Frontline World

MEXICO - A Death in the Desert, June 2004


Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "A Death in the Desert"

INTERVIEW WITH CLAUDINE LOMONACO AND MARY SPICUZZA
A Desperate Journey

ESSENTIAL BACKGROUNDERS FROM THE NEW YORK TIMES
In-depth Analysis

FACTS & STATS
Background, Illlegal Migration, Immigration Reform

LINKS & RESOURCES
Immigration Legislation, Views on NAFTA

MAP

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The Story
Claudine burries a cross, Family walking, Landscape

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Before traveling to the state of Oaxaca, Mexico, FRONTLINE/World correspondent Claudine LoMonaco had reported on the statistics about Mexican migrant deaths: more than 3,000 migrants have died trying to cross the United States-Mexico border in the past decade. But after meeting the family of Matias Juan Garcia Zavaleta, who died in the Arizona desert during what U.S. border officials call the "season of death," LoMonaco saw the intimate face of one migrant's tragedy.

LoMonaco travels to Oaxaca with producer/reporter Mary Spicuzza, and together they interview the brother who accompanied Matias Garcia on his tragic journey, as well as the wife, children and parents he left behind. In heartfelt detail, they reconstruct the story of one man's life -- and death.

Garcia was the oldest of five Zapotec Indian children. He left school at age 8 to work in the fields and started crossing the border at age 16 to work in California during harvest time. Like many men from Oaxaca, he crossed regularly each spring and returned in the fall, using his earnings to build a home, feed and clothe his family, and send his children to school. After years of annual crossings, Garcia had had enough of leaving his family, so he planted his own chile pepper crop. But when an early frost destroyed his plants, he was left with no choice but to cross again.

In the more than 10 years since Garcia first started crossing into California, a lot has changed along the border. In 1990, it was a quick jump over a hill in Tijuana, as his uncle Bertoldo describes it, and you were over the border with no problem. Then the North American Free Trade Agreement was signed, opening the border to trade, but at the same time, closing the border to people. The United States strengthened controls at traditional, urban crossing points like Tijuana to discourage crossings. The Border Patrol hoped to push migrants into the desert where they believed that the rugged inland terrain would act as a natural barrier and discourage people from entering the country illegally. But the stronger controls only pushed hundreds of thousands of immigrants to take greater risks and walk dozens of miles across baking desert -- frequently dying en route.

In the spring of 2003, Garcia, along with a brother and cousin, began his crossing in late May, when desert floor temperatures can reach up to 170 degrees. Their smuggler, or coyote, sent the men with two gallons of water each. It wasn't enough for Garcia, who became delirious partway across, losing all touch with reality. His cousin and his 18-year-old brother managed to carry him the remainder of their 32-mile journey. A mere 40 yards from their destination, Highway 85 in southwestern Arizona, Garcia died from dehydration.

Sheriff's Deputy Michael Walsh, who found a weeping Serafin with his dead brother, tells LoMonaco how he often discovers bodies in the desert. "With this one there's a lot more emotion," he says.

Garcia's brother Serafin and his cousin were caught and immediately deported. But the men had debt to repay, so had no choice but to turn around and make the same journey again. This time they crossed successfully and found work on a farm near Fresno. Serafin says that life now is painful and sad, not what he envisioned when he set out to take on the world with his revered older brother. "I began to suffer alone," he says.

As for Garcia's family back in Oaxaca, a life that was hard is now harder. His widow has two small children to raise in a region where there is little work. The older of their two sons is able to understand what happened, but her younger son still thinks his papa is coming home.

Matias' mother says her son still visits her in her dreams. "Mama, I'm thirsty," he begs her. "Do you have any water?"

And Garcia's father, who years ago had stopped making the dangerous trip to the United States, says he has no choice but to go back. His grandchildren are his responsibility now, and they need money. It's the last thing his family wants him to do, but neither borders nor deadly deserts can impede survival.
Reported and Produced by
MARY SPICUZZA
CLAUDINE LOMONACO

Editor
DAVID RITSHER

Camera
BRENT MCDONALD
ANDRES CEDIEL
DAN KRAUSS

Music
RAFAEL MANRIQUEZ

Special Thanks
CENTER FOR LATIN AMERICAN STUDIES

Produced in association with the UC BERKELEY GRADUATE SCHOOL OF JOURNALISM

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