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For Many Migrants, the Last Leg of the Journey North Is Through a Minefield

The Air Force and Marines conduct live-fire drills on the Barry M. Goldwater Range—which also separates many migrants from freedom or death.
A signs warns of danger on the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, in Arizona, one of several live aerial bombing ranges that undocumented migrants often walk through.

A signs warns of danger on the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, in Arizona, one of several live aerial bombing ranges that undocumented migrants often walk through.

Crossing the United States–Mexico border is notoriously dangerous. The climate, the landscape, Border Patrol, and vigilantes conspire to make any wrong step a migrant's last. But there is an especially dangerous stretch between Yuma and Maricopa in southern Arizona. Here, where the land is barren but for the creosote and sage that dot the sandy plains and dunes, migrants are confronted with unexploded ordnance from as far back as World War II, as well as live fire from jet fighters and bombers.

This is the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range (BMGR), a two-million-acre plot in the Yuma Desert. Used by both the U.S. Air Force and Marines, the range stands between the southern border and Interstate 8, the immediate destination for many migrants heading north. This cruel juxtaposition has led to the recorded deaths of dozens, though the true toll remains unknown, as the bodies are never searched for—only unintentionally found.

The BMGR was established in 1941 by the U.S. Department of War, predecessor to today's departments of the Army and the Air Force. The range was built to train pilots from nearby Luke Air Force Base and Marine Corps Air Station Yuma on air-to-air and air-to-ground gunnery and bombing, a mission that it continues today. Two-thirds of the range is managed by the Air Force and the remainder by the Marines. The Air Force's side is typically active five days a week and one weekend a month; the Marine's is operational 24/7.

"Last year the Marine Corps flew 17,475 aircraft operations in combined arms training that supported training for 55,000 personnel," says Gabriel Adibe, director of communications for the Marine's side of the BMGR.

Despite the number of migrants crossing the border in this area—last year, Border Patrol reported a combined 78,416 apprehensions in the two sectors covering the range, Yuma and Tuscon—little is done to keep them from entering the BMGR. The range itself is not completely fenced off, only marked with signs issuing warnings and threats. Should migrants miss, ignore, or fail to understand these, they face a minefield of nearly 80 years worth of unexploded ordnance, along with live fire from any ongoing military exercises.

The Marines defer questions about the numbers of migrants killed on their side of the BMGR to Border Patrol, which reported 59 deaths in the entirety of the Yuma and Tucson sectors in 2018. (The Department of Homeland Security, which oversees Border Patrol, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on migrants crossing the range.)

For its part, the Air Force began keeping records on the number of migrants discovered on the BMGR in 2009.

"We average, over the course of that timeframe, about 6.7 bodies a year," says Chas Buchanan, director of the Air Force's side of the range. "Since that's an average, some years are obviously worse than others. And then what we find also varies. Unfortunately you run into people who have just perished, and then you also run into skeletal remains and you don't know when those particular folks happened to have died. ... A lot of times, we may find just a femur, may find a skull, you don't find anything else."

But even the Air Force's numbers are spotty. On top of being limited to the two-thirds of the BMGR the Air Force manages, the figures are based almost entirely on incidental discoveries. No policy exists—on either side of the range—to intentionally sweep for bodies. Instead, reports are typically made when "recovered human remains" are found in the course of training or maintenance operations. They are then handed off to local county coroners.

The reports of these county coroners offer the most detailed picture of migrant deaths on the BMGR. Since January of 2001, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, based in Tucson, has worked with Humane Borders, a non-profit providing humanitarian aid to migrants, on the Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants. Using county coroners' reports, the website maps the deaths of migrants in southern Arizona. According to it, there were 61 reports of migrant deaths from various causes on the range from May of 2003 to September of 2016—at which point they appear to cease entirely.

"In regards to these particular deaths, the only thing we could say is that we regret those deaths just as we regret all of the deaths in the desert," says Dinah Bear, chair of Humane Borders.

But there must be something especially tragic about surviving the treacherous conditions of the Yuma Desert, and avoiding Border Patrol and vigilantes, only to wind up on the BMGR. At its furthest south, the range is less than 50 miles across to Interstate 8—perhaps the last and most horrifying leg of the often 2,000-mile journey undertaken by many migrants.

Yet the records don't attest to that. The coroners' reports from the BMGR read the same as those from anywhere else:

"Ramos de Castilla, Alvaro ... male ... blunt impact injuries of head."

"Santos Mendoza, Eleuteria ... female ... probable hyperthermia."

"Unidentified ... male ... pending."

"Unidentified ... female ... hyperthermia, exposure."

"Unidentified ... undetermined ... undetermined."