The grim compassion of searching for missing migrants in the desert

The New Yorker, April 2021. Film by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Maite Zubiaurre.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, Marisela and Ely Ortiz, a middle-aged couple, went to a Costco in Temecula, California, to buy crates of bread and bottled water, a weekend’s worth of nourishment for twenty-five volunteers who would spend two days walking in extreme heat. They tucked the provisions amid camping equipment in their car and set off at dusk the following day for a six-hour drive into the Sonoran Desert, a trek they’ve made once a month for the past nine years. The couple and almost all of their volunteers emigrated to the United States from Latin America, and their group, known as the Águilas del Desierto, spends weekends in the desert searching for migrants who have disappeared. The scrubby, hostile terrain where California and Arizona approach Mexico is mined with rattlesnakes and scorpions, drug-cartel activity, and weather that is inhospitable to human life. Mostly the Águilas do not find people alive. But they hope that by identifying remains they can help bring peace to distraught families that call from Central America when their loved ones go missing.

This grim humanitarian mission is the subject of “Águilas,” a new documentary by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Maite Zubiaurre, who are both professors at the University of California, Los Angeles. Guevara-Flanagan, a filmmaker who has spent two decades covering Latinx communities, teamed with Zubiaurre, whose interdisciplinary research project about border death, art, and activism led the pair to the Águilas. This year, their film won the SXSW Documentary Short Jury Award and the Best Mini-Doc award at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival.

The film follows the Águilas as they search for missing strangers that one volunteer calls “nuestros migrantes”—our migrants. They are armed with tenderness but also tools: work boots, vests hung heavy with binoculars and cameras, floppy-brimmed hats. They tote metal walking sticks and two-way radios that crackle with reports of discoveries after searchers fan out to pinpointed coördinates. Here there is no cell service except on particularly high ground, and, without adequate preparation, the volunteers could find themselves as lost as the people whom they’re seeking, a grave risk given the heat. “In the desert, nature becomes a lethal weapon,” Zubiaurre said.

The Águilas’s lime-green shirts, stamped with shoulder patches, make them visible from afar and identifiable to anyone they might encounter. Swaths of this territory belong to native tribes and the U.S. military, from whom the Águilas need permission to enter. And helping migrants has recently been criminalized in the United States. To navigate these circumstances, the volunteers exercise lithe diplomacy, taking on the role of a neutral party doing what is viewed as harmless work. “People see them and say, ‘Oh, those are the Águilas, they’re only looking for bones,’ ” Guevara-Flanagan said.

But, as Guevara-Flanagan explained, the act of searching for the disappeared makes the Águilas part of a noble lineage in recent Latin American history. Across the continent, for generations, when people have vanished at the hands of U.S.-supported right-wing dictatorships or deported street gangs, their families go searching. To unearth the crumpled, hollow clothes of a beloved is to answer some of the lingering questions of those who are left behind. Today, when Central American migrants who are fleeing economic or physical violence enter the desert and stop answering calls, their frantic loved ones, unable to come look themselves, contact groups like the Águilas. In one moment early in the film, a volunteer finds a backpack slumped in the sand. He takes a photograph before touching it, then kneels and sweeps open the zippers like curtains on a window. He examines its contents: Upon whose shoulders did you arrive?

Marisela and Ely fielded fifteen calls from Central American families on the day of their Costco run, which is about average for them. Marisela, a school janitor, and Ely, who supervises workers at a church, understand the families’ pain. Ely’s brother and his cousin disappeared in the desert, in 2009; it was only because the family insisted on searching that their remains were found and buried. That is why Marisela and Ely created the Águilas del Desierto, and the desperate voices on the other end of the line spur them on. The film begins and ends with a chorus of recordings of those calls—an appropriate ellipsis, as the search continues.

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