeza Prieta and publicly accessible parts of the bombing range. Failure to follow the rule could result in suspension or revocation of permits, as well as “judicial penalties,” including “fines, civil action, and/or debarment.” Items provided as examples included water containers, food items, blankets, clothing, footwear, and medical supplies.
The change went into effect July 1. By the time Warren and No More Deaths met with the U.S. Attorney’s Office days later, Slone was already looking to have humanitarian volunteers charged with crimes. That same day, he sent a letter to a Bureau of Land Management official stating that his office was “pursuing legal action against” Warren for driving on designated wilderness. In the field, Cabeza Prieta rangers documented their removal of food and water left by No More Deaths. Slone, meanwhile, began creating blacklists of people who were banned from the refuge — comprised entirely of No More Deaths volunteers.
Back at office, Cabeza Prieta officials were passing intel on Warren and No More Deaths to the Border Patrol. In July, Margot Bissell, a visitor services specialist at Cabeza Prieta, received a text message from John “Rambo” Marquez. An eight-year Border Patrol veteran, Marquez joined the Ajo station’s “Disrupt Unit” in December 2016, just as Warren and the humanitarian community were turning their attention to the west desert. The Disrupt Unit is the Border Patrol’s attempt at running complex investigations typically overseen by the FBI, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or the Drug Enforcement Administration. Though agents on the plainclothes teams tend to lack the specialized training, authority, and experience of their special agent counterparts, that did not stop Marquez from launching an investigation into humanitarian activity at the Barn in April 2017, the same month Sessions traveled to Nogales to order prosecutors to bring more harboring and smuggling cases.
Marquez had taken a particular interest in Warren, who he later described as “an active volunteer for NMD who organizes and recruits college students to aid in supply drops, and speaks publicly on immigration issues.” In December 2017, he met with Donald Ebann, a Cabeza Prieta law enforcement officer, who lived near the Barn. In the weeks that followed, the pair exchanged information regarding the property, and Warren specifically. “The barn is active this morning,” Ebann wrote in early January text message. A few days later, Marquez sent the wildlife officer Warren’s home address. Ebann returned the favor by letting him know that Warren’s vehicle was at the Barn. None of the communications, later turned over to Warren’s attorneys, mentioned suspected violations of the laws Ebann and Marquez are employed to enforce. Marquez would later report that his investigation into the Barn was launched, in part, on tips provided by “concerned citizen[s].” Those “citizens” were in fact Ebann and Bissel, federal officials who Marquez failed to mention were quietly supplying intel on humanitarian aid volunteers.
In an interview in his office last year, Walker told me that he attributed the absence of No More Deaths prosecutions in recent years to his positive working relationship with Lee, the assistant U.S. attorney in Tucson who typically handled such matters. In October 2017, however, Lee left the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Arizona. The days of No More Deaths calling on a trusted contact to resolve issues in the borderlands were through, just as surveillance in Ajo was mounting. Anna Wright, the assistant U.S. attorney who had attended the April and July meetings with No More Deaths, took over cases relating to the organization. On December 6, her office filed charges against nine volunteers for actions related to their work on Cabeza Prieta. Warren was charged for straying onto a Cabeza Prieta administrative road in June, as were four volunteers who led a rescue operation on the refuge in July. A third group of four were charged with trespassing and abandonment of property stemming from an August water drop.
After months of attempted negotiations, the relationship between humanitarian groups and law enforcement was in free fall, and it was about to go from bad to worse.
In the fall of 2017, two strangers from Central America began trekking north. Twenty-one-year-old Jose Arnaldo Sacaria-Goday left Honduras at the end of September; 23-year-old Kristian Gerardo Perez-Villanueva set off from El Salvador soon after. Their journeys took weeks. Sacaria-Goday eventually found refuge in an abandoned house south of the border. Perez-Villanueva took up residence in a migrant shelter. The pair met under a bridge where they would bathe and beg for money. Together, they scaled the wall between the U.S. and Mexico on the night of January 12, 2018, dropping into the darkened desert.
Dressed in camouflage, Perez-Villanueva vaguely knew how to use the compass they carried. When the sun was gone, he relied on the stars. It was bitterly cold. Early one morning, the pair were chased, unsuccessfully, by immigration agents. They dropped their food and supplies as they ran. They arrived in Ajo with the sun. After hours of seeking help at local gas stations, a stranger drove them to a property on the edge of town — the Barn. According to Perez-Villanueva’s later testimony, the man told them that they might be able to find help there, “but it wasn’t a sure thing.”
