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California and the West | ON CALIFORNIA

'That's It. Vamonos. Gone.'

February 28, 2001|PETER H. KING

EL CENTRO — The cemetery worker drove a pickup truck past lanes named for the types of trees and bushes planted throughout Evergreen Cemetery--palms, junipers, oleanders. This was a week or so after Valentine's Day, and many of the grave sites still were decorated with heart-shaped balloons and red plastic roses. At the back side of the cemetery, he stopped the truck and walked over to a locked gate.

"This is it," Joe Hernandez announced, swinging open the gate.

"This is the county section. This is where we put the John Does."

They once were called potter's fields, these graveyards for the indigent. The one at Evergreen, one of two serving Imperial County, was about the size of two football fields. A row of oleanders ran down the side that borders the regular cemetery, blocking it from view. On the other side there was a small junkyard. No grass grew in this section. The flat, barren dirt was broken only by the occasional burst of weeds and a lone palm tree.

Laid out in orderly rows across the dirt were hundreds of graves. Each grave was marked by a uniform concrete headstone, the size and shape of a large brick. Into each headstone a number and name had been stamped. About every third headstone, it seemed, carried the traditional name of the unknown dead: "John Doe." In the past six years, Evergreen Cemetery has buried more than its share of John Does. Along the California-Mexico border, anonymous death is booming.

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The reason is Operation Gatekeeper, a strategic shift in United States border tactics. It was launched in 1995 amid a climate of political hysteria over illegal immigration. Tall fences were thrown up along the border south of San Diego. Additional agents were brought in. The idea was to divert the migrant stream east, into the canyons and deserts. In this open, albeit more treacherous terrain, border crossers would be easier to spot and capture. Moreover, it was thought, the extreme natural barriers might deter many from attempting to cross at all.

And even if they did keep coming, the migrants at least would do so off the radar. Posturing politicians no longer would flock to the chaotic scene at the San Ysidro border for their photo ops. The television cameras would quit coming down to record the so-called kamikaze dashes across the freeways past the checkpoints. By some measurements, Operation Gatekeeper has been a resounding success. Compared to the early 1990s, the border south of San Diego today represents a model of order, almost as tight as the Berlin Wall was in its day.

"They," however, have not quit coming. The immigrants, just as the tacticians intended, simply have moved east, crossing mountains and canyons in all kinds of weather, staggering across the desert floor in summer, trying their luck in the deceptively fast currents of the All-American Canal. Because of the higher degree of difficulty, the rates they must pay to smugglers have shot up. So too has the death toll.

In the year before Operation Gatekeeper was rolled out, human rights activists documented 23 migrant deaths along the border between California and Mexico. In the five years since, the death rate has increased by about 500%; by latest count, 620 people have died attempting to cross into California since the advent of Gatekeeper. Throw in Texas and Arizona, where Gatekeeper-like strategies have been employed, and the toll is close to 1,500.

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They have died of drowning and freezing, of heat stroke and dehydration. They have died despite posted warnings that the passage has become too dangerous, despite increased search-and-rescue efforts by border agents and others. And they have died, more or less, without much notice. For some reason, the politicians haven't exactly rushed to the potter's fields of the border for photo ops.

The remains of most of the dead are sent back to their native lands. Those who cannot be identified, however, are buried in the counties where they died. Since Operation Gatekeeper began, nearly 200 migrants have gone into the ground as John Does in California.

"There's a John Doe," Hernandez, the cemetery worker, said. He pointed out the marker as he and a visitor walked through the rows, their footfalls kicking up small plumes of dust.

"There's another one.

"There's another one.

"Oh, we have a lot of John Does," he said. "We have some Jane Does too. But mostly it's John Does."

What sort of service do they receive at burial? the cemetery worker was asked.

A short one, Hernandez said softly.

"They say some words. They say a prayer. And that's it. Vamonos. Gone."

They are lowered into the ground in a plywood coffin and covered with four feet of dry dirt. The headstone is put in place, identifying them by number and a borrowed name. And that's it. Vamonos. Gone. But at least now the border seems tidy, and that's what matters most, right?

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