When José Ricardo Garay-Garay last spoke to his fiancée June 30, 2009, he wasn’t lost yet. But he didn’t know where he was.

On the eve of his latest attempt to sneak into the United States, Garay-Garay – Rick to his family and friends – had called Anne Norris at their San Francisco Bay Area home. Seven weeks earlier, immigration officials had deported him to his native El Salvador. Determined to return to his family, Garay-Garay, 40, quickly made the voyage north.

He suspected he was somewhere south of the U.S.-Mexico border, near Arizona and the unrelenting heat of the Sonoran Desert, Norris said. He was most likely at a house used as a staging ground by guides, or coyotes, the final stop before crossing.

With traditional smuggling routes through Tijuana and Juarez shut down by a decade-long border security expansion upon which President Donald Trump has pledged to build, Garay-Garay was about to depart through treacherous terrain that would tax his 5-foot-11, 200-pound physique. The daytime temperatures would hover in the low 90s for his desert traverse. He was nervous about the journey.

José Ricardo Garay-Garay holds his infant son before he was deported in 2009 to his home country of El Salvador. He tried to return to the United States, but went missing after crossing the border.Credit: National Missing and Unidentified Persons System Credit: National Missing and Unidentified Persons System

But he also was desperate to be with his 2-year-old son, Andrew, and Norris’ two boys from a previous marriage. Garay-Garay aimed to reunite with his California family for the most American of holidays – the Fourth of July.

It was around 9 p.m., and although it was an hour past their bedtime, Garay-Garay had Norris wake the boys so he could say goodnight and that he loved them. She couldn’t understand why he had to cross through that hot, remote land instead of somewhere closer and safer.

“I said, ‘Why are you going all the way to Arizona? Why can’t you just come to California?’ ” Norris said recently in an interview. But any other way was impossible – too expensive or too risky. “He just said that’s just the way it has to be.”

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The last thing he said to her was that he’d be home before the end of the holiday weekend.

Garay-Garay embarked on the desert trek with a group that included other migrants from his hometown in El Salvador. Dressed in blue jeans, a green shirt and white tennis shoes, he carried a wooden rosary with a cross.

He was last seen near Sasabe, Arizona, a tiny border town in the Altar Valley, a major thoroughfare for border crossers. It would be a month before Norris learned that he did not make it.

The desert had swallowed him. And it hasn’t let him out.

As the Trump administration opens bidding to design and build the president’s promised “impenetrable wall” to block crossers such as Garay-Garay, questions persist about the effectiveness of an enforcement strategy that has forced migrants into increasingly deadly terrain.

At the same time, some law enforcement officials say the ultimate vision for a secure border – developed more than two decades ago – is only now being fully implemented with a plan to crack down on illegal immigration inside the United States. That’s left some wondering whether additional fencing actually might deter some people who otherwise might choose to risk their lives.

Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting in recent weeks went to the Southwest border to report on the impact of the current fencing and the effect more fencing might have on security, border residents and the environment.

A desert Bermuda Triangle

A truckload of people head from Sasabe, Mexico, to a dropoff spot near the border, where they will attempt to cross illegally on foot into the U.S. through Arizona in this May 2006 photo.
Credit: Gregory Bull/Associated Press Credit: Gregory Bull/AP

Even as migrant traffic has shifted largely in recent years from Arizona to south Texas, the border area where Garay-Garay was last seen continues to be one of the deadliest routes into the country.

This stretch of craggy mountains, dry grassland and flood-prone washes has become a desert version of the Bermuda Triangle, a vortex where thousands have gone missing. Triple-digit temperatures are common in late spring and early summer. Water is scarce before the monsoons arrive, usually sometime in July. But the dead are collected year-round.

Many of the remains are found in rugged wilderness that’s protected as nature preserves and federal land, such as the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. To the west of Tucson, the Tohono O’odham Nation cleaves the border and is frequently traveled by smugglers.

