The following mentions sexual assault.
After a positive couple of days hiking in the beautiful Sonora desert, meeting other No More Deaths volunteers and feeling inspired by the resistance movement, I experienced the heaviest night of my time here. A humanitarian group called Angeles del Desierto came to camp to visit us and spend the night. They are Chicano volunteers based in California and do search and rescue along the border, usually finding bodies. After a lovely picnic table dinner under a full moon, the founder of the group, Rafael, began to talk about his experience in the desert. He showed us pictures of bodies they have found, pointing to one and saying matter-of-factly, “this young man died in my arms.” I didn’t want to look at the picture, but I can’t blame him for showing us. I know they needed to share this with us and sharing is part of processing. It wasn’t a morbid display, it was someone letting go of trauma. The picture was of a young guy, maybe 19 years old, in a lime green shirt, curled into a fetal position under some large rocks. He looked asleep. Often people when delirious of dehydration and hunger will go down somewhere low in the hills to die. “He was too far gone when we got there,” Rafael said, softly.
The conversation turned to human trafficking, and they told us that the Pima county forensics has reported over 850 people are missing. Often people who contact Angeles del Desierto never find their family members. The majority of these missing people are women and children, trafficked into slavery. They explained that often they find women’s underwear hung in trees or left behind on trails as trophies of rape. And then one of the volunteers got up and brought 3 backpacks to the table. They found them earlier in the day on a hike around where we work. Each backpack was brand new and green camouflage, barely used. And then he began pulling out what they had found inside. Women’s underwear, torn and dirty. Trophies. “Look at this,” he said, his voice barely masking disgust and anger.
I know the desert is dangerous for more than the heat. I know that slavery makes up the vast majority of prostitution and innocuous seeming massage parlors are often fronts for sexual slavery. A couple of blocks away from our apartment here by the border, is an “asian massage” parlor with blacked out windows. But suddenly I was looking at the torn bra of a woman who was raped and tortured and if not killed, most likely made a sexual slave. Her family may never see her again. I couldn’t look at the clothes of these poor women anymore and I covered my eyes with my hand. My roommate held her arm out and grabbed mine and in that moment, her touch reminded me that this is real, I can’t shield my eyes from this, we are both here right now, and I cried.
Living in Colombia, a country with obvious conflict, things on the surface can appear calm, normal, even. But once you dig a little, you see that there is war, and lack of trust, and pain and violence. And it’s the same here; there is conflict here on the border.
The desert is enormous and seemingly still. But border patrol roams the hills armed in their white SUVs, the cartels hike the trails smuggling people and drugs, and there is violence and rape and loss of life out here. There are thousands of people moving through the desert every day and you may never see them, but the evidence is there.