The men let themselves into the Barn’s bathroom through an unlocked door. Warren arrived shortly after. In Spanish, Perez-Villanueva asked for food, water, and, perhaps, a place to sleep. Warren obliged. “He said we could just stay a short time, not a long time,” Perez-Villanueva testified. The migrants spent two nights at the Barn, cooking, resting, and preparing to carry on with their journey, while Warren and other No More Deaths volunteers came and went.
At 8:23 a.m., on the morning of January 17, No More Deaths emailed the Border Patrol Tucson sector public affairs office, informing the agency of a report the organization would drop that day, documenting the destruction of thousands of gallons of water left for migrants in the desert over multiple years. The evidence, which included video footage, pointed to Border Patrol agents as the perpetrators.
Two hours later, at the Border Patrol station in Ajo, Fernando T. Grijalva, the patrol agent in charge, forwarded the No More Deaths email to the Ajo district commander for the Pima County Sheriff’s Department and an official at the National Park Service. “For your situational awareness,” Grijalva wrote. By midday, video of Border Patrol agents destroying water jugs was circulating widely.
Back at the Barn, Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday were preparing to make their exit. Late in the afternoon, they stepped outside for a cigarette. Warren pulled up to the property as they smoked. The three spoke briefly before the migrants headed into the Barn’s bathroom to grab the last of their things. Warren began building a fire in the fire pit. From a few hundred yards away, on BLM land to the north, he was being watched.
As No More Deaths’ report was circulating online, Border Patrol agents in Ajo were mobilizing. Marquez texted Ebann advising him that he and his partner, Agent Brendan Burns, were going to “set up for a few hours to watch the barn.” While the two did not discuss any suspicion of criminal activity at the property, Ebann did note that “NMD is going to be on news channel 4 tonight at 10 pm talking about vandalism to their water drop sites.” While Marquez and Burns settled in, Agent Alberto “Balls” Ballesteros monitored the Cabeza Prieta office. The three agents waited. Shortly before 5 p.m, the mood shifted. “2 toncs at the house,” Marquez texted, using common Border Patrol slang for migrants. (According to some agents, “tonc” refers to the sound a flashlight makes when it connects with a migrant’s skull.)
“What!?!?!?!?!?!” Ballesteros replied. “Nice!”
From their vantage point, Marquez and Burns could see Warren speaking with Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday. In a larger Disrupt Unit group text, a raiding plan quickly took shape. “We’d like to get guys in position to get up and knock it fast before they can bolt,” Burns wrote.
As the convoy pulled into the property, Warren made his way down the line of law enforcement, telling the agents and deputies that they did not have permission to be on private property. Once Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Godoy were found, Warren was placed under arrest. He was driven to the same station he had visited as part of the Border Patrol’s “Citizens Academy” years earlier. He spent a sleepless night in cell by himself, watching as dozens of children and families were shuffled through the processing center. At 6 a.m., a bus arrived to take the detainees to Tucson. Warren was last to board. A contractor stopped him and handed him a pair of handcuffs — none of the other detainees had been cuffed. “These are for you,” he said. “I guess you must be a special case.”
Warren and the others were moved through the bowels of the federal courthouse in downtown Tucson and loaded into a large elevator with a cage built inside. They emerged in a bright, clean courtroom.
Harboring prosecutions are rare. When prosecutors do bring such a case, it’s typically because they are looking to bring down some profit-driven criminal network. In an analysis of 119 human-smuggling cases filed in U.S. District Court in Tucson during the first six months of 2018, the Arizona Daily Star uncovered just two cases in which the accused were not suspected of attempting to turn a profit. For John Fife, who felt the full force of a federal investigation as the co-founder of the Sanctuary Movement, there was little mystery behind the seemingly unusual decision to prosecute Warren. “This is Sessions-Trump getting their arms around this bureaucracy,” the reverend said. The bureaucracy Fife referred to was the Border Patrol and its union. “I think the union believes they won the election and they’re gonna make the decisions out in the field,” Fife added. “They know best and we’ve taken the shackles off.”
Border Patrol union figures were indeed following the case. On “The Green Line” podcast, Tucson-based host Art Del Cueto described Warren as a “crybaby activist” complaining to the media about his case — Warren had not spoken to any reporters — and referred to him as “Warren the illegal alien harborer.” For Del Cueto, the question of what Warren and No More Deaths does was black and white. “They’re harboring and they’re making it easier for these individuals to commit a crime,” he said. “That is why this man was arrested.” Brandon Judd, the president of the union, echoed that sentiment while appearing before Congress weeks later. After defending the destruction of water jugs as a “humanitarian effort” — “If that water heats up in the desert, it’s actually a lot more dangerous to drink” — Judd complained that agents had been shackled in their efforts to crack down on humanitarian aid organizations under Obama. “We know that these groups are helping people cross the border illegally,” he said, adding, “what they’re doing is they’re furthering the entrance of these individuals.”
