Apr 5, 2018

Border Trilogy Part 2: Hold the Line

Border Trilogy 

While scouring the Sonoran Desert for objects left behind by migrants crossing into the United States, anthropologist Jason De León happened upon something he didn't expect to get left behind: a human arm, stripped of flesh.

This macabre discovery sent him reeling, needing to know what exactly happened to the body, and how many migrants die that way in the wilderness.  In researching border-crosser deaths in the Arizona desert, he noticed something surprising. Sometime in the late-1990s, the number of migrant deaths shot up dramatically and have stayed high since. Jason traced this increase to a Border Patrol policy still in effect, called “Prevention Through Deterrence.”

Over three episodes, Radiolab will investigate this policy, its surprising origins, and the people whose lives were changed forever because of it.


Part 2: Hold the Line

After the showdown in court with Bowie High School, Border Patrol brings in a fresh face to head its dysfunctional El Paso Sector: Silvestre Reyes. The first Mexican-American to ever hold the position, Reyes knows something needs to change and has an idea how to do it. One Saturday night at midnight, with the element of surprise on his side, Reyes unveils ... Operation Blockade. It wins widespread support for the Border Patrol in El Paso, but sparks major protests across the Rio Grande. Soon after, he gets a phone call that catapults his little experiment onto the national stage, where it works so well that it diverts migrant crossing patterns along the entire U.S.-Mexico Border.

Years later, in the Arizona desert, anthropologist Jason de León realizes that in order to accurately gauge how many migrants die crossing the desert, he must first understand how human bodies decompose in such an extreme environment. He sets up a macabre experiment, and what he finds is more drastic than anything he could have expected.

This episode was reported by Latif Nasser and Tracie Hunte, and was produced by Matt Kielty, Bethel Habte and Latif Nasser.

Special thanks to Sherrie Kossoudji at the University of Michigan, Lynn M. Morgan, Cheryl Howard, Andrew Hansen, William Sabol, Donald B. White, Daniel Martinez, Michelle Mittelstadt at the Migration Policy Institute, Former Executive Assistant to the El Paso Mayor Mark Smith, Retired Assistant Border Patrol Sector Chief Clyde Benzenhoefer, Paul Anderson, Eric Robledo, Maggie Southard Gladstone and Kate Hall.

Jason de Leon's latest work is a global participatory art project called Hostile Terrain 94, which will be exhibited at over 70 different locations around the world in 2020.  Read more about it here.  

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.


CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Silvestre Reyes's brother died in a car accident in 1968; it was actually his father who died in the accident.  We also omitted a detail about the 1997 GAO report that we quote, namely that it predicted that as deaths in the mountains and deserts might rise, deaths in other areas might also fall. The audio has been adjusted accordingly.


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JA - Jad Abumrad

SR - Silvestre Reyes

TD - Tim Dunn

LN - Latif Nasser

LF- Larry Francis

DH - David Ham

AR - Archival tape

RK - Robert Krulwich

MK: Matt Kielty

BH: Bethel Habte

KH: Kate Hall

JD: Jason De León

JC: Juan Coronado

DM: Doris Meisner

DT: Donald Trump

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…: Wait, you’re listening…


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(Throat clears)


…: You’re…


…: Listening…


…:  To…


…: RadioLab…


…: RadioLab…


…: From…


…: WNY…


…: C!


LN: Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers - that works?


JA: Two, one Jad.


RK: Robert.


JA: Radiolab.


RK: And now we’re gonna do part 2 of our border pa-trilogy.


LN: Uhhh ok.


JA: With our Reporter Latif Nasser. In our last podcast, we had Part 1 of the series, which we called Hole in the Fence.


LN: But-but let’s-let, I-I’m excited to-to-to tell you now the rest of the story, I feel like I’ve been holding out on you.


RK: All right, okay.


JA: And now, Part 2: Hold the Line.


LN: Um, so, so let’s do first the-the previously on, I think. So the previously on is that, ah, we had, so it was, ah, December 1st, 1992...




LN: Ah, you have these Mexican-American high school kids from this poor neighborhood, this high school, Bowie High School in El Paso right on the border. They sue the border patrol who is, they say is harassing them, who’s hassling them because of really the color of their skin. And they win! They win this amazing improbable, uh-uh, victory to get the border patrol to stop.




LN: So that’s where we are now.


RK: Right.


LN: And things are about to take some unexpected turns.


TD: Okay ah-ah we’re looking at the early 1990s, the lawsuit was filed in 1992.


LN: And right after that lawsuit according to Tim Dunn, the sociologist who actually turned us on to this whole Bowie story. Right after the Bowie victory, the border patrol chief in El Paso Dale Musegades...


DM: Obviously...


TD: kind of old-school throwback...


DM: We’re not accomplishing 100 percent of our mission.


LN: He’s out.


TD: Musegades is replaced, and they bring in a new chief.


SR: My name is Silvestre Reyes, and


TD: Silvestre Reyes...


SR: I’ve been a-a-a veteran of the U.S. border patrol for 26.5 years.


TD: And he has a very different style...


LN: Great spot here, yea.

SR: Yea, this is one of my wife and I’s favorite place, where do you want me to sit?

LN: Here, so you could


LN: I met Silvestre Reyes in this Mexican restaurant on the outskirts of El Paso. He’s a big guy, broad shoulders, kinda looks like a… like a retired football player but who’s now a grandpa.


WOMAN: How are you? Merry Christmas.

SR: Merry Christmas.


WOMAN: My hands are a little

SR: Ah, what, coffee with cream?
WOMAN: Perfect!

SR: If you don’t mind


LN: Very kind face, for a guy who revolutionized how we deal with the border.


