Apr 20, 2018

Border Trilogy Part 3: What Remains

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 3: What Remains 

The third episode in our Border Trilogy follows anthropologist Jason De León after he makes a grisly discovery in Arivaca, Arizona. In the middle of carrying out his pig experiments with his students, Jason finds the body of a 30-year-old female migrant. With the help of the medical examiner and some local humanitarian groups, Jason discovers her identity. Her name was Maricela. Jason then connects with her family, including her brother-in-law, who survived his own harrowing journey through Central America and the Arizona desert.

With the human cost of Prevention Through Deterrence weighing on our minds, we try to parse what drives migrants like Maricela to cross through such deadly terrain, and what, if anything, could deter them.

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

Special thanks to Carlo Albán, Sandra Lopez-Monsalve, Chava Gourarie, Lynn M. Morgan, Mike Wells and Tom Barry.

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 episode incorrectly stated that a person's gender can be identified from bone remains. We've adjusted the audio to say that a person's sex can be identified from bone remains. 

THE LAB sticker

Unlock member-only exclusives and support the show

Exclusive Podcast Extras
Entire Podcast Archive
Listen Ad-Free
Behind-the-Scenes Content
Video Extras
Original Music & Playlists

F(T): Fernando Translated

T: Translator

JDL: Jason De León

BA: Bruce Anderson

RR: Robin Reineke

LN: Latif Nasser

JA: Jad Abumrad

RK: Robert Krulwich

BA: So we come back here where you see yet another case from early 2018...


LN: Oh and this, Oh what?! What is- what are those hairs? Or what


BA: That’s-that’s dried muscle.


LN: Oh, that’s muscle.


BA: ...the closest I can, the closest thing I can say is uh the muscle dries out so it gets stringy and shredded.


LN: Ok wait wait, let’s, actually let’s just start from the beginning. Ok so, so we are in what-what room was this again?


BA: We’re in the special procedures room...


LN: Ok.


BA: ...of the Pema County Office of The Medical Examiner. And what we’re looking at here is a case of mostly skeletal remains.


LN: So we have a, we have a skull, we have a few, we have some parts of the...


BA: The spine.


LN: ...The spine it looks like, and then just two...


BA: And all three, all three major bones of the lower limbs. So the two thigh bones, the femurs, and the two tibias and the two uh fibulae. We kn- we know it’s the male. He’s an adult...


LN: Ok


BA: ...20 to 30 to 40-year-old uh uh uh migrant. He came in (Music IN) late January or early February, and uh animals found him. Maybe fifty percent of his skeleton is missing. His upper limbs and his pelvis and most of his spine are missing, and his hands and feet are missing. We have evidence here that a vulture was feeding -- was feeding on the person.


LN: I s, I-I don’t know if this is...


BA:: That’s a beetle. That’s a domestic beetle.

LN: That’s a beetle?


BA: That’s called a hide beetle. They’re-they’re found globally...


LN: Right.


BA: ...and these hide beetles specialize in, in, in eating dried, hard tissue.


LN: So he’s still, he’s still eating? Yeah...


BA: Yeah, he is.


LN: Wow.


BA: He was in the body bag. He and his colony would have been on the body.


LN: Wow.


BA: In the body bag, and uh although we try to get them most of them off during our exam, you can see there’s lots of little crevices where a single bug could, could be.


LN: Wow, oh wow that’s so... yeah wow.


JA: I’m Jad Abumrad.


RK: I’m Robert Krulwich.


JA: This is RadioLab.


RK: And today we present the final episode of our Border Trilogy


JA: With producers Latif Nasser and Tracie Hunte, and this is episode 3


RK: Which we're calling, "What Remains."

LN: Yeah ok, so just to catch everyone up...


JA: Here's Latif.


LN: ...Uh the person I was just talking to, his name is Bruce Anderson. He’s a forensic anthropologist at the Pema County Office of the Medical Examiner in Arizona. Which is where, when they find a body of an unidentified migrant in the Sonoran desert, that’s where they bring them. And Bruce had been working there, you know, on and off since the 1980s, but he told me that it was only in the early 2000s that he started seeing, you know, just more and more and more of these migrant bodies being brought in.