“They’re harboring and they’re making it easier for these individuals to commit a crime. That is why this man was arrested.”
In Warren’s case, the government claimed that Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday were not in distress when they got to the Barn and that Warren gave them directions for continuing north. But when Warren and his defense team heard from the migrants themselves, in depositions in early March, the story sounded much different.
The state’s material witnesses told defense attorneys Gregory Kuykendall and Amy Knight that they came to Ajo after walking through the freezing desert night, that they lost their food and water running from immigration agents, that they were hungry and their feet hurt. They testified that they never discussed their travel plans with Warren, nor their plans to seek asylum, nor what countries they were from. They added that Warren never gave them instructions for going north, never drove them anywhere, or told them to hide inside the Barn. They said they were free to come and go as they pleased.
Perez-Villanueva and Sacaria-Goday were deported shortly thereafter.
Though the U.S. Attorney’s Office has not laid out its conspiracy case in explicit terms, prosecutors offered a strong hint at the government’s angle in an April court filing, writing that a forensic examination of Perez-Villanueva’s phone revealed “text messages with an individual identified as ‘Ireneo’ related to arranging transportation within the United States on January 14, 2018.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office noted that Warren’s potential witness list included an individual named Irineo Mujica, who might testify about his interactions with the migrants. “It is clear that the indictment, taken with the disclosure, is sufficient to advise the defendant of the possible co-conspirators,” the team of prosecutors wrote.
The strength of the government’s conspiracy case will be critical in the months ahead. Mujica is a high-profile figure in the border rights community. He runs a migrant shelter in Sonoyta and was featured alongside Warren in a Pulitzer Prize-winning Arizona Republic-USA Today network story in 2017. He’s better known, however, for his role in running Pueblo Sin Fronteras, an organization that has been instrumental in working alongside the migrant caravans to the U.S. border that have drawn Trump’s ire. As The Intercept revealed in February, Mujica and Pueblo Sin Fronteras were at the center of a sprawling intelligence-gathering operation targeting activists and journalists in the Tijuana area through late 2018 and early 2019. Documents leaked to an NBC San Diego affiliate later confirmed the operation.
Mujica could not be reached for comment. Alex Mensing, a longtime Pueblo Sin Fronteras volunteer, said the pressure his organization and No More Deaths are facing are linked. “It’s not surprising,” that Mujica’s name might surface in Warren’s case, Mensing told me. “Humanitarian assistance and solidarity with migrants and refugees is a common thing along the border region,” he said. “The U.S. government is trying to criminalize all of that.” Like No More Deaths, Pueblo Sin Fronteras has been a favorite villain of the Border Patrol union. If, through Warren’s felony case, government prosecutors can convince the court that members of two of the border’s most well-known humanitarian groups conspired to illegally move people into the U.S., it would mark a major win for the president’s hard-right devotees.
Warren’s first major pretrial hearing, held last May, coincided with the retrial of Lonnie Swartz, a Border Patrol agent who shot and killed José Antonio Elena Rodriguez, a 16-year-old Mexican teenager from Nogales, from the U.S. side of the border in 2012. With the U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuting both cases, protesters lined the sidewalk outside Tucson’s federal courthouse, calling for Swartz to be convicted and the charges against Warren to be dropped. Both men faced two decades in prison. Swartz was found not guilty in November.
Thirty-five years after the Sanctuary Movement convictions, 2 1/2 decades after the government began funneling migrants into the desert, and amid a new border enforcement blitz, Warren’s case and the broader No More Deaths crackdown are now cemented in a longer story about border policing, migration, and humanitarian aid in southern Arizona.
In early January, Natalie Renee Hoffman, Oona Meagan Holcomb, Madeline Abbe Huse, and Zaachila I. Orozco-McCormick became the first No More Deaths volunteers who took part in the humanitarian push into Ajo to stand trial. After three days of testimony, Magistrate Judge Bernardo Velasco found the four guilty of littering and trespassing. They were each sentenced to 15 months of probation and ordered to pay $250 in fines. The second group of volunteers facing misdemeanor charges accepted similar consequences days later, and the charges against them were formally dismissed.
