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Immigration | #CrueltyIsNotOK

Alvaro’s Memorial to the Unknown

The deadly three-decade legacy of Operation Gatekeeper

Planting an Alvaro Enciso cross in memory of one of the 10K souls in search of life taken down in the prime of life by the almost 30-year US immigration strategy called “prevention through deterrence” (aka “deterrence through cruelty (photo credit: Sarah Towle, September 2021)

Author’s note: This story was originally published in response to editor Stefanie Raffelock’s call for examples of how art is being used to uplift and inform in the midst of multiple global crises. Find Art in the Time of Unbearable Crisis, She Writes Press (June 2022), where all books are sold.

You can also enjoy an audio tale of my trip into the Sonoran to plant crosses with Alvaro here:


Another Dream Deferred

It starts with a dot. A red dot. Which becomes a GPS coordinate.

“Ready?” asks Alvaro Enciso to no one in particular but to everyone present. Throwing me a friendly wink under bushy salt-and-pepper eyebrows, he rests a hand atop the open hatch door of the 4Runner. Piled into the back cargo area of the filthy, scrub-scuffed, grey SUV are two milk crates packed tight with 99-cent plastic gallon jugs of water, a construction bucket, a bag each of gravel and fast-setting concrete, several pairs of man-sized, heavy-duty work gloves, a shovel, and a pickaxe. Topping the utilitarian stack — and looking quite out of place — are five or six crosses made of 2x3 inch pine strips painted green, yellow, pink, and blue. Each is secured with a red metal dot constructed from a used bottle top nailed to the central meeting point. Some boast additional adornments of recycled metal trash, all simple.

“Yup,” says David, heading to the passenger’s seat.

“Vámonos,” states Peter, buckling in behind the steering wheel.

Three doors slam, almost in unison. The final one, landed by Alvaro, brings into sudden reveal a red sticker, centered just above the ubiquitous Toyota logo of the vehicle’s rear window. It shouts, “SAMARITANS.”

Peter steers the SUV out of the parking lot and onto Tucson’s S. Sixth Ave. We’re en route to Highway I-19, heading toward Mexico, as this three-man team has done each Tuesday for years. David powers up the GPS-tracking device in his hand and shows me the cacophony of red dots splashed across the map of the vast Sonoran — one of the most blistering deserts on Earth, rivaled only by Iran’s Dasht-e Lut.

Many red dots mark locations far off the beaten path, often landing within the 2,900,000-acre area of the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation. We can’t reach those without advance permission from tribal leaders and a guide, neither of which we have today. So David directs us to the east of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge in the foothills of the thirty-mile-long, north-south running Baboquivari mountain range, the boundary of Tohono O’odham territory.

The range’s granite monolith peak, which towers over the vista like a monumental thumb at a dramatic 7,730 feet, makes the perfect landmark for travelers. Though Baboquivari Peak is the most sacred place of the Tohono O’odham people — the home of I’itoli, the Creator and Elder Brother of the Tohono O’odham homeland — it has stood just outside the Nation’s current territorial boundary since 1853, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo divided the Tohono O’odham lands, giving mountain access to colonial settlers. Since 1998, the Tohono O’odham Nation has fought to have the sacred peak returned to its custody. For now, it is the playground of hikers, climbers, and mountain bikers.

Our first stop this day will be a spot southeast of the Baboquivari Peak and just north of the US–Mexico border at the “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” Nogales exurb of Rio Rico. We pull into the weather-beaten asphalt-and-gravel roadside lot of Ruby Corners Inc. Motorway Services and park discreetly in a far-flung corner, well away from the semi-trailers lined up for repair. Using the bed of the 4Runner as a workbench, Peter pours a mixture of quick-dry concrete and gravel into the bucket, a recipe memorized from repetition. The rest of us grab water, tools, gloves, and a cross and follow David, now zeroing in on the sought-after coordinates, down a noisy, lonely length of highway.

“We try always to get as close as we can with the SUV,” Alvaro explains. “Then we hike the rest of the way.”

