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The Juan Doe Problem: One Woman's Search for Dead Migrants' Roots

How do you identify a dead border crosser when all that remains is a pile of teeth and bones?

He glances back toward the older part of the cemetery, where rows of gravestones, like tree rings, mark the passage of years. "These people are transient because of work—because of a lack of work in their country," he says. "And if in that process someone loses their life, we still need to maintain their dignity and take care of that loved one. Because you come from somewhere. You have family somewhere. That's what I believe down deep, and that's what moves me to do what I do."

Next to the engraved plaques, the rest of the stones wait expressionlessly, like faceless mannequins in a department store display. I ask Rodriguez what the unknowns' plaques will say.

Bones of a presumed crosser discovered near Tucson by a woman on horseback. Bones of a presumed crosser discovered near Tucson by a woman on horseback.

"We may not engrave the John Does," he says. He shakes his head. "To me, initially, I thought—gosh, they need to be respected, but by the same token, it would save us some money not to engrave the John Does—and what for?"

BACK AT HIS Chevy Tahoe, Agent Guerrero has guided the four migrants into the backseat and handed them a jug of water. They're thirsty, but otherwise they look pretty healthy. Luis, the 26-year-old, still smells faintly of cologne.

Guerrero asks how long they've been out there. Four days, they say. Guerrero smiles sympathetically, and asks, "Que pasó?" What happened?

We were part of a group, Luis explains. My wife couldn't walk any farther, so we asked if we could rest and the coyote said no. He told us to walk for two hours in that direction, where we'd reach a road and we could flag down somebody and turn ourselves in.

But they walked for two days and saw no one, no cars, nothing. They'd filled up their water jugs from a cattle trough, he said, and slept under a mesquite tree. They'd been worried about being eaten by coyotes, the animal kind.

Guerrero says the situation is classic. When border crossers get into trouble, it's frequently because they separated from a larger group, the coyote telling them they'll be fine if they just walk that way for a little while. Luckily, in this case, Luis had a cell phone, so they called the Mexican equivalent of 911, which called the US Border Patrol, which dispatched Guerrero.

Some days, Guerrero is out on rescues, like the one I tagged along on today. Other days he stalks around like a crime detective, following trails of footsteps and bits of torn clothing on barbed wire fences, trying to find migrants whose compañeros had to leave them behind. The father or friend of the person will finally make it to a road, flag down an agent, explain where they left the person, and ask for help.

"Picture this," Guerrero explains. "You finally make it to the point where the person is supposed to be. And now you see this set of footprints that's walking away from that spot. They've told you everything—'The person is under a tree, we laid a blue shirt on top, they have an orange backpack'—and you confirm that this is the spot because you see the orange backpack and you see the blue shirt up on a tree and you see that the person started walking, and you're like, okay, this isn't good.

"You start seeing the person is going left and then a hard right, and then left, and then you see them kind of make a circle. And you know exactly what's going on. And you keep walking and now you've found a belt. And you keep walking and you find a wallet and...shoes. I mean, you're starting to picture this person—they're, they're...they've lost it. Their mind is gone. And they're just aimlessly...just walking. And you know that when you get to them, they're going to be dead."

Guerrero's gaze is still fixed on the road.

Anonymous graves for border crossers at Pima County's Evergreen Cemetery. Anonymous graves for border crossers at Pima County's Evergreen Cemetery.

"And sure enough, once you find them, they have cholla [cactus] all over their mouth and hands. And they're already on the ground, and rigor mortis has set in. They're starting to balloon up and decompose because of the heat. And you can only imagine how much these people suffered. How much they suffered."

Guerrero has seen a lot of dead people in the course of his work. And he's picked up a lot of living people who don't have long to go. He says he can tell if a person thinks they're going to die.

"You can see the look of doom in their expression," he says. "You know your body. And you know when you're...almost going to go."

I think about the four "bodies" in the backseat. They're dazed, thirsty, disappointed, but certainly not prepared to die.

Most likely they'll try again.

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