Since 2001, the remains of more than 2,600 border crossers have been recovered in the region, according to the Pima County medical examiner’s office. Often, all that’s found are skeletal fragments.

The bodies of nearly 900 people in Pima County – almost a third of the recovered remains – never have been identified, according to Reveal’s review of a federal database. That database – the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUS – captures medical examiner and coroner reports from around the country.

Caitlin Vogelsberg, a worker at the Pima County morgue in Arizona, carries the unidentified remains of a migrant in August 2012.Credit: Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press Credit: Ross D. Franklin/AP

With about 1 million residents, Pima County is far from the most populous in the country. But the southern Arizona county has the second-highest number of unidentified dead in the nation. Only Los Angeles County, the nation’s most populous, with more than 10 million people, has more unidentified cases.

Death has followed the migrant traffic as it moved to south Texas, where local authorities have struggled with the problem. According to NamUS records, 165 unidentified remains have been recovered in Brooks County, Texas, with more than half of those found after 2012. Much of that is attributed to migrants attempting to skirt a Border Patrol checkpoint.

Data from NamUS is included in a Reveal tool to help people match missing persons reports with unidentified bodies. Garay-Garay’s missing person report is in the data, along with more than 1,200 records of unidentified remains found along the U.S.-Mexico border. But that number appears to be low.

A Tucson nonprofit has collected the names of about 3,000 undocumented crossers whom family members have reported missing in southern Arizona. The Colibrí Center for Human Rights, which helps link the unidentified dead with the missing, does not work with law enforcement to compile its records because many reporting family members are also undocumented.

Robin Reineke, co-founder and executive director of the Colibrí Center, said any strategy that uses a wall will make crossing only more dangerous. She said talk of building more fencing distracts from the bigger need for immigration reform.

“Nobody should have to come walking through the Sonoran Desert,” said Reineke, whose organization has assisted Norris. “The language of security, when applied to the U.S.-Mexico border, strikes me as incredibly false when a result of that security has been the loss of thousands of lives.”

By the time Garay-Garay attempted to cross through Arizona in 2009, the number of captured border crossers had dropped more than 60 percent from the record-high 616,346 apprehensions made in fiscal year 2000 by the U.S. Border Patrol in Tucson.

But the record number of recovered bodies was still a year away, at least in Pima County, where the medical examiner’s office logged the remains of 223 in 2010. The Border Patrol also tallies deaths, but those records show lower numbers.

“No one knows how many of these types of deaths there are along the border between Mexico and the United States,” said Dr. Greg Hess, chief medical examiner for Pima County since 2011, adding that there is no central authority to track the number of border-crossing deaths.

Border buildup

In the early 1990s, patrol zones in San Diego and El Paso, Texas, accounted for more than half of the apprehensions the federal government made. The government adopted a strategy to curb illegal immigration and drug running in urban areas, adding more agents, improved technology and expanded border fencing.

The number of unauthorized crossings soon plummeted in those targeted areas. But the traffic simply shifted eastward, into unforgiving land in southeastern California, Arizona and Texas.

“Our death numbers went up by a lot in response to that change in migration pattern beginning in about 2000,” Hess said. “These are very remote areas, and that’s where the routes got pushed when it became much more difficult to cross in those major population areas back in the ’90s.”

On average, Pima County handled the remains of fewer than 20 dead crossers annually in the 1990s. Between 2002 through 2015, that figure was 171. Some human rights activists suggest that there is still a high death rate for border crossers, which some attribute, in part, to fencing.

Whether Trump’s plan to build a wall would help reduce deaths is a matter of debate. Studies conflict over whether the existing fence is effective, due in part to the challenge of developing accurate measures. A 2011 report by the Homeland Security Studies and Analysis Institute, a federally funded think tank, found that Border Patrol apprehensions dropped in at least three-quarters of fenced areas.

