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The man who plants crosses where migrants die

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The parched soil of the Sonoran Desert is the colour of cinnamon biscuits. Saguaro cacti make few shadows under the punishing, late-morning sun as we pick our way through coarse, thigh-high grasses and spiky shrubs. No one speaks. Alvaro Enciso uses his spade as a walking aid on the uneven terrain. The still air carries the metallic ringing of the shovel as it hits stones underfoot.

It feels lonely, but many others have been here before us. Occasionally we see the evidence of this human traffic — an old sock, a weathered plastic bottle. For migrants, this is one of the deadliest places to cross from Mexico into the United States on foot. The temperatures regularly exceed 100F. Since the year 2000, the remains of more than 3,600 undocumented people have been found in the desert of southern Arizona.

Enciso, an artist and Vietnam veteran, has made memorialising those whose lives ended here his artistic mission. “I’m one of them,” he says simply.

But Enciso did not walk to the US. When he arrived in the 1960s from Colombia, he came by plane with the right papers. After serving in the US army, he got an education, found good jobs and became an artist. “I found most of what the American dream is all about. So now this is my time to repay, to honour the courage it takes to leave everything behind.”

Enciso calls his project Donde Mueren los Sueños, Where Dreams Die. Over nearly a decade, he has planted about 1,300 colourful crosses to mark the places where migrants have passed away. Art, Enciso thinks, should make the invisible visible. We are accompanying him on one of his weekly trips into the desert, together with three volunteers. The youngest is Bryce Peterson who lopes ahead of us, GPS in hand, a large wooden cross painted salmon-pink across his shoulder.

We reach a low, thorny tree. According to an interactive map that charts the locations where migrants have perished in southern Arizona, this is where Bertha Larios Perez, a 35-year-old Guatemalan, died in June 2021.

Enciso begins to dig a hole about eight inches deep. As he works, he reflects on what we know about Bertha’s demise from the Pima County medical examiner’s report, case number 21-2373. Her remains were found by the US Border Patrol within a day of her death from hyperthermia. Unlike some bodies, hers was still “fully fleshed” when it was discovered, the description reads.

“Hyperthermia’s terrible,” says Enciso, referring to what happens when body temperature rises greatly above normal. “If you don’t put enough water in your body, then your temperature goes up and up until your vital organs begin to fry.”

The digging done, Peterson brings the cross and stands it upright in the hole. Peter Lucero, another volunteer, shakes in quick-drying cement and adds water from a bucket he has carried from our vehicles parked some 300m away.

Enciso painted the cross pink and decorated it with tiny bits of shiny metal — pieces of sardine cans or other tinned food left by people on their way north. “This is all we can do for Bertha,” he says as he finishes mixing in the cement. “I’m putting this cross to give this person a little bit of presence. She had a name and a family. And she had plans. They all ended here — another American dream that went bad.”

Enciso takes a few steps back. He wants every cross to be perpendicular, and calls instructions to Lucero, who moves it fractionally to the left. Once Enciso is satisfied, Lucero removes his hat. He stands in front of the cross, his head bowed, a rosary and a small plastic bottle of holy water in his hands. He drapes the rosary around the cross and splashes some water on it. “Rest in peace, our friend,” he says, ending his prayer. A Catholic, Lucero has been through this ritual hundreds of times. “But each one’s unique — just like the individual. As far as my faith is concerned, this is the right thing to do.”

Enciso is not religious, yet he chose to use the Christian symbol of faith. He tried others, but none achieved the artistic result he was looking for. “I didn’t want to use the cross because it already has enough baggage. And I wanted this project to be more universal,” he says. “But then I started to learn about the history of the cross.

“I learnt it was invented by the Roman empire. They made these huge crosses, and they hanged people from them in the sun without any water, without any shade, until they died. Which is not very different from what is happening here — most people die here from lack of water, hyperthermia and a prolonged exposure to the elements.”

Before we leave, Enciso records some details in a small, black notebook and takes photos of the cross. Back in the car, we bump our way along rough tracks until we return to State Route 286, a two-way highway that runs south to the border with Mexico. There is very little traffic; only a couple of pick-ups and a US Border Patrol truck pass us.

Then ahead, on the left, a figure emerges from the desert scrub. We pull up. A short, sturdy young man in camouflage green, his baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, comes over. Enciso jumps nimbly from the passenger seat, in a move that belies his 77 years. He offers the man, who is from Mexico, food and water. The man says he has been walking for two days and nights. He asks if we have a phone battery. Peterson, the cross-carrier, has a spare one and hands it over.