LN: You, and you grew up here.

SR: I did. We’re sitting here about a mile from where I was born.

LN: Yeah.

SR: Our farm was northwest of here. We, ah, we grew cotton.




LN: Okay.

SR: Alfalfa.

LN: Uh-uh.


LN: Some watermelon, some onions...


SR: I’m the oldest of ten.

LN: Uh-uh.

SR: Six brothers and four sisters.

LN: Yeah.


LN: He says that his brothers and sisters - they’d all work on the farm along with a bunch of undocumented workers who came in from Juarez.


SR: Back then we had party-line phones, so somebody would say, ‘Hey the border patrol’s coming today,’ but they didn’t know what time or where. So whenever that happened uh, I was tasked to sit in a two and a half ton truck.


LN: And he would watch the road.


SR: And I would blow the horn


[Horn blows]


SR: at the first sign of what we would refer to as “la migra”.

LN: Eh-to-to, so to alert the, the workers

SR: Yeah.


LN: He actually calls it the greatest irony of his life because fast forward to after college...


SR: I got drafted into the army.


LN: He gets drafted to go to Vietnam.


SR: I spent 13 months in Vietnam. I was a helicopter crew chief.

SR: When I came back from Vietnam, I was scheduled to go back, but what happened in, uh, 1968 was my dad… my second brother was on his way to Vietnam. So my dad was on his way to an airport, and he had an automobile accident and got killed.

LN: Oh no.

SR: So I was the oldest in the family, so they let me out to take care of the family.


LN: And so Reyes needed a job.


SR: Being a veteran, any federal exam they opened up for you.


LN: So he starts taking these federal job exams.


SR: The post office...


LN: Bureau of Prisons...


SR: Customs, border patrol, I mean just any test that I could, ‘cuz I had to make a living.


LN: And the very first place to call him back?


SR: Border Patrol.




SC: No.


LN: Yeah.


TD: That was what was available.


LN: Again Tim Dunn.


TD: Yeah, so he becomes a kind of pioneer, uh, in the border patrol as one of the early Hispanic agents when there were very few.


SR: The job was tough because they didn’t welcome you with open arms, because your name is Reyes and not Smith or Jones, but I kind of enjoyed the challenge.


LN: He said he was dead set.


SR: I’ll do everything twice as good in half the time.


LN: And eventually he moves from being an agent into management.


TD: And he works his way up through management.


SR: I was a first-line supervisor.


LN: Through the ranks.


SR: Second-line supervisor, taught at the academy.


LN: And he eventually becomes...


TD: The first Hispanic sector chief.




LN: Which means he’s in charge of a huge swath of the border in Texas.


SR: Yeah.


LN: So then come 1993, you are uh, Sector chief and you’re assigned back here.

SR: Right, I was moved here in late June, and uh, uh in early July I decided to assess the situation.


LN: And the situation in El Paso did not look good.


SR: No.




SR: The sector was a mess.


LN: So one of the first things Reyes discovers is that...


TV Presenter: The border between the US and Mexico...


LN: El Paso is in a state of...


TV Presenter: Pure chaos...


LN: Chaos.


SR: We were averaging about 10,000 illegal entries a day.

LN: A day?

SR: A day.

TV Presenter: Unprecedented numbers

TD: And border patrol didn’t have enough people to-to get them all.


SR: So people were telling me that, agents are pretty much...

TV Presenter: Regularly stopping El Pasoans...

SR: Running ramshackle through the city.


TD: Driving around the neighborhoods and questioning everybody, stopping people.


TV Presenter: Asking for their immigration status.


LN: And they’re doing this despite the fact that they just got sued by these high school kids for doing essentially the same thing.


TD: And this lawsuit is still hanging over the patrol.


LN: How big a deal was that?

SR: It was a huge deal. It was making a chaotic situation worse.




LN: And Reyes says on top of all of this.


SR: There was a movement when I got here.

…:We need to bridge the border.

LN: To push the border patrol out.


SR: That the border patrol should be moved 25 miles out of the city.


LN: To kind of create a borderless zone around the city to unite El Paso and Juarez…


TD: It was kind of in the spirit of NAFTA opening up.


Bill Clinton: NAFTA is good for us because it will cut the tariffs on trade between the United States and Mexico.


LN: The North American Free Trade Agreement...


TD: NAFTA’s going to open the border for the flows of goods and capital. Uh, but not people, and they’re saying, ‘Well, how about right here a little bit for people, too.’

SR: So they felt that the border patrol is an invading army. They’re the problem instead of the solution.


LN: Yeah, so what he finds is that they’re really unpopular, and and that’s just half the reason they’re unpopular. There’s a whole bunch of other people that hate them for a whole different reason.


RK: Really?


LN: Yea, he-he when he got there, he went on this listening walking tour of the neighborhoods along the border.

SR: There’s there’s whole neighborhoods there...


LN: Like and Chihuahuita and El Segundo Barrio...


SR: I walked those neighborhoods and I talked to them. And uh, they thought the border patrol was a disaster.


LN: But, instead of saying that the border patrol was overreaching, that they were doing too much...


SR: They felt that the border patrol, had failed them.


LN: They were upset that Border patrol was not doing enough.


SR: Had let them down. And the people that lived on those neighborhoods, they felt like they were under siege.


WOMAN: We have been vandalized three times by illegal immigrants. Our little girl is scared!

MK: People complained about burglaries, about loitering.


MAN: People selling their fruits, and knocking on doors, asking for money.


TD: They didn’t like have to deal with vendors all the time or-or people begging and they didn’t like having stuff stolen off their backyard.

SR: a garden hose, a lawn chair.


TD: Stuff stolen off their clothesline.


