The Desert of the Dead

Far from the divisive debates in Congress about immigration, illegal immigrants are dying in record numbers along a desolate stretch of south Texas scrubland. For the ranchers and border patrol agents who find them, it’s a nightmare without end.

His name was Ezequiel Amaya Escobar, although no one knew who he was when his body was discovered one morning last August under a mesquite tree. He was lying five and a half miles from the nearest paved road, in a stretch of South Texas scrubland that Spanish explorers once called El Desierto de los Muertos, or the Desert of the Dead. The austere landscape, which extends from Kingsville to Raymondville, is a patchwork of ranches that includes two of the largest in the country: the King Ranch, to the north, and the Kenedy Ranch, to the south. A Border Patrol checkpoint stands roughly in the middle, on U.S. 77, and Ezequiel had died trying to walk around it. When he was found, his head was resting on his backpack, as if he had stopped in the wilderness to take a nap. He almost looked alive; he had thick black hair that fell just below his ears, and his face was soft and round. But his lips were cracked, his eyes wide open. He was thirteen years old.

What little is known about Ezequiel sits in a white banker’s box in a storage room of the Kenedy County courthouse, in Sarita, wedged between the more than one hundred case files of other illegal immigrants who have died near the checkpoint trying to make their way north. His death never made the newspaper. According to a typewritten report from the sheriff’s department, he had been classified, at first, as a “John Doe” until he was identified by his mother, whose phone number he had written, in indelible ink, on the label inside his T-shirt. He had come all the way from Honduras. His friend, fifteen-year-old Jesús Edgardo Marcia Abrego, had told investigators that Ezequiel had lagged behind the group they were traveling with as they trekked through the brush. After more than a day on foot, he started to show signs of heat exhaustion. He began to vomit as he struggled to keep up, and as the hours wore on, he had convulsions. That evening, he dropped to the ground and stopped breathing. “Jesús said he gave him mouth-to-mouth, but he did not respond,” the report states. “He wasn’t able to feel a pulse and saw that his eyes had rolled up into his head and he knew that [Ezequiel] was dead.”

Donald Strubhart was the man who had found him. In late June I went to see Strubhart at the ranch he manages, Cielo de Cazadores de Codorniz. The property, which shares a fence line with the King Ranch, sprawls across 125 square miles of sand dunes and catclaw and scrub brush. Strubhart, who is 58, gave me a warm handshake and suggested that we talk while he made his rounds. The air was hot and dry and still that morning, and as Strubhart eased his pickup out of the driveway and began to head south, we passed some Longhorns napping in the shade. His quick blue eyes were shaded from the glare by a ball cap from a local farm-equipment company, and his salt-and-pepper hair poked out from under it. As he drove, he began to talk about the staggering number of people who had passed through the property in the spring. “From Easter until the beginning of June, it seemed like there was an exodus out of Mexico,” he said. “There were days in May when all I did was call Immigration. We spent most of our time repairing fences that had been tore up, and then more people would come through. Seemed like it would never end.”

A doe froze in her tracks, startled by the rumbling of his diesel engine. Strubhart continued on, and after a while, he rounded a bend and pulled the truck over to the side of the caliche road. He walked a few paces and then stopped at a mesquite tree. “This is where I found him,” he said, and fell silent. He used the edge of his boot to nudge an empty, rusted can of Sterno that lay on the ground. Sunlight filtered through the branches above him. “I’ve worked on this ranch for ten years, and in that time, I’ve found five people dead,” he said. “This one hit me harder than all the others. I spent a little over a year in Vietnam, and this boy carried me back. American boys died over there for no reason, and it made me sick. And that’s what I feel about this boy—he died for no reason. Eventually I’ll get over what I saw in Vietnam, but I don’t know if I can get over this kind of thing.”

He looked out over the ranch, which a lack of rain had turned dry and brown. “A child died out here, under this tree,” Strubhart said. “I don’t have the answer to what we should do about people coming over the border. All I know is no one should have to die this way.”

NINETY MILES NORTH OF THE RIO GRANDE, the Sarita checkpoint is the last threshold that illegal immigrants must cross after leaving Brownsville behind. Some manage to slip through, hidden in the traffic headed north—squeezed inside unventilated tractor trailers, crates of watermelons, piñatas, suitcases, car trunks. But most pay a coyote, a smuggler, to guide them around the checkpoint, walking for as many as four or five days through the desert. They bypass the town of Sarita, a small, dusty, unincorporated community on the Missouri Pacific railroad line where a solitary yellow traffic light blinks over the highway. Just 417 people live in Kenedy County, and it is possible to drive through Sarita, its only town, without seeing a soul. There are no cafes, no gas stations, no convenience stores. Judging from my first pass through town, Sarita seemed to be inhabited by two little boys on bicycles, who circled the courthouse, and a stray dog.

To the east, behind a series of locked gates on the Kenedy Ranch, is a cemetery where immigrants who

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