BA: And we’re just crushed by the weight of all the dead and all the missing person’s reports and, you know, it’s like working a mass disaster when people are still dying and planes are still crashing around you. And you, you throw your hands up in the air sometimes and you just think, when’s it gonna stop?




LN: And it hasn’t stopped. The number of bodies found last year was in the same range as the year before. The number of people crossing did go down after Donald Trump's inauguration, but traffic has basically rebounded. So, people are still coming through the desert. They're not being deterred. Which made us wonder, is deterrence, that fundamental idea behind our current border policy, is it even possible? Now, in some ways that's a policy question, which we talked about in our last episode, but it's also a human question.


MK: Is Jason still there?


JDL: I’m still here.


LN: And that's what led us back to the person who we started this whole journey with, the anthropologist Jason De León.

JA: Alright, can you hear Latif too?

JDL: I sure can, good morning!

LN: Oh, good morning.

JDL: Fantastic


LN: Well, I feel like maybe we should just start off where we left off, which is that you were going to tell us the story of, of Maricela.


JDL: Sure, um...


JA: When was this, by the way?


JDL: This would have been Jul-June of 2012.


JA: Ok.


JDL: So we had been about two weeks into the pig experiment and...


LN: This is a series of experiments where Jason and his team, mostly students uh looked at how pigs decomposed in the desert, in order to understand how people decompose in the desert.


JDL: And it wasn’t until about two weeks into this experiment where we were out hiking one day with a group of about nine people.


LN: Down in southern Arizona.


JDL: And so on this particular day, on this trail that I had hiked many, many times, a student had run ahead to, to check stuff out and was taking pictures of us as we were walking up this hill. He turns around, starts yelling at us he says, hey you got to come up here, something has happened.


JDL: So I threw my backpack down and I race up this hill and by the time I get up there I-I see that that he’s kind of staring at this body that’s just laying face down in the-in the dirt on this, on this trail.


LN: Like a fully, intact body.


JDL: Yeah.


LN: A woman’s body.


JDL: You could tell it was a woman because she had long hair. You know she’s wearing camouflage clothes, stretch pants, women’s running shoes on, she’s got a scrunchy around her wrist, but the rest of it, I mean, her body was incredibly bloated. I mean to the point where it was about to, to pop from all of the gases that had built up inside of her-her body cavity.


JDL: I didn’t know what to do at this point. I mean, you know, the students start walking up. I mean these are young students. We had someone in the group who was 18, 19.


LN: For some of the students, this is the first time they’ve seen a dead body. One of them was crying.


JDL: I tell everyone, I say, hey look, you gotta go sit down and give me a second here

to figure out what, what it is we’re going to do here.


LN: So first he called the police.


JDL: We did that, and then we kind of had a conversation, are we gonna photograph this person, are we gonna record any information, is this... are we still doing research right now?


LN: And Jason decided yeah, we should, we should document this.


JDL: You know, we took some notes down. Gray to green discoloration. About what she

was wearing. Brown to black discoloration of arms and legs.


LN: Took some pictures of the body.

JDL: Her fingers have started to curl. Her ankles are swollen to the point that her sneakers seem ready to pop off. There is a steady hissing of intestinal gases...

JDL: And then it just got to the point where I was like, Okay, this is enough. I don't wanna do this anymore.


LN: And so they covered her with a blanket because Jason noticed the birds


JDL: circling overhead.


LN: Four turkey vultures. And so at that point they just sort of sit down and waited...


JDL: For the police to come. The sheriff.


LN: An hour goes by. Two. Three. Four.


JDL: Just waiting with the body.


LN: It was about five hours in that a sheriff and three border patrol agents show up and they had hiked three miles to get to Jason with a stretcher.


LN: And so they bring the stretcher, uhm... The sheriff puts on gloves. He asks them a few questions like, did you guys put the blanket on there. And then they roll her into this white body bag. And as the authorities do that Jason because, she was face down, Jason gets to see her face for the first time. And he so he writes a paragraph in his book and it’s-it’s pretty gruesome but I’m gonna, I’m gonna read to you the paragraph that he-he writes about in his book.