Then the man in camouflage is gone. With everyone aware of the nearby presence of the US authorities tasked with apprehending migrants, the encounter has lasted less than three minutes. It is not illegal to give someone food or medical assistance, but it is against the law to transport an undocumented person.

Enciso is impatient with US immigration policy. He is at odds with Americans who believe a reinforced border with Mexico is the only way to stop people dying in the Sonoran Desert. “Securing the wall hasn’t worked,” he says. “That doesn’t stop migration. They never understood the desperation of being poor . . . ”

Migrants used to walk across the border in major towns and cities. Only in the past two decades, with the US crackdown on illegal entry, have they begun crossing in large numbers in remote areas like southern Arizona. The assumption that this movement of people would slow to a trickle once everyone realised how risky the journey was has proved mistaken.

Our next destination is the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, east of the 286. “We’re going to put a cross for a teenager. It’s a terrible tragedy,” Enciso says. We are soon several miles off-road. On arrival, the team gets the gear out of the cars in a well-oiled routine. Enciso checks over the burnt-orange cross he has crafted for the 17-year-old Mexican. David Whitmer, another volunteer, warns us to be careful where we tread. “You could step on any kind of critter, especially the rattlesnake kind of critter,” he says.

Again, there is the detritus of left-behind items from those who have passed through. There are empty bottles of electrolyte drinks and tiny, shredded pieces of blue plastic. “Surgical gloves,” says Enciso. They were probably worn by those who came to collect the body of Fernando Xalamihua Tzompaxtle, case number 21-3991. The medical examiner’s report says Tzompaxtle’s mummified and skeletal remains were found by the US Border Patrol in October 2021.

The ceremony of cross planting begins again. The cause of Tzompaxtle’s death is undetermined. Was it the heat? Dehydration? Sometimes it’s the walking, which can take up to a week. “If you do not have a good pair of shoes, you get blisters and you can’t walk anymore. That’s when you know you’re done,” says Enciso.

Mexican drug cartels often control border crossings. For them, migrants are just another “product” to transport in return for cash. And if they become sick or too exhausted to walk, the guide will simply leave them behind. “Where was I when I was 17?” says Enciso, gathering stones to place around the cross. “I was in Colombia trying to figure out a way to get out. Either we come here to the US or we may be killed. Or we’re going to live in poverty for the rest of our lives.”

Two-thirds of the more than 3,600 migrants who have died in the desert have been identified by fingerprints, ID or DNA. The rest remain nameless.

In Tucson, the Pima County medical examiner’s office is charged with identifying human remains. The last few years have seen record numbers of migrant deaths: 215 in 2020, 214 in 2021. Greg Hess, the forensic pathologist in charge, thinks this might be due to excessive temperatures and drought. “We’d like to return to how this was in the 1990s when we had very few of these remains — less than 20 a year,” he says.

Hess and Enciso have met several times, and the pathologist appreciates the artist’s efforts to tell the story of death in the desert. We visit the medical examiner’s office ahead of our off-road excursion, armed with the reference numbers for the people whose places of death we will be marking with a cross.

In the anthropology lab, case 22-2615 is in the process of being identified. On a wooden tray, resting on white gauze are a cranium, a mandible and a small bag with some black head hair. There are clavicles and rib-ends. On a tag is written, “Jane Doe”. Her estimated age is between 22 and 28, and she was short at 4ft 11in. According to the notes, this woman was reported dead by a man travelling with her. But when he called 911, he did not identify either of them.

Our final cross-planting mission with Enciso will be to mark the place where this young woman’s life ended in July. Under a leaden grey sky, the GPS leads us west of State Route 286. On an unpaved trail, we round a corner and are confronted by a steep bank of sandy-coloured soil. Lucero tries to drive up it, fails and reverses back down. We get out of the cars, and there is a giant clap of thunder.

Enciso scrambles up the bank to see if it is possible to access the site. There is a ravine beyond, and the GPS co-ordinates mark Jane Doe’s place of death on the other side of that. With the weather closing in, Enciso decides we should make an exit. He’ll have to come back. It’s too dangerous to cross.

Listen to Linda Pressly’s reporting from Arizona in “Heart and Soul: Arizona’s Desert Crosses” on the BBC World Service

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