SR: Gone, overnight.


MK: And so what these people living right on the border wanted was more border patrol to stop what they perceived to be, you know, migrant petty crime


JA: Huh so he’s-he’s really getting it from like both sides here.


LN: Yeah-yeah it’s like the whole city, was coming at him.


SR: We were with one foot on a banana peel of getting driven out of town.

LN: Yeah.

SR: And so I had to change that. And I didn’t have a lot of time to do that.


RK: Okay. So what does he do?


LN: Well he has had an idea, a pretty radical idea.


SR: I knew there would be political pressure, there would be public outcry...


LN: And so he takes this idea around to a bunch of high level people.


SR: The Mayor of Juarez, The Mayor of El Paso...


LN: People at the Mexican Consul in El Paso...


SR: Our Consul in Juarez...


LN: The Sheriff in El Paso...


SR: Chief of police of Juarez and El Paso.


LN: And he’s going to each one of them, and basically saying look...


SR: Look, uh if we’re able to correct this thing...


LN: If I can quell the chaos...


SR: Would they support the border patrol? And they said yes.




LN: Ok, so here’s what I find so fascinating, it’s September of ‘93, and while Reyes is hatching his plan, at the same time, at the El Paso Civic Center, on this one particular weekend the United El Paso people are having this big convention talking about how we can try and create this borderless community...


TD: All sorts of local officials and civic leaders there hammering out their proposals and everything and presenting to the audience. And that same weekend...


LN: Silvestre Reyes rolls out his plan.


TD: He wanted this to be a surprise.


SR: So we launch the operation at midnight.


LN: So it’s September 18th, 1993.

SR: Saturday night.


LN: Reyes gathers all of his border patrol agents, 400 border patrol agents, from all over his sector

SR: And, I briefed every single shift of agents myself. And I told them what was at stake. I told them that if this thing didn’t work, they were going to run us out of town.


DH: My initial reaction was wow this is going to be interesting.


LN: Retired border patrol agent, David Hamm was there with his anti-drug smuggling unit, and he says that after the briefing


DH: We drove up to border highway on the Mexican side. And we got to uh downtown Juarez and the levy area about sunrise.


MK: And so, he and his agents are waiting right at the Rio Grande river


DH: The sun came up...


LN: And he said there, at the border, he just saw...


DH: Wall to wall border patrolling.


…: A wall of agents along the river, hundred yards apart each one in their trucks, light green trucks.


MK: There were helicopters


…: Buzzing


MK: Low along the river, there were floodlights everywhere so the agents could be out there.


...: Round the clock.


SR: 24 hours a day.


MK: Basically what Reyes had done is he had created a human wall on the border at the river that stretched for like 20 miles.


SC: Woah...


SR: And I had told, my guys, we’re in this for the long haul.


LN: What Reyes was doing, this was his plan, was to essentially change our strategy on the border. How we police the border.


SR: From a strategy of apprehension...


LN: Of letting migrants come in, and running around chasing them, sending them back,


SR: To one of deterrence.


MK: And he called it...


SR: Operation Blockade.


LN: Operation Blockade.




LN: Day 1...


SR: On Sunday morning like they always did...


LN: Hundreds of Mexican migrants

News Clip: Vendors, construction workers, housekeepers...


LN: Came down to the Rio Grande river, waiting to cross into El Paso for work but now they were confronted with...


News Clip: The Berlin Wall on the border...


SR: Border patrol agents...


News Clip: Lining the entire river bank...


SR: On the line, where they would have to wait them out.


News Clip: Waiting to see when the border patrol agents will pack up and leave...


LN: By the time night falls the migrants, they just turn and go home and figure okay, ‘I guess we’ll just come back in the morning.’


SR: They came back Monday and we were still there.


LN: And that’s when this starts to get...




LN: Chaotic. Day two...


News Clip: 7’s Amy Jacobsen is standing by live under the Paso del Norte bridge where incident occurred.


LN: Hundreds of Mexicans took to the main bridge, that connects El Paso and Juarez...


News Clip: An estimated 800 Mexican protesters closed the Paso del Norte bridge, and confronted border control.


SR: They burnt tires, they blockaded traffic…


News Clip: Began throwing rocks and bottles at agents.


LN: There were skirmishes, one agent was struck in the face with a rock.


News Clip: Blood and bandages still litter the area.


SR: Now, by that time, there was screaming going on.

News Clip: This, uh racist, fomenting racism.


LN: There are all these headlines in the newspaper.


News Clip: There are better ways to do this.


LN: Basically saying this, this new strategy, this is wrong.


News Clip: Operation Blockade is nothing more than an attempt to divide the community.


LN: Reyes says the mayor of El Paso, who he briefed about the operation, is denying ever knowing about it.


SR: So I called him and I said, Mayor, he says, Chief, I just didn’t know what to do.


Bishop: How many children are going hungry because their parents cannot come to El Paso to work?


MK: The local bishop came out and criticized Reyes.


SR: He said it was inhumane, to do what I was doing.


Bishop: How many will suffer cold this winter, if the blockade continues?


LN: And this is only day 2 of the blockade, by-by day 3…


News Clip: A throng of around 200 occupy the Pasa del Norte…


LN: things continue to get worse. Day 4 more protests. Day 5,6,7...


SR: At the end of the, of the week, people were starting to get really desperate. But a remarkable thing happened that I didn’t plan for.



News Clip: The banners on private property are out to show support for Operation Blockade.


SR: The, support for the border patrol just, pshhh, skyrocketed.


News Clip: These- they’re out there support- enforcing the laws...


SR: People that lived on those neighborhoods, that felt like they were under siege, and the border patrol had failed them, they came out with these huge banners of “we support our border patrol.”


