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

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

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

Death At The Border Series: Part Two
Death At The Border: A Brother’s Fatal Journey Inspires Altruism
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.

The Reasons Behind Illegal Immigration
The Reasons Behind Illegal Immigration GUEST: Enrico Marcelli, associate professor and demographer, San Diego State University

This is KPBS Midday Edition I'm Allison St. John. Yesterday particularly search for migrant who got lost crossing the border. In part two of this series Jean Guerrero looks at how this San Diego-based to search and rescue group came to exist and why. Reporter: as Ely Ortiz walks through the desert searching for migrants he recalls his dead brother. Rigoberto went missing while he was trying to enter the US illegally in 2009. Is coyote or human smuggling confessed that he added banded -- had abandoned Rigoberto in his last breaths. I told myself I am not going to leave my brother lying out there. Reporter: Ortiz went out on foot and found his brother's body with the help of the human rights act is -- activist. Inspired he launched Eagles of the desert a nonprofit that searches for migrants who go missing along the border. So their families will stop having that uncertainty have where is my loved one. To give them peace. Reporter: border crossing deaths have skyrocketed since fences were built in the 1990s rerouting migrant traffic into the dangerous desert. Hundreds die each year of dehydration or hypothermia. It is the policy of the United States it was the policy of closing off the border and forcing them to cross the most dangerous to areas. Reporter: President-elect Donald Trump has vowed to expand current fencing. Trump cannot seal off the entire border because of geographical obstacles that he can make it longer and stronger and taller. Ortiz says Trump's wall will increase deaths by family migrants are more dangerous crossing routes. Sean Moran of the national border patrol Council will make it easier for agents to do their jobs. He does not think it will stop the flow of migrants or their deaths. If we build a 20 foot wall they will build a 21 foot ladder and they will try to get an. Reporter: he says the US needs to eliminate incentives for migrants to come here illegally. So we have good policies for people to shut down hiring illegal aliens. We will not be able to shut down the flow. Reporter: he believes the flow will not stop until economic conditions improve. Refugees are replacing economic migrants. They are more desperate undeterred by barriers are risks. Already people are rushing to cross the border before the term begins. Some are dying beyond -- along the way. Mothers call me crying and my soul breaks. They ask for help and you are basically their last hope. Reporter: on weekdays he takes care of the North County avocado farms a contrast to the dry desert of his weekend. The sprinklers have been running all morning here and there are piles of wet leaves on the ground. I like being in nature between the trees. Reporter: he waters the trees and make sure they flourish. He migrated from Mexico second poorest state. He lives in Fallbrook with his daughters who are University graduates are college-bound in his living room Ortiz listens to messages from the families of missing migrants the man is asking for help. He says he is desperate and his brother disappeared in the Arizona desert just like Ortiz his brother. Every call and receive and never report and receive I can fill the same thing I again remember the same thing. Reporter: despite everything he's accomplished in the US he dreams of moving back to Mexico. In the U.S. he feels discrimination. At the border he says he can see it and smell it and touch it. The human remains are scattered across the desert. Jean Guerrero KPBS news. The story spring home just how risky it is to try to cross the US Mexican border illegally. Thousands have died in the attempt. What is driving people to take these risks sometimes trying to get him again. Here to help us understand is my guest who was a professor at San Diego State University with a PhD in political economy and public policy.'s research focuses on legal and undocumented immigrants in the United States. Think is a much for being here. So what are the main factors to drive people to risk death. The really separate these factors in the six categories but the two leading categories are economic opportunities and family and friendship reunification at social networks. For example our work shows most migrant say they come for work-related reasons. 25% come to reunite with family and another 20% come for improved medical care. The idea that all the people are actually Mexican nationals is incorrect. Where are they coming from? Mexico is certainly the largest center of migrants to the United States representing about 20% of all foreign-born residents to the United States but Asia is the largest after that with China and India sending very large shares as well. What about South America? It only represents about six or 7% of the rest of the population in the United States. It is similar for some -- Central America as well. That is coming across the US Mexican border. Most people think weather is unauthorized or they think they are crossing the border that unauthorized immigrants don't go for Mexicans. They come in illegally by obtaining a tourist visa or becoming a student and overstay their visas. Is actually a misconception that most come to the United States across the border. However there is a proportion of them that come across the border and that's the one that genes story has been focusing is on and I wonder if there has been a change in the origin of some of the immigrants who are trying that dangerous journey. Absolutely. A colleague of mine has done the best work on this so his work has shown that there is a decrease in migration to the United States and it has stayed pretty constant at 11 million people but the gap has been made up by increasing unauthorized migration from China India the sub-Saharan certain countries and also from certain American countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador and Honduras. It is a bigger wall like President Donald Trump is going to build will be effective in increasing illegal immigration. If that will work -- worked perfectly would only be acted on half of the unauthorized flow. Number two the evidence from the early 90s on suggests that rather than deterring an authorized immigration a results in more crime and more tests as you alluded to a moment ago and an increasing number of unauthorized migrants settling permanently in the United States because they don't want to go back home and try to make the trip again because it's more difficult to come across. Has there been research on the most effective way. There is a lot of debate about this There is a lot of debate about the ascending country such as Guatemala and Mexico to try to help them develop economically the thinking is that while pressure will come to the United States but we have to remember that people come from many different reasons some are related to national disasters -- natural disasters or violence in the home are political or gang-related violence. It can also be for earnings potential. It's not automatically going to stem the flow and I would just get back to your original question about the wall. The evidence from the last time I tried to cut off sections of the wall or beef it up resulted in things that were surprising and did not really stem the flow. If you look at the economic ask -- incentive which is what you're saying if what we are seeing is the peso dropping from the election. That again would have a counterproductive effect in the sense that if the economy goes down there is more of an incentive to come to this country. Increasingly survey evidence is suggesting that people are not interested in staying in the United States forever. Many of them want to go back to their home countries eventually like any of us. I want to emphasize that it's not always these discussed talk picket -- topic -- some less interesting factors may be influencing Mike simply population dynamics. Colleagues of ours have done a lot of good work showing the aging population resulting in the old age dependency ratio is resulting actually and less migration to the United States of the predictions from the United Nations are that these population Diane Mannix -- dynamics may become more important and the traditional reasons we have also talked about with economic opportunity and family time. Is there an argument for actually allowing my immigration into this country. Absolutely. If you look at the demographic evidence this is not a political issue. What I am saying if you look at the labor market -- we are already agent. The demand for healthcare workers and other workers including Mexico and we will not have enough people to actually fill the jobs. We will be trying to work with the immigration system that creates more legal opportunities to invest in the countries to try to create skills. Thank you very much. Coming up in part three of our series tomorrow Jean Guerrero and the Eagles hike back into the desert and runs in so some trouble.

“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.


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.

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

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

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

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

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