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KPBS Evening Edition

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

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

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

Death At The Border Series: Part Four
Death At The Border: A Quixotic Immigrant Forges A Humanitarian Path
Death At The Border: A Quixotic Immigrant Forges A Humanitarian Path GUEST: Jean Guerrero, Fronteras Reporter, KPBS News

You are listening to KPBS Midday Edition I Allison Cintron. Almost weekly ticket to the Arizona desert and joined a group of almost just volunteers looking for missing migrants. They are seeking the dying migrants and to cover the remains of those who died. Today is the final installment of the series and then we will speak to Jean Guerrero about her experience covering the story. First Jean looks at the man who inspired the volunteers to risk their own safety and the desert. Rafael is assembling an ultralight aircraft he intends to you it does use it to find dead or dying migrants around the border. Indian reservations are often perish of dehydration. They are regularly denied permission to enter so he has a new strategy. [ speaking in a foreign language ] It is better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. I go in through the back hidden and running so they don't see that I am looking for people. The aircraft is his latest solution. He will be able to cover more ground and perhaps avoid detection. [ speaking in a foreign language ] They have attacked me with dogs and bullets and border patrol has detained and punched me. He is wiry and tall with gray hair and light brown eyes prone to tears as he tales tells. He kind of resembles Don Quixote. He came to the US legally in 1986. He got a job making construction equipment in San Diego. A decade later the US started building long stretches aboard offending -- fencing around cities which rerouted traffic into the desert. Migrants begin to die by the hundreds of dehydration and other problems. He wanted to help. I am very sentimental so when I deliver myself I deliver myself. He bought hiking boots walkie-talkies and other survival gear. He trained and equipped dozens of volunteers. It was the beginning of the Los Angeles -- Angels of the desert a search and rescue group for migrants. The only thing I have is what I want to give what I want to do which is to help.. How my live. Who lives in a trailer in Chula Vista with scant belongings. Has refrigerator is almost empty with a bottle of Coca-Cola and some juice. Over the past 20 years he has encountered formidable foes in his quest to rescue diet -- dying migrants. Minutemen Sheriff Scott ranchers, but nobody has frightened him like President-elect Donald Trump who has vowed to expand fencing. We will build a wall. People are rushing to cross the border before the term begins. He is receiving more emergency calls than ever. He fears Trump's administration will fight his unconventional humanitarian work. [ speaking in a foreign language ]. I have had to break all of the roles. There is no role. A few years ago his group inspired other volunteers to form Eagles as the desert. It is run by Elio Ortiz a man his dead brother he helped locate and then desert. The two groups splintered because of different philosophies. The Ingle -- the Eagles conduct searches legally. They apply for permits and notify border patrol they do not trespass. Sometimes it takes weeks for them to start a search. For them it is worth the trouble and the weight. They do not want to burn ridges. Too much is that steak to be patient with bureaucracy. For us what is important is not fear of punishment but trying to save a life. Most of the volunteers have left him to work for the other group. He says he feels betrayed after all he paves the way for all of the volunteers. [ speaking in a foreign language ] I have been suffering for 20 years asking and begging. Now he conducts most of his interest by his self. Back outside he gets into the CFC aircraft and shows me how he maneuvers the airplane with his body. Downward and upward. He says he hopes the aircraft will help them save more migrants. He foresees rising perils in the journeys ahead. Jean Guerrero KPBS news. Jean Guerrero now joins us in studio. Thank you for joining us. That was a pretty tough experience. What made you decide that it was an important story to cover? I feel like there is so much talk right now about this border wall that Trump has been talking about building and that there has not been that much talk about what the consequences have been of our existing border barriers so that was something that I wanted to look at through this group. Was it difficult to get the group to accept it? It was. The founder Elio Ortiz had a really negative experience with journalists who had just kind of appeared during the search for his own brother -- he started this group because his brother went missing in the desert and he wanted to find the body and nobody was helping him so he went out and found him on his own and that's why he started this group. A group of journalists showed up without permission so he was skeptical about journalists and I told him I wanted to do a story and he said I'm not interested. We had to get to know each other for a while for them to trust me. You have to build up the trust. What has happened since he found the body out there of the migrant but where are we at in terms of finding out if it is the person you were looking for Marco Antonio Garcia. We still have no idea. We are not any closer to finding out who these remains belonged to as we discovered last week there was a Sim card on the remains that seemed to belong to a Guatemalan man and currently we are awaiting DNA samples from the family but we still do not know. Tell us a little bit about what it was like out there. What was your personal experience of hiking through the desert? It was really hot. I was definitely hard carrying I don't think I have ever carried such a heavy backpack with so much water and that was kind of enlightening to me. What -- migrants walk to here on days on end and most of the time they are not carrying as much water as I was carrying. How much water where you caring for -- how many days we on the trail? For eight hours of hiking I had two gallons of water and that's how much I put into my backpack every morning. It was very heavy. The migrants do not often realize how strenuous this is going to be. Surely they hear from other family members what the journey is like. How do they come so unprepared? They are often misinformed by their coyotes by the human smugglers. They are told that they do not need that much water because the coyotes want to be sure that they can walk quickly. They don't want them burdened by all this water so they never carry enough water. To the coyote stay with him while they are making the journey? They are supposed to. That is the idea but oftentimes they will leave people behind especially if some people are slowing down the group because they are becoming dehydrated. They will just leave them behind. You spoke in your story about there being a lot of science in the desert of human activity. Speak about what you saw. That was incredible I had no idea that it would look like this. There were signs of life everywhere. Like I mentioned in the story there were these gallon jugs, regular water bottles, red Bulls, toys, backpacks all over the place. Everywhere I turned there was something. Get I did not see any people. I know partly it was because we were hiking during the time of day that they try to avoid because it is so hot. We were out there on purpose at those hours because we did not want to run into any drug meals or smugglers. Is it easy to hide? Is there a lot of scrub that makes it difficult to see people even though it is such a wide landscape? Exactly. That's why a lot of people use this route is because there is so much shrub on this particular route that it is harder for border patrol to see them. One of the main points of your story is that if the wall is extended it will force people who are desperate to get into this country to try for the east. What is the landscape like for the east? It is even more desolate. That's of the group is a and if they believe that if we make the border fence longer the migrants are just going to get pushed onto even more dangerous areas and that will of course make the job of this group more dangerous and more difficult. Thank you for joining us. This reporting was made possible in part by the corner -- Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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.”

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.

Rafael and Monica Larraenza are pictured in this undated photo.
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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