LN: They tied ribbons on their cars...


SR: They came out with donuts and coffee...


LN: For the border patrol agents who are on the line. It was like all the sudden there was this sort of flip,


TD: People locally, loved it, across racial and ethnic lines.


News Clip: [Spanish] la criminalidad en El Paso...


LN: Because over time, what happened during this blockade, was two things: one...


News Clip: We’ve seen it reduce crime is one of the most popular reasons these El Pasoans are in favor of Operation Blockade.


LN: Crime goes down. Now, it’s hard to know whether this is actually because of the blockade, but there's a reduction in petty crime, uh something like 15%.


News Clip: For the local residents, that’s the bottom line.


LN: And a second thing, and this is way more surprising, was that for Mexican Americans, who’d been harrassed by the border patrol presence in their neighborhoods, they start to notice that...


News Clip: You just don’t see the agents anymore.


MK: The agents were gone.


TD: Right, right, it completely cleared them out.


MK: Because now they were all down on the border.


LN: So there’s this, you know, this tidal wave of support. Like virtually everybody locally in El Paso, both sides, like are are really happy with what he’s doing. He seemed to solve the problem, in one fell swoop.


LN: What was the reaction of Bowie High School?


SR: The principal called me.


LN: Yeah.


SR: Paul Screlzen was his name. He’s passed away now. He called me and he said, uh, Chief, I hope you - I hope you thought this out because you have given us our campus back.


LN: But, right in the midst of all of this, Silvestre Reyes gets a phone call. A phone call, from Washington D.C.


SR: Saying, you gotta stop this.




JA: We’ll tell you all about that phone call and what falls out of that call after the break.




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JA: This next part of the episode contains some moments that are very graphic - that depict death in a pretty brutal way. If you’re squeamish or you’re listening with kids, maybe turn - maybe think about skipping this part.


JA: Jad.


RK: Robert.


JA: RadioLab. This is part 2 of our border pa-triology from reporter Latif Nasser. When we left the story, Silvestre Reyes had put into place Operation Blockade


RK: Which was then renamed Operation Hold the Line.


JA: And everyone in El Paso seemed happy.


RK: Very happy.


LN: Yeah, but people in Washington DC were not, because the Clinton Administration they’re about to have this vote on NAFTA, they’re talking about free trade and then this guy, this little guy in El Paso, he’s has created a blockade.


JD: And, uh it’s looking like it’s going to be a little closer than they thought, and the last thing the Clinton administration needs is any controversy over this.


LN: And so right in the middle of Operation Blockade, Reyes gets a phone call from his boss’s boss’s boss.

SR: Have you ever met Janet Reno?

LN: No!


LN: Janet Reno who’s the Attorney General.


RK: Attorney General.


SR: She’s a big lady. Very imposing. I-I like her. I mean even back then when she was hammering away at me I liked her. And she wanted to talk to me, and she started using talking points, why it was the wrong thing.

LN: Yeah.

SR: Political consequences, international ramifications, blah blah blah.

LN: Yeah!


LN: He has this sense ok I’m, I’m abou-, I’m about to be fired...


SR: Oh yeah.


LN: But he says to her...


SR: I said, Madam Attorney General with all due respect, do me one favor. I said come and visit El Paso. Just come and visit El Paso.

LN: Yeah.

SR: I said because you are making these statements, with all due respect, without

knowing the difference that it’s made on- in El Paso. I said please come to El Paso. She... silence... and I said oh crap. But she says I will be there Tuesday.



LN: So Janet Reno flies to El Paso, Reyes sets up a bunch of meetings for her.


SR: And I told her. I said look - I’m not going to be there because I want you to hear

it unfiltered and without me being there.

LN: Yep.


LN: As he tells it, Janet Reno sat down for all these meetings with all these local business people and she was so blown away by what she heard, how happy everyone was with the situation. That she put aside the fact that Mexico was pissed, put aside NAFTA.

SR: And, uh, she came back and she-she shook my hand - very impressive.

LN: Hm.

SR: What you’ve done here is amazing. What people are telling me is incredible. I mean she went on and on. She says I’m going back and I’m going to tell the President that he needs to hear you talk about this operation.

LN: Wow!

SR: I said the President of the United States?


SR: Yes.

JA: Wait, she just changed her entire view after-after one visit?


LN: That’s what he says. And apparently she was barely there for a day.


JA: What?


LN: I wish we could get Janet Reno’s take on this, but unfortunately she died in 2016, but her change of heart actually makes a certain kind of sense.


DM: I mean, there was a real, a very important, um, political element to all of this.




LN: That’s Doris Meisner, she was at the time the Head of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Basically Janet Reno’s number two when it came to the border, and she says that at that moment that Janet Reno was in Texas touring El Paso, the Clinton Administration had a big problem on its hands because about a thousand miles west...


DM: The Californians are up in arms.


DM: ...about the illegal immigration that is coming into California...

News Clip: Where 40% of the babies born on Medicaid in California today are born of illegal immigrants. We could of course have - ‘We could enforce the borders’ - let me finish - ‘I agree with you’ -

News Clip: We are going to take back California.


LN: You had this wave...


Man from Clip: Do you like America?

Woman from Clip: Yeah!


LN: of anti-immigrant sentiment and initiatives like Proposition 187...


News Clip: Proposition 187 attempts to solve the state’s illegal immigration problem by denying services to illegal immigrants


LN: Super hard-line measure...


News Clip: The measure passed by 59% of the state’s voters...


LN: Passed by a wide margin...




LN: And the Clinton Administration was definitely paying attention.


DM: Because California is California.