LN: As her body turns, I see what is left of her face. It is frightening and unrecognizable as human. The mouth is a gnarled purple and black hole that obscures the rest of her features...


JDL: ...I can’t see her eyes because the mouth is too hard to look away from. The skin around the lips is stretched out of shape, as though it had been melted. Her nose is smashed in and pushed up. She died face down, and the flesh on the front side of her skull has softened and contorted to fit around the dirt and rocks beneath her. The scene is a pastiche of metallic gray and pea green. Whatever beauty and humanity that once existed in her face has been replaced by a stone-colored ghoul, stuck in mid scream. It’s a look you can never get away from.




JDL: After this thing had happened and it really just shook me in a lot of different ways.


LN: Jason says he couldn't shake the question… who was this woman? How did she end up face down in the desert? So that night...


RR: I remember Jason calling me.


LN: Jason called a friend of his, a woman named Robin Reineke.


RR: Him being really, clearly shaken and you know asking for advice.


LN: Robin actually runs this non-profit.


JDL: In Tucson called the...

RR: The Colibri Center for Human Rights.

JDL: Colibri Center for Human Rights. And they do a lot of work with the missing and

with bodies that have been recovered.


LN: So Jason tells her...


JDL: Look we, today we had this-this thing, we found this person out here and...


LN: Could you help us ID her?


[Door opening, sounds of office]


LN: Now, the thing is, Robin’s office is actually in the medical examiner’s office. So that means that just down the hall from Robin is the guy we met at the beginning, Bruce Anderson.


BA: Probably a couple hundred people are these bones of a person are in here...


LN: So Bruce is working on the medical examiner’s side. So anytime an unidentified migrant body comes in, Bruce tries to piece together who this person is, looking at ...


BA: The dimensions and the shape of the skull and


LN: Markers


BA: The robustness of the bones at...


JA: Like, looking at the length of the bones or the density of the bones.


BA: By the non-fusion of these separate bones...


LN: Looking at whether some bones in the body are fused together, which is something that happens right after puberty. Bruce can actually figure out approximately what age the person is, their sex, their weight, their height, and in the case of the woman that Jason found, her body was surprisingly in relatively good condition. So pretty quickly, uh, they were able to determine, you know, she is probably in her 30s, she's 5’4". They were actually able to get fingerprints from her as well.


LN: Meanwhile, on the other side, on Robin’s side--


LN: Wow. So each of these tabs is a person, is that right?

RR: Yeah.


LN: She’s dealing with hundreds of missing persons reports...

RR: All day, every day


LN: She spends her days taking calls, going through voicemail...


RR: which is full of relatives searching. “I’m looking for my uncle, he disappeared in 2010,” or  “I’m looking for my daughter, she crossed two weeks ago, we haven’t heard from her.”


JA: And she’s also getting tips from different people, different aid organizations, and it’s actually one of those calls that leads to a break in the case of the body that Jason found.


RR: Okay. So, this is an email from me from 2012. “Hi Jason, just a quick update

regarding the woman that your group found. The case number is 121567 and as of yet she’s not been identified.”


LN: But, Robin tells Jason that she got a call from an aid organization that had spoken to a guy that had crossed the desert with a big group of people around the same time and around the same area where Jason found the body.


RR: He said that he had recently left behind two fellow travellers who were in serious medical distress.


LN: He said one of them was an elderly man...


RR: 70 years old.


LN: And the other was a woman maybe from Guatemala, or Ecuador, late 30s, early 40s...


RR: It isn’t certain that this group is related to ML121567 but it’s highly likely. I will

contact Guatemalan and Ecuadorian consulates regarding new missing persons cases.


LN: And eventually, using all the information that got gathered, Robin was able to determine that the body that Jason found, it's the body of a 31 year old Ecuadorian woman named:


RR: Maricela Ahguipolla.


LN: Maricela Ahguipolla. Robin gets in touch with Jason to tell him, Jason then asks her...


