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Death At The Border: A Quixotic Immigrant Forges A Humanitarian Path

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

Death At The Border: A Quixotic Immigrant Forges A Humanitarian Path


Jean Guerrero, Fronteras Reporter, KPBS News


Rafael Larraenza Hernandez has encountered formidable foes in his quest to save dying migrants or locate their remains at the U.S.-Mexico border: armed Minutemen, Texas ranchers, pitbulls, Sheriff’s departments. He has been beaten, shot at, arrested and insulted.

“I have been suffering for 20 years,” said the 62-year-old Chula Vista resident.

But no previous foe has frightened him as much as President-elect Donald Trump, who has called for the construction of a massive border wall and the deportation of millions of immigrants.

Larraenza said he is seeing an increase in emergency phone calls from migrants in trouble at the border, as well as from the families of those who have gone missing in the Arizona and Texas deserts. People are rushing to cross the border before Trump’s term begins. Some are dying in the harsh environment.

Larraenza fears Trump’s immigration-related initiatives will cause border crossing deaths — already at hundreds a year — to double or triple, and that Trump will thwart his efforts to save “his brothers and sisters," or fellow migrants.

Larraenza assembles an aircraft

Last month, Larraenza assembled an ultralight aircraft he intends to use to find missing migrants. With the aircraft, he’ll be able to cover more ground, and perhaps avoid detection.

On military bases, Indian reservations, border ranches and other private property where migrants often perish of dehydration and heat exhaustion, Larraenza has long been denied permission to enter. He use to request access to those properties so he could search.

“I was always respectful,” he said. “But I no longer ask for permission because they don’t give it to me."

The failure of his old strategy birthed a new mentality, Larraenza explained.

"It’s better to ask for forgiveness than for permission," he said. "I go in through the back, hiding, running, so they don’t see that I’m looking for people.”

Photo credit: Monica Larraenza

Rafael Larraneza rides an ultralight aircraft in search of missing migrants in this undated photo.

Larraenza is wiry, tall and gray-haired, with light brown eyes prone to tears as he recalls the past. He has an uncanny resemblance to pictorial depictions of the literary icon Don Quixote.

“When I find a migrant, I get so happy, but also really scared. (Ranchers) have attacked me with dogs. With bullets. Border Patrol has detained me and punished me,” Larraenza said.

He lives in a trailer in Chula Vista. His refrigerator is empty except for a bottle of Coca-Cola, some orange juice and a box of energy bars. His counters are cluttered with vitamins that give him strength for the desert.

“The only thing I have is what I want to give, what I want to do, which is to help. Look how I live,” he said.

'The Angels of the Desert'

Larraenza immigrated to the U.S. legally from Mexico in 1986, after a devastating earthquake destroyed his home in Mexico City. He got a job making construction machinery in San Diego.

In the ensuing decade, illegal border crossing deaths skyrocketed as long stretches of border fencing were built in the 1990s, forcing migrants into remote, dangerous routes through the desert, where hundreds began to perish in the extreme temperatures.

In 1997, watching the news on TV, Larraenza learned that people were dying along the border. He wanted to help them. He bought an ambulance. He trained and equipped dozens of volunteers. That was the beginning of Los Angeles del Desierto, or The Angels of the Desert, a search and rescue group for migrants. The name was inspired by the words of an elderly woman Larraenza saved in the Ocotillo desert. Larraenza appears to channel her spirit as he recounts what she said, his eyes glimmering with tears: “They’re the angels of the desert.”

For years, Larraenza traveled along the border, saving lives and locating human remains to help give families closure. He placed water bottles and gallon water jugs along some of the driest and deadliest routes.

“I’m very sentimental. So when I deliver myself, I deliver myself,” Larraenza said.

About 15 years later, his group inspired Aguilas del Desierto, or Eagles of the Desert. That group is run by Ely Ortiz, a man whose dead brother and cousin Larraenza helped locate in the Arizona desert in 2009. The two groups splintered due to conflicting philosophies.

Larraenza believes too much is at stake to be patient with bureaucracy. “I have had to break all the rules. For us, there is no rule,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Aguilas believe it’s worthwhile to wait for permission; they don’t want to burn bridges. They conduct all searches according to the rule of law — applying for permits to enter properties, notifying Border Patrol of each search, never trespassing. Sometimes, permits can take months to obtain. Often, they’re denied.

Larraenza argues that if he were to wait around for permits, he would never save as many people as he does. He claims to have rescued hundreds of migrants and located the remains of 87 since he began his humanitarian work two decades ago. Aguilas has logged eight rescues and 18 remains located since 2012.

Still, most of Larraenza's volunteers have left his organization to work for Aguilas. Larraenza said he feels betrayed — after all, he paved the way for them all.

Now, he conducts most of his searches by himself.

Photo credit: Monica Larraenza

Rafael and Monica Larraenza are pictured in this undated photo.

'I'm very sentimental'

Larraenza lost his construction job in 2008. He was fired because his boss considered his humanitarian work controversial, he said. Larraenza said he would have given up if it weren’t for his wife, Monica, who supports him and funds most of his searches.

Larraenza shows me photos of his most recent search, in which he found a young man who had died of hypothermia on a ranch in Texas. Larraenza entered the property without permission. He made a cross out of twigs and planted it near the body as a photographer for the San Antonio Press-News captured the moment.

“He’s all purple, all purple,” Larraenza said, agitated by the sight of the pictures. “He didn’t have eyes. The animals had eaten them.”

Back outside, Larraenza gets into the seat of his aircraft. He shows me how he maneuvers the plane with his body — leaning left to go left, right to go right.

He said he hopes the plane will help him save more migrants. He foresees rising perils in the journeys ahead.


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