News Clip: The largest electoral college prize in November’s Presidential Election.


LN: And keep in mind California had been a red state from 1968 all the way to 1992. Clinton was the guy who broke the cycle, and if he was going to get reelected...

DM: California had to continue to vote for the Clinton Administration.


LN: And so one of the things that might have changed Janet Reno’s mind or more importantly her boss, Bill Clinton’s mind, was that they saw in El Paso a potential solution to the California problem. If they could make illegal immigration way less visible as Reyes had done in El Paso, maybe they could hold the state.


News Clip: I am pleased to be here today with the INS Commissioner Doris Meisner.


LN: February 2nd, 1995...


News Clip: and special hero of mine, Chief Silvestre Reyes of the El Paso border patrol. We have just come from a meeting with President Clinton at which time he signed a Presidential Memorandum directing our agencies to move forward with new initiatives to gain control of our border and better enforce our immigration laws.


LN: This was the first National Border Patrol strategy.


DM: That’s right, I spent a great deal of time on it, things had not been done that way before, and it was a, it was a fundamental change in the strategy.


LN: According to Doris Meisner, and she really was the architect of this strategy, the idea was to take what Reyes was doing...


DM: which was very clarifying...


LN: and scale it up.


DM: There were basically 4 major crossing corridors along the southwest border.


LN: In each of those 4 spots, they were going to amass border patrol agents on the border, not behind the border, not in the city where they piss of the locals, but directly on the border.


DM: concentrate resources...


LN: Starting of course in California.


DM: Our strategy was to start in San Diego because that was the highest crossing corridor, maybe 45 to 50% of the crossings across the entire southwest border were happening in the San Diego sector. We start in San Diego with Operation Gatekeeper.


LN: That’s what that one was called.


DM: we then move to, I believe, Arizona and I’m just trying to think of what we named that operation

LN: Safeguard, was that it?

DM: Ah, Safeguard, that was, right, exactly. And on the fourth was South Texas.




JD: All of a sudden now, in 1994, the border patrol publishes this, what’s called the um, the strategic plan and also known as Prevention Through Deterrence.


LN: This is Jason DeLeon again, the anthropologist who started us off on this whole series.


JD: They-they write in this policy document: ‘We know the border cuts across a whole

bunch of very difficult environments. If we disrupt traditional crossing places, urban ports

of entry, and we push people towards these extreme environments, they will have to

cross rushing rivers, mountainous terrain, places that, where you can freeze to death,

where you can die of dehydration, but the extreme environment will slow people’s

movement, will make them easier to catch, and will also perhaps stop them from



LN: In other words, after Reyes it became our national strategy to push people away from urban areas and use, say, the desert as a kind of natural deterrent.


DM: The thinking was that that would be a natural geographic, you know uh, ally that would take care of the rest.




DM: Well now, one of the things of course that we learned is that uhm, that, that didn’t hold.


LN: Because in the ‘90s the Mexican economy was struggling so people still needed jobs and then on the American side, farms and businesses were still happy to hire them so people still crossed. Except now, they weren’t crossing through the cities, they were crossing through the desert where no one was watching.


Man: 5 men stumbled out of the mountain pass so sunstruck, they didn’t know their own names.


LN: Just like in Reyes’ book, the Devil’s Highway.


JD: Couldn’t remember where they’d come from, had forgotten how long they’d been lost.


LN: And so that’s why in the late ‘90s you see the number of people dying in the Sonoran Desert overnight start to skyrocket.


JD: You go from 5 to 10 bodies to, to hundreds.


LN: By 2002 or so the numbers in Arizona are up around 150 deaths per year. A couple years after that it goes over 200. Those are the official border patrol numbers that they report based on the number of bodies found. But after Jason had that experience finding an arm in the desert and not being able to locate the rest of the body, he started to wonder whether those numbers were accurate or not. Like, how many more people might be dying out there who are never found. Never counted.


JD: Yeah...


SW: Which for Jason at least, became a scientific question.


JD: About what happens to bodies in the dessert.


LN: How fast do they decompose?


JD: And what ends up happening is, um,  I just kind of hit the library, scoured the literature, you know, there’s body farms where we do this in Tennessee, Texas...


LN: Jason found this one paper that suggested that when bodies are decomposing in the desert, the heat and the dryness can drastically slow that process down.


JD: The desert is gonna conserve a body, is gonna mummify it and that people will be out there forever...


LN: According to that paper it could take up to six months for a body to decompose to the point where you’d be able to see the bones.


JA: Wow.


LN: But the remains in that study were collected in a bunch of different areas, under different conditions, sometimes even indoors.


JD: No one had done it kind of in situ in the dessert. We had literally no-no scientific data on that at all. And so I-I started getting really interested in is there a way to-to do some some science around this.


LN: He eventually roped in an assistant named Kate Hall.


KH: Kate Hall and I’m a physical anthropologist.


JA: hu, what’s a physical anthropologist?


KH: Uhm, a physical anthropologist is someone who studies, they study human bones and they try and infer what someone’s life and death was like from skeletal remains. And, Jason pretty much came up to me and told me that he’d been thinking about

getting some pigs...


JA: Pigs?


LN: Pigs.


JD: Pigs have long been the common proxy for human bodies you know for crime scene stuff like, uhm, they would they shoot them, they bury them, and they you know and they use them for these different sort of, um decomposition experiments.


LN: So...




LN: Jason and Kate and the research team head down to Arizona.


JD: University of Arizona has a meat laboratory that-that deals with live animals, so we called up uh Jerome the pig euthanizer. And he came out…


LN: In this big truck...


JD: Yup. He comes out with these animals...

KH: Two pigs.


LN: 150 pounds each.


