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Harrowing Photographs of Migrants Making the Perilous Journey Through the Arizona Desert

Matt NagerForty-three year old Acevedo Guadalupe-Herrera from Ahuacatitlan, Guerrero, Mexico, lays unconscious surrounded by medical officials next to a ranch off Elephant Head Road near Green Valley, Arizona, August 8, 2009. Guadalupe-Herrera was found by a ranch hand and was presumed to be dead, although he recovered with the help of IV fluids and medical attention. He had been walking for five days with little water and no food.

After the creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994, the US made several attempts to stymie and fortify undocumented movement in established crossings zones beginning with the introduction of Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, and Operation Hold The Line in El Paso, Texas. One intended and reported result of the operation was to funnel undocumented movement into geographically inhospitable areas of the Sonora desert in Arizona in an attempt to deter potential migrants from crossing the border.

As a result of the longer and hotter path through the desert in Arizona, border deaths in this region have increased dramatically. A study by the Bi-national Migration Institute states that from 1990 to 2012, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner examined the remains of 2,238 migrants. Of these deaths, over 750 cases remain unidentified. While apprehension numbers have fallen in recent years, deaths throughout the region have not seen a similar reduction. According to the conservative death estimates of the Border Patrol statistics there were 177 deaths in the Tucson region in 2011 alone.—Matt Nager

Having traveled a fair amount through Latin America, Denver-based photographer Matt Nager had a great interest in shooting a story on the border. In 2008, he came across an article about advances in DNA testing to help identify bodies found in the desert of Arizona. That sparked his interest, and he spent the next year researching the issue and the striking numbers of migrant deaths occurring in Southern Arizona.

During the summer of 2009, Nager spent two months working in Tucson and around Southern Arizona. He spent time with Border Patrol and activist groups who help people who are struggling in the desert. Nager spent a week at the sheriff’s office, which is the first official organization called when a body is found. He photographed inside the medical examiners office during an exam of an unidentified body. Additionally, he spent time with and photographed in the mortuary in Tucson where they cremate bodies that have been unsuccessfully identified.

In the years since this project, it appears as if the issue has largely gone unchanged. Statistics show that deaths continue to occur at rates nearing 200 bodies per year. As technology advances, it will undoubtedly become easier to identify bodies. There is now a website, Humane Borders, that documents where each body was found as well as the gender and name of that individual.

Matt_Nager_PhotographyThe US-Mexico border fence is highlighted by Border Patrol headlights under a bright moon in Sasabe, Arizona., Friday, June 5, 2009. Building the wall along the border has resulted in migrants following more secluded and dangerous routes where the wall has not been built.

Matt_Nager_PhotographyBORSTAR agent Karl LaFevre and his dog Cargo search for tracks of unidentified migrants on a gold course in Green Valley along Interstate 19 in Tuscon, Arizona, Friday, June 5, 2009. The housing development and gold course serve as a final drop off and pick up points for migrants traversing the desert to the United States through Mexico.

Matt_Nager_PhotographyRows of body bags, many of which contain remains of unidentified bodies found in the desert, sit in an overflow cooler waiting for ongoing identification examinations outside the Pima County Medical Examiners Office in Tucson, Arizona, August 12, 2009. The increase in deaths in Pima County has resulted in an overflow of caseloads for the medical examiner as the identification process can take years for each body.

Matt_Nager_PhotographyMarkers for unknown people, many of which are presumed to be migrants who died while crossing the border, sit at Evergreen Cemetery for burial in Holtville, California, Sunday, August 17, 2009.

Matt_Nager_PhotographyBORSTAR agent Jared Ashby applies medical attention to Victor Manuel Lopez-Galindo after a search and rescue mission two miles into at Elk Horn Ranch in Red Canyon, Arizona, Thursday, June 11, 2009. Lopez-Galindo who presumable was attacked, robbed, and left alone by drug smugglers, started a fire to signal for help and a rescue after hiking five days in the desert mountains with one gallon of water.

Matt_Nager_PhotographyForty-three year old Acevedo Guadalupe-Herrera from Ahuacatitlan, Guerrero, Mexico, lays unconscious surrounded by medical officials next to a ranch off Elephant Head Road near Green Valley, Arizona, August 8, 2009. Guadalupe-Herrera was found by a ranch hand and was presumed to be dead, although he recovered with the help of IV fluids and medical attention. He had been walking for five days with little water and no food.

Matt_Nager_PhotographyA popular migrant crossing trail and drug smuggling route passes through Mount Wrightson and Coronado National Forest near Green Valley, Arizona, August 3, 2009. Migrants and drug smugglers alike will often hike up to the ridges of mountains to stay clear of being caught by border patrol, sheriffs, and remote sensors, often leading to perilous falls and disorientation.

Matt_Nager_PhotographyA sheriff transports two bundles of marijuana for inspection after chasing and successfully stopping a jeep load of drugs from passing through the Highway 286 and 86 corridor near Tuscon, Arizona, Friday, June 12, 2009. This region, which includes Interstate 19 from Nogales, is one of the leading drug smuggling zones in the United States.