JDL: I would just... would appreciate if you could, you know, help me at all connect with this family.




JA: That request would, oddly enough, lead Jason to New York City.


RK: That story in just a minute.




CH. 2 [15:42]


JA: Jad.

RK: Robert.

JA: Radiolab.

RK: We are back with the third installment of our Border Trilogy: What Remains.


LN: And when we left, Jason along with Robin from the Colibri Center, had managed to ID the body of the woman he found in the desert. And so now, he was trying to get in touch with her family.


JDL: I don't know, when people disappear, or when they die in the desert, I think that the families make up... lots of stories run through people's heads and so I was hoping that if I could find this person's family, I could at least say, this is what it was like when we found her. This is what we think had happened.  

LN: So Robin was able to get Jason the contact information for-


JDL: … Maricela’s brother-in-law.


LN: Who we’ll call Fernando.


JDL: And I make the awkward phone call that says, 'hey I’m the person that found Maricela in the desert, um, and I would like to come and see you if that’s possible.'




RK: Turns out, Fernando actually lives in New York City...




RK: But he had spoken to Maricela just before she left. And when we heard his story, we decided okay, we better send reporter Tracie Hunte.






RK: To talk to him.


TH: Oh, hola

F: Como esta?

TH: Hi!


TH: Yeah, so I went to visit Fernando at his apartment, in Queens.


Kimberly [the dog]: Bark! Bark!

F: Kimberly please!


TH: He lives there with his three dogs. [Barking] Friendly guy, little shorter than me, neatly dressed, he’s got, you know, dark hair, longer on the top and shorter on the sides, and...


F: [Spanish]


TH: When I got there, he, he pulled out a bunch of photos of Maricela,


F: Tengo aqui un...

TH: Oh, so this is their marriage, their wedding photo.

T: Esa es del matrimonio de ellos? La foto?

F: Si

TH: Oh, okay.


TH: She was his, uh brother’s wife.


TH: Oh! They look so young. Were they 19 when they got married?

F: Creo que como 20 - venti algo


TH: So in this picture that Fernando's showing me, it's his brother and Maricela, they're in a church, and they're posing at the altar. She's in a white satin gown, her hair is long and dark and shiny, and she’s got kind of like an oval shaped face, and um, you know, she looks beautiful. But even though it’s her wedding day, the thing that struck me is that she’s not smiling. Not even a little bit.


TH: Is she, was she like, was she serious like that?

F: Eso era por eso mismo que mi mama como que decía que...

F(T): Yeah, that’s actually that’s part of the reason why my mother said that she didn’t like her as much in the beginning.

F: Se vea cara de pocos amigos...

F(T): She said, you know, she always has an angry face on, she looks like somebody who doesn’t have a lot of friends.


TH: And on top of that, Fernando said she also had a habit of getting his brother in trouble.


F: Decirle a mi hermano que salga de la casa, porque le va a ver

F(T): You know, she would tell my-my brother to sneak out of the house to go see her,

F: Salir a la fiesta

F(T): Go out dancing, to parties without permission, you know, those kind of things.


TH: But


F: Se pu… ayudaba mucho en la casa...


TH: Fernando says she eventually won the family over


F(T): She helped out at home, she treated my mom really well...


TH: Especially his mother


F: La quería pero más que a nosotros incluso...

F(T): ...actually I think my mother loved her more than she loved us.


TH: So Maricela and Fernando’s brother, they got married. They ended up having three kids, two boys and a girl. Maricela had a job in a factory that made counterfeit jeans, I think, Levi’s. And Fernando’s brother, he would go around to different villages selling sodas. And, they just couldn't really manage to make ends meet.


JDL: They were living real rough at the time. I mean, going... when I went to the house and saw where they had lived...


LN: So, Jason, after he connected with Fernando, he actually ended up going down to Ecuador to meet Maricela's family.


JDL: Before she had left, I mean they were living in a one room, plywood shack with a dirt floor and animals running through the house. And, you know, and she had told her relatives, she was like, my kids are literally starving here.


F: So, como ese tiempo estaba yo construyendo la casa para mis padres y...

