In the second week of August, 2010, I saw my first dead body in the desert. For nearly two years I’d carried a small tin of Vick’s VapoRub with me everywhere I went. I had always heard the other agents talk about the smell. That’s the worst part, they’d say, and it would stay in your nose for days. That’s what the Vick’s was for, for rubbing under your nostrils if you had to come up on a dead body. But this body was fresh, only about two hours old, and it hadn’t started to smell yet.
When I arrived at the body it was evening, around 1830 hours, and BPA Daniel Vince had already been on scene for 30 minutes. The body was located about 100 yards south of Federal Route 23, a few miles west of the small village of Ventana, approximately 50 miles north of the International Boundary on the Tohono O’odham Indian Nation of southwestern Arizona. Vince told me that he had been flagged down by the dead man’s 16-year-old nephew and the boy’s 19-year-old friend as he drove down the road.
The dead man and the two boys all hailed from the same village in Veracruz, Mexico, and had set out together on the journey north. The dead man’s nephew sat quietly on a rock, looking disoriented. His friend, the 19-year-old, did most of the talking. He told me that a few hours before the man died, he had taken two Sedalmark pills, caffeine uppers that border crossers often take for energy, and had washed them down with homemade caña liquor they had brought from Veracruz. A few hours later, he said, the man was staggering around like a drunk, and then he collapsed.
Vince had placed a shirt over the dead man’s face. I lifted it up and looked at him. His eyes were closed. He had long dark hair that already looked like a dead man’s hair and dried foam had collected at the corners of his mouth. His face was covered with small red ants that traveled in neat lines toward the foam. His shirt was pulled up at the sides of his abdomen and I could see where his skin was turning blotchy and purple with dependent lividity as his blood settled to the ground. With the toe of my boot I gently moved his arm, already stiff with rigor mortis.
The 19-year-old told me that the three of them had become separated from their group. Their guide had told them to spread out and hide in the bushes by the road to wait for the load vehicle. He said that the three of them must have gone too far, because some time later they heard a car stop and then drive off and after that they couldn’t find anyone. That was closer to the village, near the base of the big hill in Ventana. After finding themselves alone they walked west away from the village, skirting the road for several miles until the dead man lay down to die. The boys had then gone to the road to flag down one of the infrequently passing cars, but no one stopped for them. Then the boys placed rocks in the road to make the cars stop. That was when Vince showed up.
The boys asked me what would happen to the dead man, if they could come with the body to the hospital and I told them that they couldn’t, that they had to stay with us, that they would be processed for deportation and that the body would be turned over to the tribal police and that the police, not us, would arrange things. They asked if the body would come back to Mexico with them, if they could take the body back to their village. I told them no, that the body would be taken by the Pima County Medical Examiner where they would try to determine the cause of death. I told them that in Tucson the two of them would likely meet with the Mexican Consulate, that it was they who would make arrangements for the repatriation of the body to Mexico, and that maybe the Consulate could provide them with some sort of documentation of the man’s death.
The boys didn’t want to leave the body, and even as I explained to them the procedures I began quietly doubting, given what I knew from my few short years at work on the border, whether they would actually see the Consulate, whether the Consulate would actually arrange for the body to go back to Mexico, whether the boys would even receive a piece of paper to help explain to the dead man’s family what had befallen him on the journey north. As I spoke to the boys Vince came over and instructed them to take off their belts and shoelaces and any necklaces, watches, or jewelry they might have, and to take from their pockets any lighters, pens, knives, or other such objects. I looked at Vince. Transport is coming, he said. I wondered at how trivial the boys might find all this — to be digging in their pockets and fumbling at their shoes — if it even seemed like anything to them at all.
The agent who arrived to transport the boys back to the station brought a camera to photograph the body. As the agent took his pictures I noticed the dead man’s nephew watching in a sort of trance. I explained to the boy that the pictures were required by the police, that they were needed for the reports we had to file at the station, and he nodded his head as if he had heard and understood nothing, as if he was just nodding because he knew that’s what he was supposed to do.
Before the boys were loaded into the transport unit I went to them and told them that I was sorry for their loss. It’s a hard thing, I said. I told them that if they ever decided to cross again they must not cross in the summer. It’s too hot, I said, and to cross in this heat is to greatly risk one’s life. They nodded. I told them never to take the pills that the coyotes give them, the pills will suck the moisture from your body. I told them that many people die here, that in the summer people die every day, year after year, and that many more are found just at the point of death. The boys thanked me, I think, and then they were put into the transport unit and driven away.
The sun had already begun to set as I left Ventana, and it cast a warm light on the storm clouds that were gathering to the south. As I drove toward the storm, the desert and the sky above it grew dark with the setting of the sun and with the grayness of the coming rain. When the raindrops finally began to splatter on my windshield I could hear the dispatch operator radio to Vince, who had stayed behind with the body, that the tribal police didn’t have any officers available to take charge of it and that he’d have to stay there and wait with the dead man a while longer.
Later that night, at the end of our shift, I saw Vince back at the station and I asked what had happened with the body. He told me that a few hours after I left the storm had come and dispatch had told him to just leave the body there, that the Tohono O’odham Police wouldn’t have an officer available to take charge of it until tomorrow. It’s alright, he told me, they’ve got the coordinates. I asked him if it had been strange waiting there in the dark, watching over the body of a dead man. Not really, he said. At least he didn’t smell yet.
Vince and I stood for a few more minutes talking about the storm and about the human body that lay out there in the desert, in the dark and in the rain, and we talked of the animals that might come in the night and of the humidity and the deadly heat that would come with the morning. We talked, and then we went home.
* This post was originally published at Guernica and is reprinted here with permission.