HOLTVILLE, Calif. — He was buried as he was found--alone and nameless and, near as anyone can tell, very far from home.
When his border-crossing journey reached its terminus on a sunny November morning, it was in a bare, pressed-wood box with plastic handles and a coroner's case number scrawled on the lid. Three dour gravediggers and a soft-spoken fellow from the funeral home lowered the coffin into the slick Imperial County clay, then did the same with the remains of a woman, also unidentified.
The two bodies brought to 133 the number of undocumented immigrants buried in this paupers graveyard, their graves marked by plain concrete loaves labeled "John Doe" or "Jane Doe."
Imperial County, with its incongruous mix of desert and treacherous irrigation channels, has become the deadliest spot on the U.S.-Mexico border for migrants sneaking north. The immigrant fatalities, on the rise in recent years along with the region's popularity as a crossing corridor, have generated a miniature death industry. The cases place growing demands on the county coroner, the Brawley funeral home that serves as morgue, Mexican consular officials who must hunt for relatives, and the workers who tend the potter's field in rural Holtville.
Imperial County coroner officials had to buy a four-wheel-drive pickup truck to get to the multiplying number of bodies turning up in distant desert recesses. They huff their way through steep canyons, carrying corpses in temperatures that in summer routinely hit 110 degrees.
At the Brawley funeral home, shelves in the refrigerated storage room at times brim with canary-yellow body bags holding the remains of anonymous immigrants. The extra cases have county officials talking about the need for their own morgue.
And one harried Mexican consular official in Calexico spends some months doing nothing but fielding reports of missing migrants and trying to identify the dead.
There often is little more to go on than a scrap of paper or the style of underwear found on the bodies.
No successful leads emerged in the case of the recently buried John Doe. His ragged remains were found in late August along a desolate, creosote-specked wash where he appeared to have succumbed to the heat and, after death, to the work of scavenging coyotes.
His was the fourth migrant case in an eight-day stretch. That was not an exceptionally deadly period. But it provided a window into the peculiar circumstances of death in this overlooked corner of the state. Here, 89 migrants last year fell short in their treks, far from home and out of view even to the residents of this sun-faded farm belt.
Desert Does Not Forgive
It's 1 o'clock on a Thursday afternoon when the call comes to coroner's office supervisor Rick Macken, an affable former cop with the open, ruddy face of a TV country doctor. Mechanics tending a power-generation station on the All-American Canal about 35 miles east of El Centro have come upon a dead man in the water.
Macken peels open a convenience-store sandwich and speeds east on Interstate 8. The farmland around El Centro gives way to unforgiving desert. The heat outside is punishing. Inside the coroner's van, the air conditioner is cranked high. Macken gently explains what to expect when the body is pulled out. It won't be pretty. On the sun visor above his forehead is a sticker that says, "I See Dead People."
The canal, a man-made river about 175 feet wide, is the life-giving artery of the Imperial Valley. "Food grows where water flows," a highway sign proclaims. The canal brings water from the Colorado River, nourishing a $1-billion farm industry amid parched surroundings. With a placid surface disguising fierce currents, it also explains how it is possible to drown in a desert, as this man has.
Immigrant smugglers use cheap rafts to get groups across the water, which parallels the international boundary so closely in some stretches that it serves as the unofficial divide. The rafts, overloaded, are unstable and capsize. Sometimes migrants just fall out. The canal's waters move fast. Even veteran divers say the swirling currents below will beat you like eggs in a bowl.
The victim floats, face down, in an eddy at the base of the power station. Keith Roussel, a mechanic for the Imperial Irrigation District, which manages the vast network of canals and ditches, watches as two sheriff's deputies try to recover the body using a pole and rope loop. Roussel says he's seen 20 to 30 drownings in these waters in two years, almost all of them immigrants. "It makes you sick, really," he says, looking away.
The deputies hoist the body with a mechanical lift that is used to clear branches and debris. Macken examines the man, whose face, grotesquely inflated by decomposition, has gone the color of lead. He wears two wool shirts, black pants, dingy tube socks and church shoes. A belt buckle, gold, bears the initial "L."