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The Southwest
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The Southwest

The U.S. - Mexican Border: Tucson, Arizona


May 12, 2015 —
These crosses are piled high in the front room of Derechos Humanos when I arrived at this South Tucson nonprofit organization, where my pal Mel takes me the day I arrive. This scene immediately sends chills up my spine.

The crosses bear the names of people who were found and identified in the Tucson desert, and the number at the tip of the cross signifies the number they were assigned as they are added to the list of deaths each year. I am told that between the year 2000 and 2014, 2,771 bodies were found in the Tucson desert.

Coalición de Derechos Humanos, located in South Tucson, is a trusted community organization that receives calls daily from family members looking for loved ones who went missing while crossing the desert from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador or México.

One of the most moving projects at Derechos Humans is when the staff and volunteers count the number of bodies recovered in the Arizona border every year between October 1 and September 30. As they do this, they compare the numbers put out by government officials with those that are gathered by the volunteers. The comparison is usually incorrect almost 3 to 1. They collaborate with Consular offices and county medical examiners and collect this information almost every day, as bodies are located and recovered. If the bodies cannot be identified, they are assigned a number, which is then written at the top of each cross without a name, along with the word “Desconocido” or “Desconocida.”

From their website: In an effort to honor every life that has been lost on our borders, Coalición de Derechos Humanos simply wants to put names to immigrants crossing the desert every day, and to bear witness to the deaths of those unknown, of whom there are hundreds buried in our communities.


Standing next to the pile of crosses is Christen Vernon, who looks tired yet greets us with a broad smile. Christen came to Derechos Humanos as a volunteer, and is now serving as the part-time Director. She tells us they are in desperate need of volunteers. "People stop in to volunteer," she says, "but after a few weeks, they don't return. The work here is emotionally exhausting." (NOTE: Christen left Derechos Humanos a year after this photo was taken)


On this day, one of the volunteers at Derechos Humanos listens to this gentleman, who it turns out, had not heard from his family, who had set out through the desert over two weeks, prior to this day. He is very concerned and just needs to talk to someone.


Above is a map of the desert that is marked with spots where bodies have been found.


As I take in everything I hear and see around me, my heart feels so heavy. Mel cuts through all that for me as she adds a light moment sketching cartoons, which she gives to this young girl before we leave.

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