This hike will not take us far, for the red dot we seek marks the spot where Sergio Antonio Santiago, aged twenty-four, having successfully made it across the harsh Sonoran Desert and into the United States, collapsed by the side of I-19. Unlike most of those in search of life, he was found “fully fleshed,” meaning his corpse was less than a day old when examined by the Pima County Coroner’s Office (more typically, the desert critters and climate in this area eat up a body, along with the origin tales it conceals, fast). Still, while we knew his name, thanks to identification found amongst his few things, Santiago’s dream remains unknown. Whatever it was, it was denied him and his loved ones when he fell by the side of Highway I-19, fifty-five miles from Tucson. Probable cause of death: hypothermia.

Despite sizzling daytime temperatures that can climb as high as 120℉, shivering is likely the first symptom Santiago noticed — that and slurred speech or mumbling. Then his metabolism and heart rate surely slowed as his organs began, one at a time, to shut down. His breath grew shallow and his pulse weak, depriving his body of life-giving oxygen, as his cells set off chemical toxins. When these hit his brain, the irreversible damage began. He felt drowsy, clumsy, confused. He lost his memory, along with his coordination, and probably started to hallucinate, forgetting to keep focused on Baboquivari Peak, before losing consciousness altogether.

Symptoms of hypothermia manifest so gradually, you might not even be aware of your condition until it’s too late. Sadly, it’s always too late once hypothermia hits in the Sonoran Desert.

It’s now up to the Colibrí Center for Human Rights to locate Santiago’s family and reunite them with their lost loved one — that is, if they know to register him as “disappeared” with their Missing Migrant Project. Until then, his backstory will remain a mystery.

Until then, Alvaro, Peter, and David will follow red dots to remember the dead. Four, five, six at a time. Every Tuesday.

More Justice Denied

It starts with a hole, determined by a red dot on a map, marking where Santiago went from standing to fallen. A hole, not too deep, cut into the earth by David with a pickaxe and shovel, then filled by Peter with moistened gravel and quick-dry cement as Alvaro plants into the mixture a simple cross made of rough 2x3 inch pine strips painted green. It’s a solemn act, performed in silence, save the howling of traffic on Highway I-19.

I eyeball the positioning of the cross, indicating to Alvaro with a slight wave to the left, then to the right, the adjustments necessary to settle it, straight and tidy, before the cement dries. David piles rocks, collected from the roadside and tossed into the now-empty bucket, at the base of the cross. They make it look pretty. They provide additional support. Peter draws a rosary from one pocket and drapes it over the cross. From another pocket, he pulls a vial of holy water. He sprinkles a bit on the fresh grave, makes the sign of the cross, and whispers a brief prayer.

“The majority of the fallen are Christian, so we don’t want to forget that part,” Alvaro tells me, breaking the silence. “But it’s ironic that an infidel is doing this for them.” He laughs. He’s referring to himself.

For Alvaro, the cross represents more than just a Christian symbol. “You’re also looking at a geometrical figure,” he explains. “The vertical line represents the living person with a future dream, still walking. The horizontal line is when that dream died with the human who, unable to remain upright any longer, collapsed. The red dot in the middle, where the criss and cross meet — that is the moment of death, the moment when, in this case, Santiago went from living to dead.”

Alvaro reminds me, too, of a pre-Christian legacy of the cross: “The Roman Empire used it to kill — to hang false prophets, enemies of the people, common criminals, and leave them out in the sun for days at a time, without any water, to die. That’s exactly what’s happening here. People dying from being exposed to the sun, without any water — and on purpose, because the US government has walled off the easiest points of entry, sending humans through the harshest, hottest, most difficult parts of the desert where they are bound to die.”

Alvaro is talking about Operation Gatekeeper, launched on October 1, 1994, by the Clinton administration, which then caved to the same nativist, anti-immigrant fervor that squeezes the life from the soul of the US nation today. Operation Gatekeeper erected walls and fences in easy-to-cross border areas with the express purpose of funneling human beings into dangerous and inhospitable terrain, where they would either perish or be more easily spotted. Walls and fences went up alongside a dramatic rise in Border Patrol agent hires, as well as surveillance technology purchases. Ports of entry were added to the walls, as were interior checkpoints as far as 100 miles from the border. Guns were surged to the gates and checkpoints as prison beds were allocated for those “apprehended” before they could die.