KH: Alive.


LN: Jerome shoots the pigs in the head right in front of them and then Kate and Jason...


KH: We got shoes and socks.


LN: Dressed their pigs...

JD: bra, panties...

KH: jeans, t-shirts...


LN: In clothes that migrants would wear because they wanted to recreate the conditions exactly, and then they took these dressed dead pigs out into the desert.


KH: Arivaca, Arizona. And it’s like another planet. It’s like nowhere else I have ever been on Earth. Um, it’s hot, and saying it’s hot doesn’t really do it justice.


LN: It was like 115/120 degrees Fahrenheit.


RK: Whoa.


KH: so...


LN: Jason and the research team get together.


KH: in this big field and we had one, one pig under a tree, in light shade. We were trying to replicate like if someone was tired and needed to take a rest somewhere.


LN: And for the second pig Jason had heard...


KH: From anecdotes from migrants...

JD: Stories about people dying in their groups, and they would say, well we didn't want

to leave this person behind but we had to cuz they were dead.


LN: So they would cover their body with rocks...


JD: In hopes of protecting them from animals...


LN: So they placed these two pigs, one in the shade, one under rocks in the sun, and they set up a series of motion-sensing cameras all around the perimeter of the area to watch both pigs. These are the kinds of cameras that turn on if something moves.


KH: Right, we set up the cameras under a very, very, hot sun.


LN: And then, they waited. And remember, based on what Jason had read, the prevailing idea was that bodies in the desert don’t decompose until, you know, six months in...


KH: To around 9 months in.


LN: And that would make the likelihood that they’d be found higher which might suggest that the official numbers are accurate. Regardless, the assumption was that these bodies would be laying around for a while...


KH: But


LN: Pretty quick...


WIND SOUNDS IN [Sound from footage]


LN: Something moves and triggers the camera. So this is footage of the pig that was in the shade.


KH: And on the cameras you see...


LN: This pig just under a tree lying on its side. It’s wearing his little white shoes, it has jeans on


KH: It’s, it’s bloated, but it’s intact. And then...






LN: Later that night camera comes on again. It’s night vision. Um, you can see the pig, again… and then...




LN: You see this vulture, a few feet away from the pig.


KH: Kind of looking at it. Kind of checking it out.


LN: Just standing there.


KH: And then.




KH: After a couple of hours...




LN: Camera comes back on and now there are eight vultures on top of this pig.


KH: Pecking and...


LN: Tearing. A few hours later...


KH: They-they go in. They make a hole in the back of the neck, uhm kind of like, kind of right behind the ear. And they’re trying to get at the brain. And then...






KH: They pull off the shirt. They eventually rip the jeans off.




LN: By noon of the fifth day there are hoards of vultures.




KH: You see them attack the abdomen and rip open the stomach and then you see intestines being pulled out and then you have two vultures come in front of the camera and they’re playing tug of war with these intestines and… They start to take apart the limbs. They’ll actually like carry them away. They will carry limbs as like convenient packages of meat that they can eat later.


LN: On day seven.


KH: They dragged what was left of the body about 20 meters up a hill and within 9 days,

they had picked it, picked it clean.




KH: Everything’s been pulled apart. And just scattered all over the place.


LN: After nine days this, there’s hardly anything left.


JA: 9 days?


LN: Yeah.


RK: So they thought it might take 9 months and now it’s down to 9 days?


LN: Mhm, and-and that was the pig in the shade. The pig in the little rock hut? That pig went way faster.


JD: Yeah. That was within 24 hours vultures had started feeding and just got in underneath the rocks and ripped it up because we had really forgotten that-that rocks conduct heat. So it literally cooked the body and speeds up this process.


KH: It completely defied expectations. This wasn’t what we were expecting at all.


LN: And were-were vultures the only scavengers that you were noticing?


KH: Not the only scavengers. So we saw some ravens.


JD: Domestic dogs...




JD: You know, so this town of Arivaca where we work in a lot of people died nearby and they have these, you know, kind of ranch dogs that are pretty wide ranging and people have, I’d heard stories of people saying you know my dog came home with a, with a piece of human bone, uhm...


JA: Oh wow.


JD: But these animals were, you know, around our property eating these pigs.


JA: I’m just now thinking of it from the point of the dog owner like this dog comes in, gets on the couch and just like licks your face.


JD: Oh, yeah.


JA: That’s the same tongue that might have been gnawing on a human arm.


JD: Exactly.


LN: After the vultures and crows and dogs had had their ways with these pigs, Jason and Kate told us that the desert started working in smaller, almost invisible ways.




KH: I had never seen this before. Like, we’re used to flies and some beetles, but...

JD: We have footage of ants

KH: Ants!

JD: Consuming parts of long bones.

KH: They’re chipping off pieces of bone and carrying them off to this ant hole a meter

JD: That was really shocking and it kind of hinted at the fact that you leave someone

out there for, for long enough and they’ll, and they will completely disappear.

KH: This is an environment um in which people can become really easily just




    JA: Well there’s something about when-when you were describing the first moment when the vultures really sort of tear into the body, I-I found myself kind of recoiling trying to protect my abdomen.


    KH: I still have that reaction um there’s something just so overwhelmingly human about this. You can’t not take this personally.


    JA: Well, can we talk about the-uh, the numbers for a second, uhm, because if bodies are decomposing and disappearing this fast, those border patrol numbers start to look suspiciously low. Do you have any sense, based on the speed of the decomposition, how many we might be missing?


    JD: Well, you know, it just-it just depends, I mean on the on when people die, at what time of year. I mean, if you look, if you- I guess  a better way to do it is if you compare the number of missing persons reports, with the numbers of recovered bodies, there’s a discrepancy of-of thousands.