F(T): At the time, I wasn’t able to help out as much financially because I was also helping build a house for my parents where they were also going to go live... And so, I wasn’t able to support them as much or help out with things like school

F: la escuela...

F(T): And so you know, what she really wanted to do, you know, in order to like send her kids to school and all that, she really wanted them to have what she never had

F: como que ya no tuvo nunca, nada

F(T): Because she never had anything. So that was really the pressure that she was under.

TH: So Fernando says, in 2012, he called home...


F: Entonces cuando una vez, yo llamia a mi país, y mi mama me dijo que ya quería hablar conmigo.

F(T): One time when I called home my mom said that she wanted to talk to me, so I said ok...


TH: Maricela got on the phone,

F(T): And, she told me that she wanted to come here.


TH: She told him that, she and his brother they wanted to follow in his footsteps, that if they could come to New York like he had, they could make money, they could send it back, they could help out their kids. That that was the only way, and immediately Fernando was like...


F: Profundamente que no, que no, que no es bueno...

F(T): Absolutely not, no


TH: So, Fernando told her no because he didn't want her to go through the same thing he went through 10 years before.


F: Eh, cuando salí de allí, fuimos con mi tía


TH: 2001, he was 17 years old, about to turn 18, and his aunt was about to go to New York, and she convinced him and his parents that if he went to New York he’d be able to get a job and make more money and support his family from there.


F(T): To have a better life, to have the things we needed, so my father thought about it and gave his permission, but he told me not to stay here too long.


TH: And so he used his grandfather’s land as collateral and took out a loan for $12,000.


RK: $12,000?!


JA: Whoa.


TH: Yeah.


RK: And do you know what the interest rate was? On the loan?


TH: Ten percent.


RK: Ten percent.

TH: Yeah. So, one thing a lot of people have talked about is the fact that prevention through deterrence, it professionalized the human smuggling business because not only did these migrants need, you know, guidance from all these South and Central American countries, they also need guidance through the desert. So, now, you have this smuggling business that's more expensive and also more dangerous.


F: Bueno, el coyote nos dijo que máximo era 15 dias que….

F(T): Yeah so the coyote told us that 15 days maximum to get here


TH: So Fernando says he and his aunt took a bus from Ecuador to Peru, and then from Peru they flew to Panama.

F: llevamos a Panama...


TH: Got on another bus,


F: al siguiente pais…


TH: And then, somewhere in Costa Rica...


F(T): I remember the path being really mountainous, there was a river, all that.


TH: This bus pulls over, and the coyote who was with them at that point just said....

F(T) Okay you have to get off here.

F: Entonces nos cogieremos nuestras maletas y...

F(T): When we got out, they took our luggage and they threw them on the ground towards the river. And they said you have to cross the river and someone will find you there and signal to that person.

F: ...con mi tía...

F(T): And we were left there like that, with my aunt saying, hold on that wasn’t the deal. The deal was to take us all the way to Mexico in cars, but from that point, when we started crossing mountains on foot…

F: Cruzamos montes, pasaron horrible cosas desde allí

F(T): That’s when horrible things started to happen.


TH: From that point on, they were packed into the trunks of taxis, hidden in basements, chicken coops, and huts...


F: lleno de ratas

F(T): .. totally filled with rats

TH: And three months into this journey, a journey that was supposed to take just 15 days, somewhere in Mexico, Fernando says that he and his aunt are taken to this rundown hacienda, this just sprawling ranch house. Inside the ranch house...


F: Habia… más de doscientos cincuenta personas allí

F(T): There were more than 250 people there. From all over the world, Chinese, Central Americans, from every country, from all over South America.


TH: There's all these rooms filled with people and Fernando actually says that there were all these armed guards all over the place, nobody was allowed to leave.


F: Y cuando llegamos ahí nos…

F(T): And so we were um...

F: casi un mes

F: encerrados allí

F(T): Penned in there for about a month.

F:  cuando estuvieron allí, este parte yo lo conté


TH: And while he was there ...

F(T): This part I didn’t tell Jason, what happened to me there...

F: Allí abusaron de mí sexualmente

F(T): I was abused sexually.