Through 2018, Velasco oversaw the majority of Warren’s pretrial motions, resuming a role he played in the mid-2000s, the last time he was involved in a felony No More Deaths case. Back then, he took the position of the Border Patrol union chiefs: that by driving migrants in need of medical care to Fife’s church, volunteers were indeed “furthering” their illegal entry into the country, meaning that if the Border Patrol and U.S. Attorney’s Office wished to prosecute them, they could. District Judge Raner Collins, Velasco’s boss then and now, took a different position. Collins dismissed the case, writing that the defendants “were assured that the ‘protocol’ had been approved by Border Patrol and that the transportation for these medical purposes was not a violation of the law.”
The ruling applied only to the case at hand, Collins stressed, adding, “The notoriety that this case has received makes it highly unlikely that any others will be put in a similar situation.” Despite the judge’s prediction, many of the same questions have returned in 2019. Whether history will repeat itself remains to be seen.
The weight of what’s being considered in Warren’s prosecution was on full display last spring. At his hearing in May, Warren’s attorneys argued that his arrest amounted to a violation of religious freedom. Dozens of supporters crowded into Velasco’s courtroom. Warren’s eyes passed over the rows of people he knew, some of whom he had spent long days with deep in the Sonoran Desert. He smiled, making eye contact and nodding gratefully at every friend and family member who had shown up. The first witness to the stand was Warren’s father, Mark, a water rights consultant who described raising Warren in the holy space of the natural world, where he cultivated a deep empathy for all living things. When asked if this belief system compelled Warren to help those in distress, the former Peace Corps volunteer was unequivocal.
“Scott’s desire to help is in fulfillment of a deeply felt, gut-level need based on his deep faith.”
“I know with an absolute certainty that that is the case, that his belief system compels him to help these people,” Mark testified. “Scott’s desire to help is in fulfillment of a deeply felt, gut-level need based on his deep faith.”
The courtroom was silent when Warren finally took the stand. Testifying about his decision to move to Ajo, Warren said, “There’s something about a place, that place in particular, about the soul of that place and the spirit of that place, that really spoke to me.” He described the beauty and pain he saw in Ajo, how it was everywhere. “In the surrounding desert there, we know of hundreds, thousands of people who have died,” he testified. “We are surrounded by that death in our town. People have died deep in the desert, they have died on dirt roads, they have died within a stone’s throw of people’s houses, they have died on the edge of town. The entire desert is a sacred place. It’s a graveyard.”
At one point, Warren was asked to explain how he knew that the remains he found were those of migrants. For what felt like several minutes, the man who had been publicly silent about his case, offered a long, uninterrupted monologue of evidence and personal experiences that confirmed the crisis in the borderlands. When Wright, the prosecutor, asked whether he was a “facilitator” with No More Deaths and supported “the group’s mission,” Warren replied, “The mission I support is the mission to end death and suffering in the Arizona Sonora O’odham borderlands.”
The sun was beginning to rise when we pulled into the Barn’s driveway, bathing the landscape in orange and pink. The Armadillos hit the road the night before, as they always do, making the eight-hour drive from San Diego so they could spend the weekend putting in work. The mission this day was typical: a young man last seen near La Muela, a tooth-shaped mountain on Organ Pipe. With temperatures predicted to hit 120 degrees before noon, this was expected to be a recovery rather than a rescue. Rumbling onto the monument, our tiny convoy stopped briefly to chat with a Border Patrol agent. Leaning out of his driver’s side window, Ortigoza, the group’s co-founder, explained our purpose. Careful in the heat, the agent said.
At a small clearing, the Armadillos gathered in a half circle. Wearing tan military boots, khaki cargo pants, and neon shirts, essential for spotting one another at great distances, they bowed their heads in prayer.
The volunteers then fanned out across the desert and set off south, 200 yards or more between each person. The sun beating down, the air itself became an oppressive force. The Armadillos pressed forward. I followed Rocky and Julio, two veteran searchers originally from Mexico. Rocky, whose grandfatherly look belies an absurd level of physical stamina, met Ortigoza years ago. Moving through the brush, he explained how they had bonded over tragedy. Rocky’s nephew was among the 43 college students who had disappeared at the hands of Mexican police in 2014. The following year, Ortigoza drove the parents of the disappeared across the U.S. as part of a caravan to bring awareness to the case. Along the way, the tour stopped at Rocky’s home in California. Ortigoza explained his work searching for missing migrants, and soon Rocky was joining him on treks into the desert.
It’s common to go out looking for one person and find somebody else.
A vulture circled above a peak up ahead. Rocky led the way, scrambling up the rocks, looking for clues. From our vantage point, we had a sweeping view of the landscape below, which, it soon became clear, was crisscrossed with footpaths. Looking south toward the Mexican border, Rocky pointed to a valley between two sharp peaks. “It’s a road,” he said, a highway for the traffic that’s always coming. We made our way down, descending and rising through the washes that cut across the Organ Pipe, the ups and downs that make crossing through this area so exhausting — and so deadly. We found a pair of bushes large enough to crawl under. Rocky and Julio dozed for a few minutes before Rocky’s compulsion to move got the best of him, and he took off again. Julio and I were left to chat.