    LN: These are missing persons reports from uh...


    JD: Yeah. These are people leaving from Latin America and missing persons reports are either filed in the US by families already here, or-or from these sending countries. But thousands of missing persons reports more than-than actual recovered bodies.


    LN: Thousands a year?


    JD: Thousands of people go missing a year during this process. Starting...


    LN: Obviously missing persons reports don’t equate to deaths in the desert, but pretty much everyone I talked to, including some retired Border Patrol agents, agree that the official number is an undercount. Now, when it comes to the actual number of deaths, nobody knows for sure. Depending on who you ask, the real number could be anywhere from twice to 10 times the official count. And if you think about the fact that that has been happening for 20 years, then what that high school history teacher Juan Coronado said at the end of the last episode doesn’t sound so crazy...


    JC: Because of us, fences were built. Because the fences were built, maybe 10,000 people have died in the desert.


    LN: Again, there’s no way to verify that number or-or any number, but the potential scale of it kind of forces you to ask, who is responsible? Some of the people I’ve talked to have said the Mexican government needs to do more to stop people going into these areas, which seems like a bit of a cop-out. Others blame the smugglers who bring people over. Some people have said that the migrants themselves, it’s their responsibility, they knew they were making this decision to come, if they die, it’s on them, but the other obvious question is what about us?


    JD: Yeah.


    LN: And what’s clear, you know, according to Jason is that US policy makers weren’t exactly clueless about this.


    JD: There were points where people were saying things like, if we do this, if we funnel them towards the Sonora desert of Arizona, if we funnel them towards the sort of backwoods of Texas, people are gonna get hurt. People are gonna die, but if enough people die, perhaps that will be the deterrent then that they will stop coming. And there are charts and...


    JA: Wait, wait, wait is that, is that written down?


    JD: Oh my God, yeah.


    JA: That if, that death equals deterrence?


    JD: There’s a chart that I cite in the book--and this was one of the moments where I was, when I was doing the kind of archival research that just, just shocked me. Where there was a point where someone had written this policy document, and then in one of the follow-up reports by the government accountability office, some number cruncher, some policy maker, is sitting at a computer in DC, making an Excel chart where they’re putting out different metrics to measure the effectiveness of this policy. And one of the metrics is an increase in migrant death. So there was a recognition that if death goes up, it means that this policy is working.


    LN: I ended up finding the document Jason was referring to. It’s a report from the government accountability office from 1997, and it also mentions that in other areas, deaths might also go down. But I wanted to talk to Doris Meisner about it. She’s, remember, the former INS commissioner that helped take Silvestre Reyes’ Hold-the-Line strategy national and I actually read part of the report to her.


    DM: Yes.


    LN: And there was this kind of one appendix in it. So it so it’s called “Appendix V,” and it’s “Indicators for measuring the effectiveness of the strategy to deter illegal entry along the Southwest borders.”  And one of the indicators was “death- deaths of aliens attempting entry.” And basically what it says is that, um, um, and I’m sort of quoting it that, “if the attorney general strategy is successful, deaths may increase as enforcement in urban areas forces aliens to attempt mountain or desert crossings.” In effect, saying that if this strategy...if, if-if deaths increase in these treacherous areas, that’s a sign that the strategy is working.


    DM: I do, I...I think I recall reading that because it’s so, you know, it makes you gasp when you have to really think about what the, all the implications of all these things are. I mean, you know, this is one of the paradoxes of how is it that you go about doing work like this? It’s absolutely clear, for so many reasons, that there needs to be border security. But, I think it is fair to say that the idea that we had at the time, and the thinking that we put into place at the time, was too simple. What was much more difficult to take into account has been the tenacity of people coming to the United States wanting to come to the United States and the lengths to which people will go in order to do that.


    JA: Well, but there’s another way to read this. I mean, the uh, the Appendix V, the sort of the-the thing that-that as you in your words you said, you know, could make you gasp. What that sort of says, I mean one way to read that is that we took a problem that was very visible. And we pushed it to places where we can’t see it anymore. And we did that with full knowledge that-that that people dying means we’re doing the right thing. To me Appendix V begs the question, I mean, what responsibility do we have for this? It doesn’t quite feel that this is something that we can just shrug and then say that we didn’t know this was going to happen. We knew damn well that this was going to happen.


    DM: Um, you know, when you ask the question what is our responsibility and when you say ‘our’ I think... and I take that to mean what is our responsibility as a nation... the answer at that time and the answer still is that the enforcement will do everything that it can to prevent people from crossing in dangerous areas, but that cannot include no longer doing enforcement across the border.


    LN: Now, Doris says that you know, once they started to realize these numbers had spiked and that people were going through these areas, they started doing a lot of public awareness campaigns.


    DM: ... information campaigns.


    LN: warning people about the dangers of the desert...


    DM: efforts devoted to safety on the Mexican side...


    LN: And they created a whole new search and rescue unit…


    DM: So there were all kinds of efforts to address it, but I will be absolutely frank with you. The idea of abandoning any kind of strengthened border enforcement because of that consequence was not a serious, not a point of serious discussion.

    LN: And the policy never really changed in any substantive way. There was a, there was a later report that came out from the government Accountability Office in 2006 that basically said, look, you’ve done all these safety measures but the deaths in the desert are still going up. Now, Doris Meisner was no longer head of the INS at that point, but after reaching out to a whole bunch of people who wrote that report and the people who received it and hearing nothing back frankly, I finally got in touch with the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection under President Bush at the time, Ralph Basham, now retired and he told me he remember reading that report. He said he thought about those deaths all the time, every day but in the end he said it was just politically infeasible to back off the enforcement at the major crossing points or to get enough Border Patrol to really control dangerous areas like the desert. And in the end the US government didn’t make any substantive changes in response to the rise in deaths. And I guess you could read that as a lack of political will or indifference but Jason actually argues that we were giving a sort of tacit blessing to this system that was killing all these people because it kept this problem just swept under the rug.