TH: Fernando says that he was sitting outside the hacienda one day, with his aunt, when a group of men approached him, and told him that he had to go inside with them. And he said no, that he was fine sitting there, you know, outside.

F: ... pues mi tía se, le supplico a ellos que no me… nada a mi, eh que por favor

F(T): My aunt begged, begged them not to hurt me, to please not abuse me, or do anything to me, and they said, no, don’t worry, that they only wanted to ask some questions inside. But that wasn’t what they wanted.


TH: They told Fernando, look, you can come with us now, or you can come with us later, after we beat up your aunt. So finally, Fernando relented, and went with them. And when they got inside the hacienda, they went into a room.


F: Eh, mi violaron como muchas veces

F(T): Once we were inside, they raped me, three times.


TH: How many of them were there?

F: eh, como 6

F(T): Like 6

F: Después eso, que eh me quiero, yo queria solo morirme,

F(T):  After that I wanted to...I just wanted to die.




TH: After a couple of weeks, Fernando and his aunt finally got out of this Hacienda, and they start their trek into the desert. Fernando thinks that he went through the same desert that Maricela would try to cross 10 years later. He's actually caught by the border patrol and held for about a month before he manages to bail himself out of detention and make his way to New York. And Fernando says he shared all of this with Maricela except his own rape. But he did tell her that migrants do get raped...


F: Si...


TH: ...that he's seen it happen, that he knows it happens.


F: Y incluso cuando le dije eso me dijo que no importa, que ella no…

F(T): Even when I told her all of that, she said none of that would happen to her. She knew how to defend herself and you know, if she had to she would hit people...


TH: And then he told her, you might have to go without food or sleep outside. But...


F(T): She said that didn't matter, that all that mattered was getting here because the kids are the ones that matter most...

F: Valle la pena por los hijos

F(T): Any sacrifice made is worth it for your kids.  


TH: And then he doesn't talk to her anymore, that's actually the last phone call they ever have because, he thinks that if he cuts her off, maybe she'll just give up. But she goes to one of her brothers, and her brother says that he would only pay for her to go, but he's not going to pay for her husband to go.


TH: When you found out that she was gonna come by herself did you try to tell your brother, look she… you shouldn’t let her come here by herself? Come at all I should say?

F: Si, sí le llame pero mi hermano me explico, me dijo que...

F(T): Yeah, yeah I called, but my brother said that there wasn’t another option. And that he wanted to go first, but her brother had put the condition that she go first, and because they didn’t have another option she said that she would go.


TH: In May of 2012, Maricela left Ecuador. About three weeks later, right before she walked into the desert, Maricela sent her family a message on Facebook. She told them, “I don’t know how I am going to get there but I am going for my family. God willing I will get there.”

TH: When did you finally hear what actually happened to her?

F: Eh, me acuerdo un dia estaba trabajando, eran como las…

F(T): Someone called me, told me they were from the consulate, and I said “Ok, finally, she’s been found!” and then they told me...


F(T): Maricela was dead, and they didn’t know what day exactly she died but that she’d been dead for about a month.



JDL: It was just really difficult wondering if I’m gonna do more damage than than good by by by going to meet these folks.


LN: 8 months after Maricela’s death, Jason came to New York to meet Fernando. And he brought with him the pictures he had taken of Maricela’s body when he found her in the desert.

JDL: You know, he was like, just right now, show me the photos and I was just dancing around that for-for over an hour.


F: Pero dije que esta bien, que me mostrara...

F(T): Jason warned that the photos were really upsetting, there were so many like that, but I said that “it’s okay to show them to me..”


JDL: I give him this book of photos that I’ve printed out. And it’s got pictures of this shrine that we built for her, um, in the desert. It’s got pictures of my students who were there. And then eventually, it’s just pictures of like the back of her head so it’s her hair, it’s some of the clothing. It’s her hand.


F: Dije que esta bien, que me mostrara y las vi todas las fotos y de verdad…

F(T): I saw all the photos, and the truth is that it tore me to pieces to see or imagine everything she had to endure in the desert.