As Operation Gatekeeper made its way east, from Imperial Beach, California, to Brownsville, Texas, it divided thriving bicultural communities, devastated natural ecosystems, and transformed the southern borderlands of the US into a militarized zone where law enforcement took on the job that would have been, then as now, better suited to humanitarians, like John Fife and the Tucson Samaritans.

Policymakers theorized that by making the journey across the border as devastatingly difficult as possible — by ensuring that folks in search of life, like Santiago, would die a slow and agonizing death — family and friends back home would get the message: “Do not come.” The policy even had a name: “prevention through deterrence.”

On the one hand, Operation Gatekeeper has worked: it’s caused the death, disappearance, and despair of tens of thousands. On the other hand, the policy is and always has been a miserable failure, as folks keep coming.

“The US government never understood,” explains Alvaro, “that when you’re poor and this is your only option, you do it. When facing the Sonoran Desert is a better path than a lifetime hiding from the gangs or watching your children starve to death, you do it. These people aren’t looking for the tired ‘American Dream.’ They’re just looking for better, so they do it.”

Operation Gatekeeper kicked off the now nearly three-decade militarization of the US–Mexico border, turbocharged after 9/11. It has led to the ruin of an uncountable number of lives. In 1994, fewer than thirty people were known to have died crossing the border. By 1998, the number had quintupled to 147. Deaths more than doubled to 387 in 2000. And the trend continues apace.

Conservative estimates suggest a death rate of at least one person each day since Operation Gatekeeper began. That’s more than 10,000 dead, to date. Meanwhile, a high of 17.7 billion US taxpayer dollars were spent in 2021 on the morally questionable belief that the human right to seek a better life can be deterred through cruelty.

Cruelty is Not Okay

We mark four more red dots this sacred Tuesday, one located within a ranch we enter on foot and without permission. When the owner speeds toward us, his dual-cab pickup kicking up a cloud of red desert dust, Alvaro throws up his hands and plants himself in the truck’s path. My heart races, wondering if this will be the day that Alvaro becomes a red dot on a desert map. But on learning our purpose, the rancher humbly allows us to proceed. We leave a bright red cross in the memory of one who is welcomed in death, though in life he was not.

What started as a dream — “to reveal to the world the US government’s responsibility for turning the Sonoran Desert into a graveyard” — has resulted in Alvaro transforming the desert into a cemetery, an art installation, and a memorial to the needless suffering of the unknown. He has planted more than 1,200 crosses in vibrant colors, adorned with bits of metal trash found on the desert floor alongside the dead. More than 1,200 crosses — and counting.

“Alvaro will never finish in his lifetime,” Tucson-based author of Border Patrol Nation and other must-read books about US borderlands militarization, Todd Miller, subsequently confided in me. “He can’t keep pace with the number of fallen.”

Was Santiago running from gang members trying to force him to join their culture of brutality? Did his mother wake him in the middle of the night, press her life savings of $30 into his hand, and whisper forcefully in his ear, “Run!”? Was he coming to meet a father he never knew, the central figure of the family’s only framed photograph, one of 11 million undocumented — yet essential — laborers that quietly, anonymously slaughter the livestock and pack the meat that supply our national fast-food addiction while, back home, his children cry from the pain of hunger every day? Or was he, a young 20-something with his own small mouth to feed, en route to the Promised Land with the dream of becoming a faceless, voiceless taxpaying essential worker without benefits in order to send a few dollars in remittances each month for the foreseeable future — work and jobs back home being scarce?

Whatever the answer, a dream deferred — dried up like a raisin in the sun — is indeed justice denied. And the cruelty which drove it, as former Senior Border Patrol agent turned immigrant rights activist, Jenn Budd, would come to find, was not, then as now, okay.

You can also enjoy an audio tale of my trip into the Sonoran to plant crosses with Alvaro here:




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Sarah Towle

Sarah Towle

Award-winning London-based author sharing her journey from outrage to activism one tale of humanity and podcast episode at a time @THE FIRST SOLUTION on Medium