    JD: Yeah, um...


    JA: Are you saying that the US government, or whatever portion of it is responsible for this policy, is knowingly, um, killing people?


    JD: I would say it’s knowingly putting people in harm’s way and they know that there is a high likelihood that a certain percentage of these people are gonna die. And have been dying.


    LN: So it’s like, so it’s like they’re having nature do their dirty work, that’s kind of what you feel like?


    JD: Absolutely. I mean I would say 100 percent that nature is an agent of the Border Patrol, um. It’s, uh, this kind of unsung hero of the Border Patrol. They’re not on the payroll but they do all this work.




    JD: The environment beats up on migrants and then those who don’t make it, it just, it cleans up the mess as well, uhm, and nobody has to be accountable for this because it just disappears.


    JA: We asked Customs and Border Protection, which oversees Border Patrol, to comment whether they had tried to change their strategy to avoid migrant deaths. And they declined to answer.


    LN: Uh, uh, I wonder, I wonder if you feel somehow ambivalent about it, like…




    LN: Obviously there are, uh, tradeoffs for everything...every, every plan has unintended consequences, but, but, this, now this is happened, and these deaths are also happening. Um, I wonder how you feel about it, if you feel somehow ambivalent about it.


    DM: I feel deeply ambivalent about it. I feel deeply sorry about it. I am very conflicted about it. I also know that migration is by its very nature an incredibly dangerous enterprise you know when it’s illegal immigration. People coming up you know  well before they ever get to the US border. People coming up through Mexico, through very dangerous areas where they are robbed and kidnapped and extorted. I mean there are awful, terrible things that go on in this quest for a better life! What I wish is that we would be able, as a country, to put immigration policies into effect that actually allow for people to come here legally, whom our economy is asking for in terms of the jobs that exist in the country. This system that we’ve been involved with for now decades of allowing illegal immigration to occur in sizable numbers, having work for people in this country, is indefensible. And the enforcement agencies are caught in between that. They’re required to create border security, And yet there are these terrible costs. Those terrible costs would not be there if we as a country and as a political system would come to grips with the issue that is right in front of our eyes, and that we simply won’t come together politically to answer! We are a nation of immigrants. We are a country that believes in the rule of law. We can’t, it is indefensible, in light of that history and those values to have allowed this kind of an illegal immigration picture to go on in the way that it has for all these many years.


    JA: Wouldn’t a wall, I mean this is gonna sound, I mean, this is an intentionally naive question but, if what you’re saying is that, that, that uh... we need to save lives, whether, however you feel about the issue of immigration, isn’t a wall more humane? Given what you’ve just told us?

    JD: Well the wall’s not gonna do anything. I mean we know that y’know I spend a lot of time now, most of my time is now spent with smugglers, who love the idea of a wall, cause they’re like man I can charge twice as much for this, for my services, even though, it’s really not gonna be that much harder, I mean cause people dig underneath it, they crawl over it, they fly over it, they take a boat around it. I mean, the wall itself is never gonna, it’s never gonna be a deterrent.




    LN: And on top of that, I actually, I didn’t even know this when we talked to Jason, but if you listen to the things that President Trump has said about the wall since coming into office...


    DT: That doesn’t mean two thousand miles of wall because you just don’t need that. Because of nature, because of mountains and rivers and lots of other things…


    LN: It would end up just being a sort of even stronger version of this policy.


    DT: ...there are large areas where you don’t need a wall because you have a mountain and you have a river, you have a violent river, and you don’t need it.


    LN: And even stronger funnel into these very places that are killing people and erasing any evidence of their death.




    RK: This episode of our border trilogy was reported by Latif Nasser with Tracy Hunte.


    JA: And it was produced by Matt Kielty with Bethel Habte. And Latif Nasser. The third installment of our trilogy where things get a lot more personal is coming up in our next podcast, so stay tuned for that.


    RK: Big thanks to Jason  De León whose book is called The Land of Open Graves.


    JA: And to Timothy Dunn, who’s written a lot about this, including the book Blockading the Border and Human Rights. Special thanks to Oscar Cervantes, Jose Romero, Erica King, Joe Reyes, and the rest of the agents that we met from US Border Patrol in El Paso.


    RK: And to David Ham and Liz and the rest of the staff at the Border Patrol History Museum.


    JA: And to Veronica Reyes Cintron.


    RK: And to former El Paso mayor, Larry Francis.


    JA: Retired Border Patrol sector chief, Ron Sanders.


    RK: And Robin Reineke at Colibri Center for Human Rights.


    JA: I’m Jad Abumrad.


    RK: I’m Robert Krulwich.


    JA: Thanks for listening.


    RJ: Hi, this is Rebecca Jordan calling from Dacula, Georgia. RadioLab was created by Jad Abumrad and is produced by Soren Wheeler. Dylan Keith is our director of sound design. Maria Matasar-Padilla is our managing director. Our staff includes Simon Adler, Maggie Bartolomeo, Becca Bressler, Rachel Cusick, David Gebbel, Bethel Hopte, Tracy Hunte, Matt Kielty, Robert Krulwich, Annie McEwen, Latif Nasser, Melissa O’Donnell, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters, and Molly Webster, with help from Amanda Arancic, Shima Owiwai, and Jake Arlo. Our fact checker is Michelle Harris.




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