Tyrant’s Foe: An Angel on the Border

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Rafael Larraenza helps migrants who take dangerous routes into the U.S.
Rafael Larraenza helps migrants who take dangerous routes into the U.S.

It was 1994, and the United States, Canada and Mexico had just signed the North American Free Trade Agreement. The pact opened North America’s borders to free trade. But the workers who had plowed the fields and worked in the factories wouldn’t enjoy the same freedom.

In the early 1990s, the U.S. government erected its first fortified wall, in California, and beefed up border security. U.S. Border Patrol began to find bodies in the rugged mountains between San Diego and Tijuana, where unlucky migrants, who had tried to circumvent the border wall, died.

Rafael Larraenza Hernandez, a Mexican immigrant living in San Diego, realized something unprecedented was happening. “There were so many people dying, and it seemed like no one cared because they were immigrants,” he said. “People began moving east to try and cross through the mountains. It was very dangerous in the mountains with extreme temperatures.”

Alarmed by the deaths, Larraenza, a heavy-machinery mechanic, founded a nonprofit search-and-rescue organization in San Diego in 1997 called Los Angeles del Desierto (Desert Angels). The first few years were difficult, he said. Larraenza and other volunteers would hike the mountains looking for people in distress. If they found someone, they would persuade the migrant to allow Border Patrol to take him or her to a hospital. They would also leave behind food and water for migrants. Sometimes they were too late and found lifeless bodies in the brush. Mexican immigration authorities and the U.S. Border Patrol treated the group as a nuisance. “Authorities didn’t understand why I was trying to help people,” Larraenza said.

But the number of dead kept growing. The media began to cover Larraenza and his organization’s quest to save lives. “After about five years, people began to accept that we were doing something good, that we were rescuing people,” he said. A decade ago, California walled off its entire border with Mexico, and migrants moved east and began crossing through the treacherous deserts of Arizona. Soon the number of deaths in Arizona surpassed California’s total. So Larraenza and his group began conducting search-and-rescue efforts in Arizona too. In the corridor from Nogales to Tucson, hundreds of people die every year. “Those are just the bodies they find,” Larraenza said. “There are many more missing.”

Usually, by the time Desert Angels receives a call from a family member, the migrant has been missing for quite a few days, sometimes months. In the past two years, many of the frantic callers have mentioned Falfurrias, a small South Texas town just north of a U.S. immigration checkpoint, as the last place they heard from a missing family member. So Larraenza drove from San Diego to rural Brooks County, of which Falfurrias is the seat, to investigate. “Basically, I’ve been following the wall as it’s been built eastward,” he said.

In Texas, Larraenza met resistance. He discovered that most of the land is private, and ranch owners don’t want a stranger looking for lost migrants on their property. Larraenza met with Border Patrol agents and the county sheriff and tried to build bridges with local ranchers. “No one wanted to help,” he said.

In 2011, in the little town of Encino just south of Falfurrias, he found two dead bodies and reported the discovery to the sheriff. Larraenza asked the sheriff when the medical examiner would arrive; he hoped the examiner could identify the bodies so they could be returned to their families. He was shocked to find that Brooks County has no medical examiner, and that in Texas, unlike in California and Arizona, counties aren’t required to provide one. For decades the unidentified bodies in Brooks County had been buried in pauper’s graves marked by simple metal signs labeled “unknown.” There are hundreds of bodies buried there. “This made me very sad,” Larraenza said.

Since then, Larraenza has been determined to open a Desert Angels office in Falfurrias to help migrant families. To save money on his trips from California, he often sleeps in the parking lot at the local Walmart. In February he joined forces with the South Texas Civil Rights Project and other Texas advocacy groups to lobby Brooks County to seek DNA identification of unidentified bodies of migrants. Shortly afterward, Baylor University offered to exhume the bodies in Falfurrias and conduct DNA testing free of charge. “We have double fences, sensors and cameras, mountains, deserts and, in Texas, a river, and still people cross,” Larraenza said. “They climb the fence, swim the river, even cross the ocean. They come because they want a better life.”

(Correction: The article previously stated that the University of North Texas volunteered to conduct exhumations in Brooks County. The article should have stated Baylor University. The Observer regrets the error.)

Melissa del Bosque joined The Texas Observer staff in 2008. She specializes in reporting on immigration and the U.S.-Mexico border. Her work has been published in national and international publications including TIME magazine and the Mexico City-based Nexos magazine. She has a master’s in public health from Texas A&M University and a master’s in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin.