Migrant deaths are surging near the United States-Mexico border

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Editor’s note: This story contains reporting and images that some readers may find disturbing. Leer en español.

EL PASO, Texas, and JUÁREZ, Mexico — Mount Cristo Rey rises in the desert like two hands in prayer, the U.S. and Mexico sides, over a graveyard without tombs.

This year, migrants died in this harsh landscape – in the Rio Grande, in the desert, in neighborhoods and on city streets – in numbers never seen before at this border crossing known as the Paso del Norte. Yet no stones mark the places where they died, only numeric coordinates inked on police reports.

The sand berm where a Border Patrol agent found 49-year-old Abel Lopez Rodriguez with “maggots all over his body.” The spot behind Doña Ana Community College where Marlene Leyva-Perez collapsed and a child found her decomposing body. The dunes where a “mule,” euphemism for a smuggler, abandoned Eduardo Torres-Ramos, a 34-year-old Guatemalan man, a few miles from a New Mexico winery.

Laura Mae Williams, a field investigator for New Mexico's Office of the Medical Investigator, closes a body bag after examining the death of a migrant in the desert in New Mexico about two miles north of the U.S.-Mexico boundary on Sept. 13, 2023.

They are among the migrants whose names are known; many more died without identification. Yet, back home, the families who depended on them don’t forget. The survivors mourn. They shoulder the cost of an American dream cut short.

“I don’t remember a time when things were like this and not feeling any hope as I look toward the future,” said Ruben Garcia, the executive director of El Paso’s Annunciation House who has provided shelter and humanitarian assistance to migrants for 47 years.

On Nov. 5, three bishops – from El Paso, Juárez and southern New Mexico – held an annual Mass for Day of the Dead in the dry bed of the Rio Grande. With Mount Cristo Rey as a backdrop, they asked for prayers for the migrants who die in Mexico, who die in the river and the desert, in the containers of trucks and in U.S. custody.

One hundred and forty-nine migrants died in Border Patrol’s El Paso Sector in the 12 months through Sept. 30, soaring from six migrant deaths recorded six years ago, according to Border Patrol records. The sector includes all of New Mexico. The fatalities don’t include the more than 70 migrants who died across the border in Juárez.

Illustration of graves in Mexican cemetery for unidentified and unclaimed people.

In southern New Mexico, residents are stumbling on bodies in the desert of people who were within reach of rescue. El Paso water managers have grown accustomed to the stench of death in the Rio Grande. Border Patrol agents, first responders and medical investigators across the borderland have been overwhelmed by the number of human remains found – sometimes two or three bodies per day.

“Where is the humanity?” Garcia asked. “Where are the ethics? The morality? The justice in all of these human beings who are dying in the desert? In order to respond, your soul has to be moved. Then you discover there aren’t a lot of people in government who operate in response to that.”

A yearlong investigation by the El Paso Times, part of the USA TODAY Network, found a border region shocked by the sudden increase in migrant deaths in 2023 and ill-equipped to track and respond to the tragedy, including:

  • A surge in the number of women dying. In the southern New Mexico desert outside El Paso, 84 migrants in total lost their lives in the first nine months of 2023, compared with 35 two years ago. The number of women dying more than doubled from last year and more than tripled from 2021.
  • Minimal local efforts to track migrant deaths. Key local law enforcement agencies aren’t tracking migrant deaths. The El Paso Police Department and El Paso County Medical Examiner say they don’t track migrant deaths and were unwilling to compile the data when asked. However, New Mexico’s Office of the Medical Investigator is creating a way to record deaths of “probable border crossers.” The El Paso region has no public-facing map to chart the location, cause or demographics of migrant fatalities.
  • Inadequate infrastructure to quickly identify and return remains to families. New Mexico’s Office of the Medical Investigator is struggling with the number of unidentified bodies found this year, given limited staff and the cost of DNA-testing decomposed remains. There are few local partners: While the Mexican consulate has a team in El Paso to help locate next of kin for Mexican nationals, the nearest consulates for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are in Arizona or Del Rio, Texas.

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