Julio had put in 12 hours at his job at a Los Angeles auto-body shop the day before. After his shift and a goodbye to his family, he drove straight through the night so he could be at the Barn that morning. He estimated that he got about 30 minutes sleep. I asked why he did the work. “It’s a long story,” Julio said. In 2006, he explained, his best friend disappeared crossing on the O’odham reservation. He was 14 years old. Julio organized a search party, but they had no idea what they were doing. After a couple of days, the rescuers nearly became lost themselves. The group eventually located a reservation police officer and explained the situation. Days later, police found the friend’s body along with more than a dozen others. Their guide had abandoned them. Julio became obsessed, and perpetually frustrated, by the fact that so many people die crossing the border and that so few people seemed to care. He resolved to do something.
The Armadillos never found the young man they were looking for that day. They did, however, find two sets of bleached white bones that appeared to be human. They marked the location for the authorities. That’s common, Ortigoza said, to go out looking for one person and find somebody else.
Photos: Kitra Cahana and Laura Saunders for The Intercept
That night, Ortigoza and the Armadillos were among the attendees at a demonstration in Ajo to honor migrant lives lost on the border and to show support for Warren. It was part of a weekend of activities organized by No More Deaths and the Samaritans dubbed “Flood the Desert,” which included clergy carrying water jugs onto Cabeza Prieta and leaving them there. I spent much of that weekend with Warren and the people who have mobilized around him. Sitting in his apartment one afternoon, Warren described how he had become consumed with the places reflected on the giant west desert map tacked to his wall. “It was my whole world,” he said. “My life.” Warren was fresh off his first trip back into the field as a humanitarian aid volunteer. Though he is still committed to the work, going forward, Warren hopes to maintain a relationship with the desert “that’s not just within the context of the war zone.” He knows that won’t be easy.
“It’s hard because trauma is ever-present,” Warren said. “When you’ve spent five years looking for it, it’s easy to see it everywhere.”
The moral, ethical, and legal questions presented by human migration in the Sonoran Desert are already matters of life and death — since Warren’s arrest, 167 new dots have been added to Arizona’s migrant mortality map. But the current political and environmental climate raise questions about the future: Will the next two decades be deadlier than the last? And what will the state do with those working to prevent that from happening?
For those in Warren’s corner, his prosecution is an ongoing outrage. Warren, however, somehow manages to remain serene. I asked him if, at any point since his arrest, he had actually become angry. First, he chuckled. “Disappointed, more so?” he said. “Certainly,” he said, he’s felt anger “at seeing the way people are treated by the system,” but personal anger not so much. If anything, Warren said, the experience has allowed him to live him in the moment.
What the future will bring for Scott Warren is uncertain. He is a character in a story he set out to document, in a way he never would have asked for. In the 1980s, when Warren was a child and the Sanctuary Movement was first coalescing in a Tucson church, the United States was shutting its doors to Central American asylum-seekers on the border. The picture today is much the same. Border ports are effectively closed to the families currently seeking asylum, most from Central America. Amid the bottleneck, Ajo corridor smugglers are dropping busloads of families off in the desert by the hundreds. Meanwhile, at the migrant shelter in Nogales, volunteers are seeing a change in the makeup of recent deportees. A recent survey found that, on average, individuals deported to Nogales had spent nearly two decades living in the U.S. More than half came to the country as minors, most had U.S. citizen children, and virtually all were holding down jobs when they were deported. Nearly three out of four said they intended to return.
On the final night of Flood the Desert, Warren’s friends and supporters gathered in Ajo’s town square. Fifty-seven white crosses were arrayed in concentric circles around the square’s flagpole, marking each set of human remains found around Ajo in 2017. With the sun gone, the heat of the day was reduced to a manageable summer breeze. Warren’s partner, Emily Saunders, read “Kindness,” a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye that implores the reader to understand that “before you learn the tender gravity of kindness, you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho lies dead by the side of the road. You must see how this could be you, how he too was someone who journeyed through the night with plans and the simple breath that kept him alive.” The names of Ajo’s disappeared were read aloud. When names were not available, the word desconocido was used. Warren helped distribute candles to the crowd. One by one, when people were ready, they extinguished their candles in a wheelbarrow. There was silence as they filtered out of the square. Warren, meanwhile, lay barefoot in the grass, his fingers laced behind his head, gazing at the sky as the stars came out.