Searching for Diego: the hunt for one missing migrant in the Arizona desert | US-Mexico border

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When Roberto Resendiz cautiously reached the end of a remote rocky stretch surrounded by cacti, he stopped walking.

The 44-year-old Californian glanced over his shoulder. The sunrise glowed then beamed brightly over the Arizona desert, its sparse landscape undeniably beautiful, not far from Organ Pipe national monument, about 100 miles as the crow flies from Tucson.

Beautiful but also bleak, as the surrounding Pima county alone has become a graveyard for at least 3,500 migrants in the past two decades.

Resendiz, a member of Armadillos, a humanitarian group, had set out in the early hours with a dozen other volunteers for a tough 12-hour session searching the arid terrain near a sharp peak known to migrants as La Aguja – the Needle.

Resendiz was carrying supplies for the group but also a wooden cross, in case they found the remains of a particular migrant they were looking for, 19-year-old Diego Lizardo Chávez, missing for nearly two months.

“You see the real urgency here,” Resendiz said, using a stick to remove a child’s jacket caught in a cluster of bushes. “A lot of people risk their own lives for the American dream.”

More than 800 migrants have died attempting to cross into the US along the almost 2,000-mile-long border with Mexico in fiscal year 2022, making it the deadliest recorded by the US government.

Volunteer Roberto Resendiz is a member of the humanitarian group Armadillos. Photograph: Justo Robles

According to the medical examiner in Pima county, which is responsible for examining the vast majority of migrant remains recovered in southern Arizona, remains of 154 such people have been discovered there in 2022, but only 65 of them have so far been identified.

In late August, according to his family, Diego took a bus from his home town of Chalchihuites, central Mexico, and traveled 900 miles north to the border.

Diego left behind a four-year-old daughter, a wife and his parents, who told the Guardian he didn’t make enough money as a construction worker to provide for his young family.

When other relatives in southern California told him they would pay for his trip to San Bernardino, Diego accepted the offer, seeing it as his only way out of poverty. An uncle from Chalchihuites accompanied him on the journey north and they ended up in Sonoyta on the border with Arizona.

According to Diego’s father, Miguel Lizardo Lopez, a smuggler told them their best chance was to arrive in this region and then brace themselves for a treacherous trek through the desert into the US. Many migrants follow a path far from the cities, trying to avoid detection by US border patrol agents, who have been quickly expelling many migrants, particularly Mexican adults, since March 2020 under a pandemic-era restriction known as Title 42.

Diego and his uncle trekked in early September, when temperatures can reach 115F. According to Diego’s father, both carried gallons of water in preparation. However, it’s unclear how much water they had left once they arrived near the mountain where Resendiz later ended up searching.

Diego, his father said, texted his mother via WhatsApp on the night of 5 September saying his uncle was dehydrated and had blisters peeling off his feet, stopping him in his tracks.

Diego knew there were still another 40 miles to Interstate 8, a highway that straddles towns like Gila Bend, Sentinel and Dateland, to the south-west of Phoenix, which often serve as areas where migrants get picked up by smugglers and transported to a so-called stash house before onward travel.

With his uncle suffering and unable to continue the journey, Diego thought about calling 911. But that would have doomed his effort to enter the US undetected.

Recognizing his uncle’s distress, he did it anyway. But when border patrol agents came to rescue his uncle, Diego was nowhere to be found. His uncle is now recovering in California. He declined to be interviewed and asked for his identity to be confidential.

Volunteers search for the remains of migrants in Gila Bend, Arizona.
Volunteers search for the remains of migrants in Gila Bend, Arizona. Photograph: Go Nakamura/Reuters

Rafael Barceló Durazo, the consul general of Mexico based in Tucson, confirmed the map coordinates where Diego’s uncle was found. By October, another humanitarian group, Aguilas del Desierto, had already searched unsuccessfully for Diego.

So Resendiz planned a different route with his volunteers and a reporter for the Guardian, a 15-mile loop across La Aguja, a shell-shaped mountain known by migrants and smugglers as La Tortuga – the Turtle – and dozens of arroyos, dry creeks where migrants stop to rest.

Around 12.30pm, James Holeman, the founder of another volunteer group, Battalion Search and Rescue, issued an alert over the radio: “Atención, atención, tengo un cráneo” – “Attention, attention, I have a skull.”

Resendiz sped up. The skull’s location was eight miles from Diego’s last known whereabouts and could be the culmination of their solemn search.

Seven posterior teeth remained on the white skull lying in the dust. The volunteers marked the discovery with yellow caution tape.

There was silence when Resendiz fell on his knees. He borrowed a machete and dug a hole, something he has done at least a dozen times before.

He placed the cross carefully and adorned the site with vivid orange cempasúchil flowers, the Mexican marigold commonly used to mark Día de los Muertos each fall.

Volunteer Angel Davila, 34, who was brought to the US from Mexico at the age of two, took a photograph.

Such pictures are sent to the Pima county sheriff’s department and, eventually, the remains are sent to the medical examiner’s office in Tucson.

Forty-eight hours later, chief examiner Greg Hess showed the Guardian the image of the skull he received via email.

Chief medical examiner Dr Gregory Hess rifles through personal effects recovered from unidentified migrant bodies.
Chief medical examiner Dr Gregory Hess rifles through personal effects recovered from unidentified migrant bodies. Photograph: Rebecca Noble/Reuters

“This is a couple of years old … not somebody that potentially went missing in September,” he said, pointing out the bleached and broken nature of the bone, which will end up stored at his office, awaiting possible identification.

Hours after the conversation with Hess, Diego’s father was informed about the skull’s examination.

“I am still hopeful that Diego is somewhere in the desert. Until I get the bad news, Diego is not dead to me,” Miguel Lizardo said.

Searching for Diego: the hunt for one missing migrant in the Arizona desert | US-Mexico border

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