Matt_Nager_PhotographySheriffs Ryan Pretti (left) and Gary Halkowitz with the Pima County Sheriff Department, Green Valley District, walks along a known migrant trail looking for drugs and lost injured migrants, August 4, 2009. In addition to traffic stops and drug busts, the sheriff department is primarily responsible for responding to dead body calls and body recovery and transfer from the desert to the medical examiners office in Tucson.

Matt_Nager_PhotographyVolunteers of the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths caravan jugs of water to a popular crossing path in Chiminea Canyon outside Arivaca, Arizona on July 21, 2009. The group deposits water and gives medical attention to migrants in need traveling from Mexico through the desert to the United States.

Matt_Nager_PhotographyA shrine honoring the lives of those who have died in the desert made of objects and found throughout the desert on migrant trails at the No More Deaths camp in Arivaca, Arizona from July 24, 2009. The group deposits water and gives medical attention to migrants in need traveling from Mexico through the desert to the United States.

Matt_Nager_PhotographyA sheriff helicopter circles a popular migrant crossing trail after reports of drug smuggling were reported several miles East of Arivaca, Arizona, July 23, 2009. Harsh terrain and steep mountains make for dangerous crossing paths as well as popular drug smuggling routes.

matt_nager_PhotographyAn unidentified body presumed to be of a migrant rests before being prepared for cremation at Adair Funeral Home in Tucson, Arizona, Thursday, August 10, 2009. Bodies are released from the Pima County Medical Examiners Office for burial after it has been concluded that an identification cannot be made.

Matt_Nager_PhotographyA skull and a partial skeleton of a presumed border crosser discovered by a woman riding her horse in the Avra Valley area near Tucson, Arizona on June 24, 2009 are displayed on an examination table at the Pima County Medical Examiners office in Tucson, Arizona, Wednesday, August 5, 2009. The person is thought to be a male and has been dead for at least a year. No identification was found with the bones.

Matt_Nager_PhotographyAn undocumented migrant looks out the back of a Border Patrol vehicle after being spotted by a citizen and reported to officials near Green Vallery, Arizona, August 9, 2009. In addition to traffic stops and drug busts, the sheriff department is primarily responsible for responding to dead body calls and body recovery and transfer from the desert to the medical examiners office in Tucson.

Matt NagerAssistant Louie Goad moves the corpse of a presumed migrant found on the Tohono O’odham reservation near Cockleburr Village on August 2, 2009 in place for an autopsy examination at the Pima County Medical Examiners office in Tucson, Arizona, Wednesday, August 5, 2009. The person is thought to be a man and an identification card was found 30 feet from the body which might be his.

Matt NagerA marker of an unknown person sits at the Pima County Fiduciary Cemetery at Evergreen Cemetery for burial in Tucson, Arizona, Tuesday, August 12, 2009. Prior to 2004, the county would bury the remains of unidentifiable bodies found in the desert after identification exams proved unsuccessful.

Feature Shoot Contributing Editor Julia Sabot is the Associate Photo Editor at Dwell.



  • Daniel Berman

    Wow, stunning work Matt.

  • Suzi Spangenberg

    Extremely moving photographs documenting the horrific outcome of our broken immigration policy. One suggestion: may I suggest that you follow AP guidelines and not use the term “illegal migrant”? A person cannot be illegal. Undocumented is now the accepted term.

  • Sue Lefebvre

    Great documentation, Matt, and the accompanying comments are fine too. Sue Lefebvre, No More Deaths

  • Sue Lefebvre

    Matt and Julie, This is an excellent representation of what’s happening in the desert. Thanks so much. Sue Lefebvre, No More Deaths

  • Pablo

    Excellent! However, it’s too bad you didn’t have a copyeditor/proofreader look it over before publication.

  • Angelica

    Please do not use the term “illegal” to label the person sitting in the back of the Border Patrol vehicle. The person specifically is not illegal, only the act they committed is illegal. Using the term “undocumented” is preferred.

  • Nancy

    Is there a contact to make donations to the No More Death good samaritans?

  • Kim

    Very offensive to call a person an “illegal immigrant”- in addition to sounding ignorant. “Undocumented” is the correct term.

  • Vic Pittman

    The term “legal” offends me, now that our laws are written by gangsters and war criminals. It is “legal” to use drones to wipe out weddings and schools..legal to invade other countries based on lies, legal to hand the nations wealth to a handful of billionaires..etc etc. I take pride in often treading on the other side of that relative term. EVERYTHING that Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot did was “legal”…they broke no laws. People who DID break laws: Jesus Christ, Ghandi, MLK…. I would rather be numbered among the latter.

  • http://www.mattnager.com Matt Nager

    We have corrected the captions to read undocumented and not illegal. Thanks for your comments and viewing this project. — Matt

  • christopher M

    Nancy you can go to the No More Deaths website and there is a link for donating.
    nomoredeaths.org

  • lsearle

    What is offensive is the fact here so stunningly documented. What is obscene are the couple of comments hung up on the language: look and comprehend. Take your sniping private.

  • Melissa Gamboa

    I work with the population of undocumented people who risk life just to seek employment in the United States & do so by any means necessary & fall prey to those who they pay money to smuggle them across the desert who often leave them behind to die once they have taken their hard earned money. My thoughts on the subject are to make it easier & cheaper to obtain legal documents for those who are just seeking employment & a better life in this vast country in which we live in & often take our freedoms & opportunities for granted.