But a recent Government Accountability Office report highlights that the Border Patrol has not been able to pinpoint the effectiveness of the border fence because such barriers are part of a larger system of tactical infrastructure, which includes roads, stadium lighting and surveillance technology.

Still, some in law enforcement believe that the current fencing isn’t as effective as it could be because the government wasn’t serious about enforcing immigration laws within the border.

“We never implemented the third tier of our layered strategy, which was the interior enforcement,” said Shawn Moran, vice president of the National Border Patrol Council, the union that represents about 16,000 agents.

That could change under the Trump administration, which has announced plans to bolster immigration enforcement inside the United States. How effective that will be is an open question.

“People will probably find ways around whatever obstructions are put in front of them,” said Hess, the Pima County chief medical examiner. “If there was a barrier that’s completely impassable, then maybe that would decrease the number of deaths here. Whether or not that’s practical, whether or not that’s affordable … I have no idea.”

Norris said only death would have stopped Garay-Garay from trying to return to his son. She believes the government knows that, too – and tries to use that fact to its advantage.

The government’s deterrence strategy and border wall is “using somebody’s life to warn somebody else not to try,” she said. “They’re still going to try.”

Last trip through hell

More than seven years after Garay-Garay vanished, his death has not been confirmed officially.

Yet Norris said she knew he was dead, even before she heard from his niece in El Salvador a month later that things had not gone as planned. Garay-Garay had left El Salvador with a couple he knew from his hometown. They’d contacted a coyote, and Garay-Garay’s family sent him money.

Anne Norris puts her arm around her 9-year-old son, Andrew, who is holding a photo of his dad, José Ricardo Garay-Garay. Garay-Garay went missing in 2009, when he tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border on foot. Credit: Credit: Stan Alcorn/Reveal Credit: Credit: Stan Alcorn/Reveal

The logistics – and dangers – of crossing through the desert weren’t apparent to Norris. Garay-Garay had described his previous attempts as hell, but said little else about it. She thought it was as easy as getting in a car in Tijuana to come across.

Garay-Garay knew firsthand how ugly the trip could get. He’d had at least one close call crossing a decade earlier, when he was rescued on the U.S. side by helicopter.

Norris had other reservations. What she feared was a life in which he would be constantly looking over his shoulder, wary of immigration officials coming for him for a second time, separating their family.

Sending Andrew to live with his father in a country racked by gang violence and corruption was not an option for Norris. She and Garay-Garay planned to marry later that year, but his marriage to a U.S. citizen would not have helped his immigration situation. His deportation barred him from returning to the United States for 10 years, a span of time and separation from his growing son he could not bear.

He’d spent weeks at an immigration lockup in Arizona, where he was sent after coming into contact with Bay Area police April 12 – Easter Sunday.

He’d called from jail, crying. He said he missed his son. A month later – on Mother’s Day – he was deported. Although Garay-Garay no longer was detained, Norris said he felt as though he were still in jail, trapped by distance from his son. He was anxious to return.

“I thought that he should have waited a little bit,” Norris said. “I just felt like it wasn’t the right time.”

The niece told her that they’d finally heard from the friends with whom he’d traveled. Garay-Garay had talked about Andrew every day of the trek and kept a picture of his son in his pocket. But Garay-Garay became ill and was left behind in the desert. They’d run out of water. He had resorted to drinking his own urine, by then the color brown. But it was too late.

“They said he lost his ability to really speak. His throat was closed up,” Norris said. “The way they described it to me was that he sounded like a baby trying to talk … a very high-pitched little kid.”

His companions wanted to seek out the Border Patrol for help, flashing a mirror at the sun to signal for a rescue. But Garay-Garay begged them not to, even as they told him that he could try another time. It wasn’t worth it, they’d said.

He insisted they keep going. They were close. They already had crossed into the U.S.

He started to walk away with a group to ascend a hill. His friends again begged him to stay, but Garay-Garay said he had to get to his son. That was the last they saw of him.

