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Skull Valley: Inside the Deadly Journey of Migrants and the Ongoing Fight to Save Lives


Under the intense 108-degree heat of the Ocotillo desert, near the border fence, a group of journalists and law enforcement agents from both sides of the border walked nearly two miles across the unforgiving terrain. This harsh journey, though grueling, pales in comparison to the thousands of kilometers that many undocumented immigrants endure in their quest for the so-called “American Dream.” Known as Skull Valley by the Border Patrol, this desolate area has become a graveyard, where the remains of those who perished in their desperate bid for a better life are a haunting testament to their dangerous journey.

El Centro Sector Border Patrol hosted its annual Border Safety Event on June 18, drawing attention to the life-threatening dangers faced by migrants traveling through the desert landscape. Migrants, often abandoned by unscrupulous smugglers, are left to confront extreme weather conditions and numerous other hazards in their journey.

“If you feel tired or need water, let us know. We’re here to take care of you. That’s something smugglers will never tell the immigrants they abandon in the desert,” Border Patrol Agent Harvey Núñez told reporters, as he led the walk and explained the dangers of the area. “They cover their tracks, but they leave behind trash, which we use to track them.” 

The event attracted a diverse group of stakeholders, including local, federal, and state officials, as well as medical professionals. Representatives from the Consulates of Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala also participated in this essential awareness initiative. The binational efforts of of authorities from both sides of have made a difference to rescue these migrants but there is still work to do. 

In fiscal year 2022, Border Patrol reported a staggering number of migrant deaths—approximately 900—and rescued about 22,000 others. To address these tragic occurrences, Border Patrol established the Missing Migrant Program in 2017, aiming to rescue migrants in distress and reduce fatalities along the southwest border. 

Exposure to harsh conditions, including heat stroke, dehydration, and hyperthermia, remains the leading cause of death among migrants attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border. Border Angels estimates that approximately 10,000 people have died in these attempts since 1994. U.S. Customs and Border Protection reports that 8,050 people perished crossing the border between 1998 and 2020. In 2005 alone, over 500 migrants died across the entire border. The annual death toll from border crossings doubled from 1995 to 2005, subsequently fluctuating over the years. These statistics only account for known deaths, excluding those who have never been found. Many migrant deaths go unreported, even when authorities are informed.

Locally, there is a glimmer of hope. Border Patrol Sector Chief Gregory Bovino noted a decline in fatalities in the last five years. “So far this year, there have been three reported deaths, compared to nine last year. If you look at data from 10 years ago, there were up to 40 or 60 deaths annually in this desert. This reduction is due to our partnership with Mexicali police, the consulates, and the media who help spread the message,” Bovino said. This year the safety walk had the greatest number of journalists participating something that Bovino said has been important to spread the message to Mexican nationals. 

Mexicali Police Chief Pedro Ariel Mendivil highlighted ongoing rescue efforts. “We have rescued 72 people from different nationalities who were abandoned and whose lives were in danger,” he said. “We need to continue this binational collaboration with the Border Patrol to prevent further fatalities in the desert.”

Ricardo Francisco Hernandez Lecanda, Deputy Consul for the Mexican Consulate in Calexico, emphasized the severe risks associated with crossing the border. “The border presents numerous challenges, such as the water canal, the border fence, arid terrain, and hostile climates,” he stated. “Pursuing the so-called ‘American Dream’ is not worth risking your life or that of your loved ones.”

Lecanda also warned about the dangers of the International Canal. “The current in the International Canal is very strong, with a self-cleaning system that draws all solids to the bottom, causing even the most experienced swimmers to sink and drown,” he explained. He urged potential migrants to reconsider their journey, emphasizing additional dangers such as extreme heat, venomous snakes, and aggressive wildlife. “Please, think about your family before making a decision that could lead to certain death,” Lecanda pleaded. “Do not risk losing your life or becoming permanently disabled.”

The coordinated efforts by Border Patrol with the Mexico partners have made a difference in the deaths but there is still a lot of work to be done. Immigrants, despite what country they are need to learn about the dangers of the canals and desert so they reconsider putting themselves in danger. 

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