A Human Tragedy by James Cordero
“El Centro Project 2” was the name given to the section of border wall that was to be built inside the Jacumba Wilderness by the Army Corps of Engineers. When construction started in May 2020, two things were already guaranteed: the project would cost a lot of money, and sadly, the newly constructed fence would cause more distress and death for those crossing the desert on foot from Mexico into the United States. The 1994 Border Patrol Strategic Plan of Prevention Through Deterrence has evolved and still continues to cause harm.**
El Centro Project 2 was one of the most expensive sections of border fence built along the entire United States/Mexico border, with a price tag of $147 million for just about three miles of 30-foot-tall steel bollard fencing. One could say the contract for this, and other newly constructed border fence sections, were a quid pro quo for a company from Bozeman, Montana, named BFBC LLC, a subsidiary of Barnard Construction. Along with other Republican fundraisers, Barnard Construction donated to Donald Trump's presidential campaign. BFBC LLC was incorporated just four days before the border was said to have been “stormed” by a migrant caravan at the Tijuana/San Ysidro port of entry. The “crisis” led President Trump to declare an “emergency” along the United States/Mexico border not long afterwards.
I could go more in depth about what’s wrong with a border fence constructed in the Jacumba Wilderness. Dozens of environmental protection laws were waived leading to bulldozing a sensitive ecosystem, the destruction of cultural sites on Kumeyaay ancestral land, and the interference of mating patterns of the federally endangered Bighorn Sheep. What I am here to tell you about is something that is not widely known about the border fence in the Jacumba Wilderness: the new border fence is harmful and life-threatening to migrants. Migration paths have changed, and migrants are being pushed to go farther lengths, resulting in more distress and death.
What I have to say next may leave you scratching your head. The three miles or so of fence that span from the west end of Davies Valley to the east end of Skull Valley inside the Jacumba Wilderness were not constructed to keep migrants from crossing into the United States. At the east end of Skull Valley and at the west end of Davies Valley, the fence stops before reaching the base of mountains, leaving ample room for a high volume of foot traffic before the hills rise. At both ends of the fence, water bottles, food wrappers, and other discarded items show extensive foot traffic through the (now invisible) borderline. Don’t worry, my team from Border Angels and I didn’t just go to witness the new fence. We also cleaned up almost a dozen bags of trash and discarded the waste properly, with a regular schedule of trash cleanup planned in these areas.
A Border Patrol emergency beacon in the Jacumba Wilderness
Photo by Edith Harmon
The new fence ends abruptly, and that’s where it gets even more dangerous for migrants. To avoid these now heavily surveilled valleys, migrants have little to no choice but travel through high-risk canyon corridors where it appears there is less surveillance and visibility, resulting in a much longer trek to their intended destination. Longer distances, along with more severe temperatures year-round, make for a great number of rescues and deaths. There were around ten confirmed deaths and around 400 rescues in fiscal year 2021, inside wilderness boundaries or just beyond.
Discarded water bottles and other personal belongings where the fence ends on the east in Skull Valley
Photo by James Cordero
Almost all the deaths that occurred just outside the wilderness boundaries were migrants who had entered the United States through the Jacumba Wilderness. Rescue beacons were added in Skull Valley and Davies Valley this past summer, but they are in areas where fewer migrants travel, as these beacons are in a wide open and very visible area.
Since the construction was halted at the beginning of 2021, I have participated in planning searches after receiving distress calls from migrants in or near the Jacumba Wilderness or from their families. Although we know the names of only three of the migrants that passed away, one will forever remain with me: Martín Alfredo Rodriguez Alcazar. Martín died on May 1, 2021, just inside the entrance of Pinto Canyon and less than a mile from the border. Martín’s story is sadly all too common. Martín was twenty-four years old, just five and a half weeks shy of his 25th birthday.
Members of Border Angels plant a memorial cross in Pinto Canyon to honor Martin at the location where he was found deceased.
Photo by James Cordero
I learned about Martín when my partner Jacqueline and I were on vacation and Jacqueline received a call from a friend of Martín’s family. Martín had called his family, and they had spoken with him by the phone. He was out of food and water before he even crossed into the United States, and at the time of the call, Martín was in dire need of help just inside the United States boundary.
Jacqueline and I started looking at maps with the little bit of information we were given and discussed this with our Border Angels desert team members, since our group is familiar with most of the Jacumba Wilderness where we carry out weekly supply drops. With the help of our team members and with the family’s description, we were able to figure out the canyon where Martín would eventually be found. Unfortunately, before we could even form a search, we learned from one of our Border Patrol contacts that Martín had been found deceased on May1, the day before we received the phone call. A group of migrants, apprehended only hours after Martín made the call to his family, told the Border Patrol of finding someone unresponsive and gave the approximate location. The search later that evening didn’t take long. On the morning when Martín’s family spoke with him for the last time, Martín mentioned that he felt that he was dying. According to the estimated time of death, Martín didn’t live much longer than that phone call. When we spoke to the family on May 2, the family did not know yet that Martín had already passed away. The GPS location of Martín’s passing was less than half a mile south of our southernmost supply drop site inside that canyon. I often think what may have changed if Martín reached our supply site in time.
Martín’s story is not uncommon for those crossing into the United States through the desert, but unlike most, I was able to learn about Martín by connecting with his family members. I learned that Martín had lost his mother in 2018 and his father in 2020. He still had some family members in Mexico, but also had family in Los Angeles and other parts of the United States.
At home in Jiquilpan, Michoacán, Martín found part-time work as a bricklayer, and on the days when work was available, he could only earn up to 200 pesos a day (a little less than $10 USD). There were no economic opportunities for Martín in his hometown, and his plan was to come to the United States and work for a few years. The plan included sending money earned in the United States back home to his son and his son’s mother, Martín’s partner. Martín set off for the United States on April 8, 2021, hoping for chance to provide a better life for his son.
Martín’s family described him as a healthy person but said that during his journey he sometimes would become depressed, feared crossing the desert, and fought the urge to turn back. He kept going and kept fighting for his son, even up to his last breath. Martín would often share bible verses on his Facebook page, and one of his last posts (translated) said, “God put me on this path and he will know how to guide me to my destination. God first. Everything is for a better future for me and my family.” There was a picture attached that appears to show the group Martín traveled with. I hope Martín was able to find some comfort at the end of his life through his religious beliefs. Martín did not have to die. The border fence in the Jacumba Wilderness is dangerous. It kills.
James Cordero is a professional photographer, humanitarian aid provider and hiker that has spent years hiking in the Jacumba Wilderness. James has worked with the non-profit Border Angels for over five years and holds the position of Water Drop Co-Director, with his partner and Co-Director Dr. Jacqueline Arellano. James and Jacqueline welcomed their first child together earlier this summer.
**Border Patrol 1994 Strategic Plan: https://www.hsdl.org/?abstract&did=721845; A podcast called "Border Trilogy”: https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/radiolab/projects/border-trilogy