Exploring 'The Land Of Graves': The US-Mexico Border

Starting with the discovery of a de-fleshed human arm, "Border Trilogy" is a three-part audio story that investigates why there was a huge uptick in migrant deaths across the border in the '90s.

[Photo: Michael Wells]

About a year and a half ago, reporter Latif Nasser took a bus from New York City to Washington, D.C., and started a conversation with the stranger sitting next to him. Lynn, an anthropologist, mentioned Jason De León’s book “The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail.” Nasser had never heard about it but after reading it, he emailed De León — and the rest, as they say, is history. A very sordid history, that is, one of bones found strewn across the border.

“Border Trilogy,” a three-part Radiolab series that begins with De León’s macabre discovery of a withered human arm in the Sonoran desert, examines border-crosser deaths and a Border Patrol policy called “Prevention Through Deterrence.”

“The idea was to concentrate the majority of the Border Patrol’s resources to block off the most heavily trafficked areas of illegal immigration — like El Paso, San Diego, south of Tucson — and leave the only routes open to cross in pretty remote and natural hostile terrain,” explained Nasser, in an interview with Oxygen.com. “Like the Sonoran desert.”

Coming across a human arm while doing field work sounds terrifying. “The first time I encountered a fragmented skeleton was traumatizing on a personal level,” said De León to Oxygen.com. “[It was] an event that inspired me to focus my efforts on using forensic science to better understand what happens to migrant bodies in the desert.” (De León details this discovery in this excerpt of his book if you’re curious.)

Border Trilogy starts with the origins of the 1994 “Prevention Through Deterrence” policy that forced migrants to travail inhospitable terrain to cross the border. Nasser points to a few things “in flux” during the ’90s, such as economic stressors like NAFTA and the crash of the Mexican Peso. “Politically, illegal immigration was a major issue, particularly in California under then-Governor Pete Wilson…then-President Bill Clinton felt he needed to tackle the issue in order to win California for his re-election.” Nasser points to the chaos in El Paso, where the team did most of their research. “The Border Patrol had their own problems as well — people perceived them as being ineffective, or even worse, an invading army into local neighborhoods. Out of this chaos emerged this new strategy.”

Border Trilogy is not one story, but a cluster of them. The producers arranged it like a puzzle — and the pig experiment scene was shuffled around between all three episodes. “At the start, it felt like musical chairs,” remembers Nasser, who continued accumulating tape “until the 11th hour!” 

Jason De León, associate professor of anthropology at University of Michigan, has been conducting forensic experiments with pig bodies in the desert since 2012. He’s trying to figure out what happens to deceased immigrants. “My doctoral training was in the archaeology of Mesoamerica, but in 2009, my work shifted to focus on contemporary migration issues,” he says of his training. “I use archaeology, ethnography, forensic science and many other methods to understand the human condition.”

Latif Nasser, who reported and produced this series, has researched a “LOT of weird things,” he tells us. “Before becoming a journalist, I wrote my PhD dissertation on a mysterious illness that sparked what is called the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962.” He researched that story for four years, talking to hundreds of people who were sick or had had the sickness. “The more closely I looked, the stranger things turned out to be.”

The first part of the trilogy — “A Hole In The Fence”— looks at the story of Mexican-American high schoolers from one of the poorest districts in the country who stood up to the powerful Border Patrol for harassing them on their way to school. The second, “Hold The Line,” looks at how the school standoff resulted in a historical policy change—and an experiment De Leon does in the desert not for the faint of heart. 

Backpacks left by migrants crossing the Sonoran Desert in Arizona.

[State of Exception/Estado de Excepción, Parsons School of Design at The New School. Created by photographer Richard Barnes and curator Amanda Krugliak with Jason De León. Photo: Marc Tatti.]

But the third episode, which is about to be released today, covers the discovery of a woman named Maricela — beyond that, we cannot divulge more information. “It was difficult emotionally for all parties involved,” says De Leon. “Being available to the family offered a small form of closure for her loved ones. It helped me see the connection between what happens in the desert and how those traumatic events have far-reaching impact.”

The trilogy’s first two parts have sparked a wide range of responses. Nasser points to one he liked the most — from a fan who started a conversation with his father, a Border Patrol retiree. “He’s from a family of Latino Border Patrol agents — and his grandfather came across the border without proper papers.” But as the nation’s attention focuses on immigration, this trilogy occupies an important place in the history of borders. 

“We wanted to see the US-Mexico border in a more nuanced way, to understand the fallout of that 1994 strategy,” said Nasser. The policy did solve big problems like making border cities less chaotic — but it also unwittingly created bigger ones, with thousands of migrant deaths in remote areas and a more professionalized human smuggling industry. “Much of what’s being proposed now on the border — the wall, the National Guard, so on — is just an exaggerated version of that same 1994 strategy.” This trilogy tracks how we as a country have been trying this same tactic for twenty years and are about to double down on it. “Yet we’ve never publicly reckoned with all the real human consequences.”

Border Patrol Trilogy Part III is out today. Listen in at http://www.radiolab.org/series/podcasts/

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