On weekdays, Ely Ortiz –– who emigrated from the Mexican state of Oaxaca in the 1980s to San Diego –– works long hours in construction.
But once a month, Ortiz goes on a mission: searching for the remains of people who died while attempting to cross the southern border through the Arizona and California deserts, and attempting to rescue those who are stranded but still alive.
Earlier this year, Ortiz founded a nonprofit organization, Aguilas del Desierto, which translates to Eagles of the Desert.
“We all come to the United States with that same hope, for better opportunities, a better life. And, well, my brother came trying to look for his American Dream,” Ortiz said.
Since 1998, at least 7,805 people have lost their lives while attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border and more than 3,500 people are still missing, according to the Colibrí Center for Human Rights.
For Ortiz, these missions hit close to home. His brother, Rigoberto Ortiz, and cousin, Carmelo Ortiz, both left Oaxaca in May.
They crossed the border into Arizona. But Ortiz says that they were abandoned by their “coyote” –– the person guiding them across the border –– and were stranded on an Air Force bombing range in the middle of the desert.
Ortiz said it’s very common for coyotes to abandon the migrants they’ve promised to help across the border –– either due to heat exhaustion, physical injury, illness, or simply because they become too tired to take another step, becoming a barrier for the rest in the group who continue on the journey.
Ortiz's brother and cousin had already been walking for seven days in the desert in the extreme heat. They were still a few days away from the nearest highway or other safe ground.
“When I received the news that my family was abandoned, I drove to Arizona right away. I drove to an immigration checkpoint and asked officials for help. They refused to help. I remember they kicked me out. They told me to go to the Mexican consulate, so I did, and they refused to help too. I investigated, I did everything to get answers, I was no longer at peace,” Ortiz told Yahoo News.
Like thousands of asylum-seekers, Ortiz said his brother was looking for a new life in the U.S. “My brother always worked in construction in Mexico, he loved doing that work. So his dream of coming to the U.S. was to continue that labor. He eventually wanted to build his own construction company, he always liked being his own boss, that was his dream,” he said.
From 2008 until today, about 375 people have died each year trying to cross the Arizona desert –– and those are only the ones that have been documented, according to the Kino Border Initiative.
Ortiz waited nearly four months for permission to search the bombing range for his loved ones. He said another humanitarian aid group helped him find the location of where they took their final steps, and he eventually came face-to-face with what was left of his brother and cousin.
“To see the way his body was laying there –– his skull was into pieces, the smell of his decomposing body was so strong, it was so traumatic for me to see both of their bodies in that way,” Ortiz told Yahoo News. “Those are images I will never forget, it was impactful to see him there, of what was left of him. I couldn’t understand. I mean, I was looking at his body, but there were split moments where I felt I was seeing him alive, happy, joyful. I was in disbelief when I saw his skeleton out there.”
Ortiz’s brother, Rigoberto, had a wife and two children who had already settled in the United States.
“My brother was a fighter, he loved to do it all. He worked in maintenance at apartment complexes, and we used to work together often. He loved watching survival shows on the Discovery Channel, so when this happened to him, I was in denial. I would always say that he knows how to survive out there, he wouldn’t die out there,” Ely said.
Humane Borders, a nonprofit group that helps migrants survive the perilous trek across the border, has interactive maps that show the locations of dead bodies found in the desert. Each red dot signifies a lost life, and there are hundreds of dots surrounding the bombing range where Ortiz’s family died.
Ortiz said he sometimes feels a sense of survivor’s guilt when he’s out in the desert, thinking of why he made it to the U.S. –– a country that, to many, represents freedom and hope –– while his family did not. As Ortiz reflects on all the years he spent across the border from his brother, he holds him close to his heart.
“I was never able to tell him that, because my family was never one to show affection, but one thing I do regret is that we never told each other how much we needed one another. I miss him, and I’m sorry that I never told him, ‘I love you.’ And that I really need him.”
After the experience he went through to locate his brother and cousin, Ortiz said he found his life’s purpose: Searching for others who made the same journey in the hope of preventing other deaths from happening.
“I believe that my brother is happy with the work that I’m doing, even if he was still alive, he’d be proud of the humanitarian work being done,” Ely said.
“Every time we’re out there carrying out a search, I feel that he’s out there walking with us, especially in the area where I know he took his final steps. When we’re there, I feel him watching over us.”
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