“I envision him laying there watching people walk away from him, knowing he was going to die and how horrible he must have felt and how lonely he must have felt and how scared he must have been,” Norris said.

Norris said she later dreamed that Garay-Garay had told her where he was – next to a row of telephone poles in the desert.

Hope for families

From her small office in the medical examiner’s building, the Colibrí Center’s Reineke is surrounded by death and hope.

A whiteboard with a list of cases being worked by her nonprofit hangs opposite her desk. From her window, she can see where the medical examiner receives recovered bodies.

In a little locker room down a hallway, the acrid odor of rotting flesh clings to the plastic-sealed possessions of the dead – a necklace, money, clothes – all clues waiting to be explained or understood. While death envelops her, she does not confuse the unidentified with the missing.

“Missing are not dead,” she said. “Not to the families; they shouldn’t be considered that way at all.”

Reineke acts as a kind of guide for these families trying to find their way on a remote and lonely path to understanding what happened to their loved ones.

Last summer, Norris and Andrew went to Arizona, where they met Reineke for the first time. They visited a graveyard where many unidentified bodies have been buried. They went to the desert where Garay-Garay wandered off and found what Norris thought was the spot with the telephone poles.

They had brought flowers to leave for Garay-Garay, but Andrew decided to leave most of them on the unmarked graves.

“I felt bad for those people,” said Andrew, now 9.

Norris hangs on for the day when her fiancé’s remains may be found – and identified. With the aid of private funding, the Colibrí Center has begun to take DNA samples from family members with the goal of linking the missing and the unknown dead.

Its first effort to take DNA swabs was in December in San Francisco, followed by Phoenix last month. Andrew was in the first group. But there is a lot of work to do. There are many who are unidentified. But Norris can at least have hope that Garay-Garay – and others – are in the group.

“All of those people that are unidentified … somebody is looking for them. Somebody is missing them,” she said. “They shouldn’t be forgotten.”

Andrew Becker is a reporter for Reveal, covering border, national and homeland security issues, as well as weapons and gun trafficking. He has focused on waste, fraud and abuse – with stories ranging from border corruption to the expanding use of drones and unmanned aerial vehicles, from the militarization of police to the intersection of politics and policy related to immigration, from terrorism to drug trafficking. Becker's reporting has appeared in The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Newsweek/The Daily Beast and on National Public Radio and PBS/FRONTLINE, among others. He received a master's degree in journalism from UC Berkeley. Becker is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Stan Alcorn is a reporter and producer for Reveal. His radio work at Reveal has won awards including a Peabody Award, several Online Journalism Awards, an NABJ Salute to Excellence Award, and a Best of the West Award, as well as making him a finalist for a Livingston Award for Young Journalists. He previously was a reporter for Marketplace, covering business and economic news – from debit card fees levied on the formerly incarcerated to the economic impact of Beyoncé's hair. He has helped launch new shows at Marketplace, Slate, and WNYC; contributed research to books by journalists at Time and CNBC; and reported for outlets including NPR, PRI's The World, 99% Invisible, WNYC, FiveThirtyEight, Fast Company, High Country News, Narratively, and Digg. He is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California office.

Emmanuel Martinez

Emmanuel Martinez is a data reporter for Reveal. A graduate of UC Irvine, Martinez received his master’s degree from the University of Southern California, where he studied radio and data journalism. Prior to joining Reveal, he interned for KPCC, the Los Angeles NPR affiliate, where he helped reporters acquire, clean and analyze data. Martinez is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Scott Pham is the news applications developer for Reveal. Previously, he was the digital editor for the NBC Bay Area Investigative Team. Before that, he worked at numerous places in the public radio system, reporting for broadcast and innovating online. At KBIA public radio in Columbia, Missouri, he led the station to a national Murrow Award for best website and founded the Missouri Drone Journalism Program, which produced some of the very first drone-enabled journalism in the U.S. Pham is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.