In the borderlands separating Arizona from the Sonora desert in Mexico, activist Scott Warren worked to provide transiting migrants with water and shelter, and to account for the bodies of those who died trying to get into the U.S. Because of this, the U.S. government wants to put him in prison.
In a new long-form feature and short documentary published by The Intercept, reporter Ryan Devereaux investigated Warren’s prosecution after he was charged with harboring and conspiracy, facing up to 20 years in prison. Titled “Bodies in the Borderland,” the multimedia report documents how Warren’s arrest was allegedly part of a series of actions taken by the Trump administration against the work done by humanitarian aid volunteers at the border. The piece was published May 4, three days before Warren’s court appearance for a misdemeanor offense and a few weeks ahead of his second trial on felony charges—scheduled for May 29.
“People have been dying in the desert for decades because U.S. policy deliberately funnels them there. The Trump administration has doubled down on that approach, while adopting a strategy popular among far-right regimes around the world, in which humanitarian organizations working to keep migrants alive are prosecuted as criminal enablers,” writes Devereaux.
The documentary chronicles how Warren’s arrest, on January 17, 2018, was allegedly retaliation on the faith-based organization No More Deaths (known in Spanish as No Más Muertes), which defended immigrant rights. The morning of his arrest, the organization had published a report showing Border Patrol agents destroying thousands of gallons of water left for travelers in the desert. This was not the first time this happened, there is evidence of them doing this since 2013.
Warren was detained in Ajo, the place he calls home since 2013, when he decided to move there full time as he finished his dissertation about the history of the town and its transformation as a result of border security policies.
Despite its small population, it is in this town of around 3,000 residents that the U.S. border enforcement strategy of “prevention through deterrence” plays out, Devereaux reported. The feature explains how the strategy, born in the mid-1990s, made authorities flag border cities as the areas most likely to be transited by immigrants crossing into the U.S. “So, one by one, those cities were flushed with agents and security infrastructure,” pushing the travelers out of more common routes and out into more hostile terrain. In this way, deaths “were no surprise, and arguably no accident,” Devereaux noted.
The feature also delves into the contrasts of Arizona’s society, which it says is both a “petri dish” for the policies “built on nativism, xenophobia, and racism” buttressing Trump’s right-wing ideas, as well as a state with networks of people volunteering humanitarian aid and for whom the desert has become a cemetery. Experts in the report estimate at least 7,000 immigrants have died crossing the US-Mexico border over the last two decades, although there is no surefire statistic and they consider the real number to be higher.
“This broad coalition of religious retirees and anarchists, medical professionals and working-class immigrants, believes that there are no mitigating factors —not immigration status or a backpack full of marijuana— that warrant a death sentence in the desert. For them, Warren’s prosecution is both a threat to a beloved member of their community and a blatant act of state intimidation,” Devereaux said.
Although the deep dive focused on Warren as the main character, Devereaux spent a year reporting on the aid volunteers, their histories and the efforts that put them at odds with U.S. authorities, and divided the feature into five chapters: “A Slow-Motion Disaster,” “How Could I Not?”, “Devil’s Highway,” “The Blacklist,” and “The Soul of the Place.” Photos and video footage were shot by Laura Saunders.
Emily Corona is a digital intern at Futuro Media. She is a journalist and translator from Mexico City, pursuing a master’s in journalism and Latin American and Caribbean studies at NYU. She tweets from @daminijo.