F(T): She tried to keep going, dragging herself...

F: Ella le dejaron, por ejemplo ella se quedó en un lugar y ella trato de avanzar

F(T): Jason brought me photos of how she was found and her body outstretched, trying to keep going.


TH: Before Maricela's body was sent back to Ecuador, Fernando decided they should have it sent to New York first.

F: Entonces….no se, yo pense como el sueño de ella era llegar aquí, so…

F(T): When I talked to my family, I said, you know, here dream was really to arrive here. And so I thought at least we can fulfill that dream with her body...

F: pa poder tener, hacerle una velación del cuerpo

F(T): to be able to have a wake for her here.


TH: They held the wake at a funeral home in Queens. Almost a hundred family members and friends came to celebrate Maricela’s life. They were told to keep the coffin shut. The next day, her body went back to Ecuador. Fernando had to stay in New York, because he knows if he were to go back to Ecuador, it would just be way too hard to try to come back to the United States. He says that, you know, right now he's just trying to fulfill a promise.


F: [Spanish]

F(T): The promise that I made to Maricela’s body when it arrived here that I was going to look after her children. I was going to try to give them what she had wanted for them.  


TH: When you think about that conversation, do you think that there’s anything you could’ve said that would’ve made her stay?

F: ...yo-yo creo que le dije de todo, dije…

F(T): I told her what could happen along the way.   


F(T): I thought that would be a way of deterring her

F: Pero… No.

F(T): No.




LN: And it's worth pointing out, uh, you know, I mean, more generally, prevention through deterrence as a strategy, it hasn't deterred people from coming to the U.S. either. The annual budget for the border patrol is roughly 3.5 billion dollars bigger than it was in 1990. We have about 5 times as many border patrol agents. And yet the number of people, immigrants, living here undocumented has more than tripled during that time. From 3 and a half million, to about 11 million. And more people are coming every year, every day. And more people are dying along the way.




JDL: Yeah, let’s just do it here.


TH: About a year after Maricela died, Jason got a call from her family again.


JDL: Do you want, um, do you want Maverick or Iceman? You have to name the drones.

RR?: You guys are top gun fans?

JDL: Yeah.


LN: Another family member had disappeared in pretty much the same place Maricela did.


RR?: So which is this?
JDL: I think that's Maverick.

RR?: That's Maverick?


JDL: I’m going back to the Arizona desert basically because Maricela has a, um, had a cousin who, a 15 year old cousin named Jose Tacuri who disappeared almost one year to the day that she died.




JDL: Um, I was able to kind of triangulate based on interviews of people that he was with, and with information from from various folks, where we think he went missing. I mean I told his mom that I would not stop looking, and um, it took me a couple of years to figure out a way to to-to do that but right now it's -- we’ll go back and we’ll use these drones and see what we can come up with.




TH: And you know better than anyone what happens to bodies in the desert no, I think. I mean, why are you still looking for him, or why, you know, yeah? As callous as that question sounds I guess.


JDL: For me part of it is I just don’t know what else to do, if you feel so hopeless. I told his mom, I won’t I won’t stop looking for him, I’ll do whatever I can, whatever little thing that I can do. And if I can’t find him, well, maybe I’ll find somebody else.




JDL: It’s getting mad at me now so we will.


RR?: What was that?

JDL: It’s getting mad at me cause it’s running out of batteries. I’ll do one more, one more run.








RK: This episode was reported by Latif Nassar and Tracie Hunt, produced by Matt Kiltie and Tracie Hunt.


JA: Jason De León's book, which inspired this series, is called "The Land of Open Graves"


RK: Special thanks to our interpreter Allison Corbet, and for giving voice to Fernando in English, Carlo Alban, and Carlo's manager Ted Brunsen.


JA: Thanks also to Hayden Stewart, Raul Ras-Pastrana, Paulina Alonso-Chavez, and embassador Jacob Prado from the government of Mexico, and to the staff at the Pema County medical examiner's office and the Colibri center for human rights.


JA: I'm Jad Abumrad.


RK: And I'm Robert Krulwich.


JA: Thanks for listening.