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Death At The Border: A Brother’s Fatal Journey Inspires Altruism

Editor's note: This is the second in a four-part series. Here are parts one, three and four.

After his brother died in the Arizona desert, a Fallbrook immigrant started a nonprofit to search for dead or dying migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Ely Ortiz sees the twisting green limbs of a towering saguaro and the blood-red flowers erupting from a visnaga cactus, and asks himself: “How can such a dry, ugly place yield such beauty?”

He is walking through the Arizona desert, where thousands of people — including his brother — have died trying to enter the U.S. illegally since the 1990s. Most perish of dehydration and other complications related to the harsh environment. His brother, Rigoberto, died in 2009 with a cousin. The smuggler, known as a coyote, confessed to abandoning them on their last breaths.

Photo credit: Ely Ortiz

Rigoberto Ortiz, who died in the Arizona desert, stands in this undated photograph.

The Reasons Behind Illegal Immigration


Enrico Marcelli, associate professor and demographer, San Diego State University


“I told myself, ‘I’m not going to leave my brother lying out there,’” Ortiz says.

Ortiz called the U.S. Border Patrol and the Mexican consulates in Arizona for help. After weeks of waiting for a response, Ortiz decided to search on foot with the help of a human rights activist, Rafael Larreaenza Hernandez, who obtained permits to search on a military base where the coyote left the dying migrants.

Together, they found the bodies. The Ortiz family was able to mourn them and move on.

Inspired, Ortiz launched Aguilas del Desierto, or Eagles of the Desert — a nonprofit dedicated to finding migrants who go missing along the border. He chose the name “Aguilas” because of the eagle’s powerful eyesight and wingspan.

Sometimes, the group rescues people. More often, they are recovering remains — to help give families closure.

“If it’s not us, who’s going to help them? The government?” he asks.

U.S. Border Patrol has a search and rescue team known as BORSTAR, which responds to 911 calls at the U.S.-Mexico border with helicopters and trained paramedics. But not all migrants can call 911 because not all of them carry cell phones. Those who do often lack service in the remote desert. The migrants who manage to make the call can’t always provide useful information regarding their location.

When BORSTAR can’t find the missing migrants, or when they’ve been missing for a long time, their family members often call the Aguilas. For Ortiz, it’s just as important to find the migrants who’ve died.

“So their relatives will stop having that uncertainty about what happened to their relative — to give them that peace,” Ortiz explains.

Searching as the Aguilas do — on foot, through the brush, in a horizontal line formation — is the most efficient way to find bodies. Along the most frequented border routes, the vegetation is too dense for cars. Dying migrants often crawl under trees seeking shade. They are difficult to detect from the sky, even with the high-tech helicopters of BORSTAR, but they can be spotted and smelled from the ground.

Related: Threat Of Trump’s Wall Intensifies Search For Dying Migrants

Ortiz blames U.S. border fence construction for the deaths.

“It was the policy of the United States. It was the policy of closing off the border, and forcing them to cross in the most dangerous areas. It was strategic, all of that,” he says.

Could Trump's wall increase deaths?

In the late 1990s, the U.S. launched its first major border fence construction project, erecting towering gates of steel east from San Diego, rerouting migrant traffic onto remote and deadly areas of the desert. Border crossing deaths — previously dozens a year — skyrocketed to hundreds annually.

Photo credit: KPBS News

About 10,000 people have died along the U.S-Mexico border since the 1990s, said Everard Meade, director of the University of San Diego’s Trans-Border Institute.

“This is the kind of number we talk about when we talk about an armed conflict or a war,” he said.

President-elect Donald Trump has promised to build “an impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful” wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

Currently, nearly 700 miles of fencing exist along the 2,000-mile border.

Engineers and other experts argue that sealing off the whole border is not feasible because of geographical barriers, which preclude the fencing of floodplains and steep, rocky mountains — the most perilous places to cross.

Photo by Jean Guerrero

The border fence terminates amid waves at Imperial Beach, Sept. 4, 2015.

"There are some areas that you cannot build a fence — the grade is too steep, the water table is too high," said Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council.

But Moran supports Trump's plans to expand existing barriers, saying it will reduce drug and human smuggling. He said the fence can't be blamed for migrant deaths because coyotes are the ones who put migrants' lives in danger, lying to them about the risks of the journey and abandoning them when they succumb to the elements.

