Mexico/US Borderlands: Finding Human Remains in the Desert


bMigrant finds life-giving water in the deserty John Heid

John Heid joined CPT as a Reservist in 2007. A Quaker and Catholic Worker, John moved to Tucson, Arizona USA about five years ago to work on immigrant justice and anti-militarization in the USA/Mexico borderlands. He lives at Casa Mariposa – a community of hospitality, simple and sustainable living, playful spirituality, and peaceful, prophetic action.

“Our work is done for today,” Joel yelled across the wash as he waved his arms emphatically. I was puzzled. We were still a good four miles from our destination, Red Tail water tank.

Joel shouted again. “We’re done! Come over here!”

As I approached, no further words were needed. A few feet in front of him lay a sun-bleached human skull, eyeless sockets looking south, resting starkly among the coal black volcanic rocks strewn across this ancient plain.

Yes, our work was done for the day in that mid-afternoon moment of Thanksgiving eve. I took off my hat and sat in silent prayer. Joel called 911.

Joel, Director of Operations for Humane Borders, a Tucson-based humanitarian aid organization, and I were conducting the annual assessment of water tanks in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge and replacing the weathered blue flags that prominently identify each tank. The person whose skull we came upon had missed the nearest tank by a few miles. S/he was the eleventh set of human remains recovered in the Tucson sector of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands since 1 October 2014.

I knew this day would probably come. I expected it as much as I dreaded it. Given the political and economic realities of our times, it was inevitable that I would find human remains sooner or later.

This man or woman was likely on his or her way to reunite with family. Or simply on the way to find work. But their journey ended weeks or months ago in the austere terrain of the Growler Valley a few miles from El Camino del Diablo (Devil’s Highway).

The ancient biblical Advent query from the New Testament Gospel of Luke (7:24-26) rises anew. “…What did you go out to the desert to see?...” What reason did this one have to come to the desert? Why do I? Why do any of us walk the Way we do?