Meanwhile, Meade of the Trans-Border Institute argues that a longer border fence could push migrants onto still more dangerous crossing routes, leading to an increase in border deaths.

If Trump somehow succeeds in sealing the entire land border, Meade argued, migrants would then turn toward the Gulf of Mexico or the Pacific Ocean. Massive fatalities like those in the Mediterranean could ensue, he said.

“The United States is a huge country with two giant seaboards and lots of international airports. There’s no way to put a fence around all of those things,” Meade said.

Already, people are rushing to cross the border before Trump’s term begins. Some are dying on the way.

'The beginning of discrimination'

On weekdays, Ortiz takes care of verdant North County avocado farms, a contrast to the dry desert where he spends his weekends. He makes sure the irrigation system is working, and that the avocado trees are flourishing.

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Ely Ortiz smiles at an avocado farm where he works in Fallbrook, Oct. 28, 2016.

“I like being in nature, between the trees,” he says.

Ortiz came to Southern California from the mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico’s second-poorest state, where coffee and plantain trees abound. He was 17 — years before the massive border fence was built. He dreamt of starting a family in the United States, where his children could have a quality education.

Today, he lives in Fallbrook with his wife and four U.S.-citizen daughters. The oldest is on track to become a lawyer. The second-oldest is pursuing a master’s degree in social sciences. The other two are preparing for college.

Photo credit: Ely Ortiz

Ely Ortiz stands with his wife and four daughters in this undated photograph.

Ortiz says that despite everything he has accomplished in the United States, he dreams of moving back to Mexico. In the U.S., he feels discrimination: in his low wages, in the streets, in Trump's campaign rhetoric about Mexicans. At the border, he can see it and smell it and touch it: in the human bodies he finds. In their skeletons.

"For me, the border is the beginning of discrimination," he says.

'Please help me. I am desperate.'

In his living room, Ortiz listens to voicemails left by relatives of missing migrants.

“I called to ask for help. I have a brother and his wife lost in the desert of Arizona. Please help me. I am desperate,” says a male voice in Spanish. The voice pauses and starts, anguish breaking up his sentences.

Ortiz gets two to three calls a day like this. The families often search the Web for help, and come across the Aguilas del Desierto Facebook page.

Ortiz uses Google Earth to determine where the missing migrants might be. Sometimes, the family can describe a landmark that the migrant recently passed: a mountain range, an arroyo, a highway. Other times, all the family knows is where the migrant’s journey started. In those cases, Ortiz recommends getting in touch with the coyote or fellow migrants who may know where he or she was left behind.

Ortiz will only agree to a search if he believes he has a good chance of finding the person.

Photo by Jean Guerrero

Ely Ortiz listens to phone calls from missing migrants, Sept. 2, 2016.

If Ortiz thinks the missing migrant may still be alive, he encourages the family to contact BORSTAR, which has teams across the border and the resources to start searching immediately. Ortiz also contacts Border Patrol to find out if the missing person has been detained or deported.

“We try to do all we can to find their relatives,” he says. “But we encounter so many challenges.”

If the migrant went missing in an Indian reservation, a military base, a border ranch or other private property, Ortiz must first request permission to search — a process that can take weeks. He must also raise funds for gasoline, water and food for his volunteers. Costs can range as high as $2,000.

'I again live the same thing'"

Photo by Jean Guerrero

Cattle graze in the Arizona desert near the border, Sept. 3, 2016.

Ortiz packs tents, medical kits and other gear into his truck for himself and volunteers. He fills up on gas using whatever funds his nonprofit has collected at three swap meets that let him raise money. Sometimes, he and his volunteers must pull cash from their own pockets. Other times, the families of the missing make donations.

The group caravans into the desert — often driving all night to get there. They sleep a few hours on the desert floor and awaken before dawn, to begin searching before the sun bakes the earth.

Back in the desert, Ortiz wanders through labyrinths of cacti and shrub, recalling his brother, Rigoberto.

“Every call I receive, every report I receive, I again feel the same thing, I again live the same thing, I again remember the same thing," he says.

How can such a dry, ugly place yield such beauty?

On the desert horizon, rocky peaks reach up and penetrate some bright white clouds. The silhouette of a bird — an eagle? — crosses the sun.


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