COAL MINE ROAD — The sheriff drove his white pickup down a familiar dirt road past Needle Peak Mountain toward another macabre scene deep in the vast desert. Dark gray clouds formed and promptly unleashed heavy rains on a land scarred by death.
For a moment Culberson County Sheriff Oscar Carrillo wasn’t sure where he had earlier been called out to see the teen’s body. Then he saw the orange peels. He stopped his truck and stared at the spot where, on June 21, he responded to a call from a rancher who had discovered what the sheriff had seen too many times — two more people dying in the scorching heat. It was 109 degrees that day.
He found a 35-year-old Ecuadorian named Raul curled up under the rancher’s jeep to escape the heat that hours earlier claimed his son, Christian. The high school student had just turned 15.
His father had traveled from New Jersey to Ecuador to bring his son to the U.S. He was finally going to live with his parents, who left Ecuador when the boy was 2. They’d been absent for 13 years of Christian’s young life. Now, Raul was on the ground only feet away from his dead son, next to those orange peels from an orange the rancher had given Raul to help revive him. The bright peels still lay scattered on the soggy ground.
“I’ve grown desensitized because I’ve seen so many bodies, but this one hit me hard,” said Carrillo, a 34-year law enforcement veteran, most of those years spent here around rural Van Horn. “The backstory of a young man who didn’t want to come up north and a father who must now live with a guilt of having brought his son against his will. He was also the youngest among the victims of these reckless deaths in the desert.”
Carillo asked that the men’s last names not be published because Raul, now back in Mexico, could be exposed to danger from drug cartels.
This tragic story is not only about a family’s failed attempt to cross the harsh borderland on the edge of West Texas to end more than a decade of separation but also the story of one sheriff’s quest to hold smugglers accountable and find justice for a growing number of victims led into death traps and abandoned in the desert.
Carrillo is determined to help families find closure by recording names, faces, video and voices of the dead and injured, including a chilling account by Raul about his 2,900-mile journey with his son, because, as Carrillo explained, “unfortunately that’s become part of my job, to investigate and document these unattended deaths.”
He posts many of the names and pictures of victims on his own social media page, which helps relatives looking for information about their loved ones who went missing as they tried to cross the border.
Rural Culberson County, population 2,300, is caught in the middle of a polarizing immigration debate, full of political theater and drawing the community unwanted attention. Carrillo’s county straddles three other rural counties — Hudspeth, Jeff Davis and Presidio. But key roadways pass through the area: Interstates 10 and 20, State Highway 54 and one of Texas’ most iconic, picturesque roads, U.S. Highway 90. The county is also about a two-hour drive from the Mexican border.
“We’re always in somebody’s way,” said Carrillo, as he drove from Van Horn on U.S. 90 — which slices across wide-open spaces, below clouds hanging like giant cotton balls — zipping past the Prada Marfa and a permanent art installation, near the town tiny town of Valentine, with its whiff of romance.
It’s also a path of destruction for a growing number of migrants dying from heat exhaustion as they try to evade immigration authorities.
“It’s a beautiful highway,” Carrillo said. “Deadly one, too.”
Death of a son
This year, the sheriff’s office has handled 13 migrant deaths — two of them in the first week of June. In recent weeks, Carrillo and his local deputies, often alongside Border Patrol agents, have rescued hundreds of migrants — found in cramped cars, U-hauls, trucks, horse trailers, recreational vehicles and railroad cars — headed for Alpine and beyond. In one case, 17 migrants were discovered in a compact Chevy Cruze.
His 10-deputy department has been part of several high-speed police chases, often pursuing vehicles driven by U.S. citizens eager for quick cash who are working for Mexican smuggling organizations.
The department has recorded accounts of desperate migrants breaking into remote, often empty ranch homes looking for food and water. And they’ve heard stories from ranchers complaining of migrants trespassing on their property, leaving behind piles of trash, including empty plastic bottles and clothes.
In one case, a desperate migrant abandoned by his smuggler set an isolated home on fire to send a distress signal.
The journey for Raul and his son ended just past bountiful pecan orchards, just before Chispa Road where towering mountains and the Rio Grande divide Texas and Mexico. The two had been trying to reach U.S. 90. They trekked alone for three days through the desert after their paid “foot guy” abandoned them for unexplained reasons and went north in a different direction with four other people.
Smugglers leave behind injured migrants or those considered too slow to keep up. Some die in rugged West Texas, exposed to the elements.
Raul was dressed in camouflage. Christian was wearing jeans and a polo shirt. An empty water bottle was next to him. His body was taken to a funeral home in Alpine.
Worried because she had not heard from her husband and child, the boy’s mother reached out to a group that helps families find missing relatives on June 22, according to William Murillo of New York City-based 1800migrante.com an organization focused on providing legal service for Ecuadorean migrants.
Murillo said the mother, identified as Martha Quezada, told him she had not heard from Raul and her son since June 18. She said she and Raul were divorced.
Hours later, the group found and shared the news with Quezada: Her son was gone. She was devastated and angry, according to Murillo.
She had signed documents to authorize the underage boy to travel from Quito to Mexico City. From there, the father and son traveled to Chihuahua City and eventually to the border city of Ojinaga, across from Presidio, where they set off on their grueling journey. It was their second attempt to cross within a month, Quezada told Murillo.
Quezada, who declined to be interviewed, released a statement through Murillo calling for privacy and respect for “the family’s immense pain.”
She also pleaded with other undocumented parents living in the United States to reconsider any plans to have their children sent north: “Don’t do it. It’s too dangerous, and you may lose your treasure as has happened to me.”
Raul was transferred to a hospital in El Paso with life-threatening injuries. He was released June 24 and was promptly expelled to Mexico under the pandemic-era health order Title 42, according to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection spokesman. His whereabouts are unknown.
“These criminal organizations do not care about the human beings they are smuggling. They only care about the money they can gain from exploiting them,” said Big Bend Sector Border Patrol Chief Sean L. McGoffin.
The Ecuadorian Consulate in Houston confirmed Raul’s injuries and death of his son, but, citing privacy, they declined to comment further.
Carrillo calls the actions by smugglers “criminal,” and also blames U.S. prosecutors for not holding most of them accountable. “Why are we putting ourselves at risk, the public at risk, if at the end of the day, nobody’s gonna get prosecuted? They’ll deport the deportables, but there’s no real accountability.”
The Department of Justice responded to questions about smuggling prosecutions by saying, “Our office works closely with federal law enforcement, and we continue to vigorously prosecute human smuggling cases when sufficient evidence is presented.”
That last day
The sun sets over a desert rain. A striking rainbow forms overhead. Carrillo jumps back on his truck and heads home to Van Horn, past Needle Peak, which locals here simply refer to as Loma de Aguja. The truck roars through an angry rainstorm that instantly fills gushing arroyos, carrying empty water bottles.
A native of El Paso, he once worked the oil fields in Midland before going into law enforcement. He’s gradually seen his duties shift. Nowadays, aside from carrying his assault rifle, taser, ballistic vest, water and food, he also carries body bags and a backboard to rescue injured migrants.
“They say they come for the promise of the American Dream,” Carrillo said. “There’s no American Dream. The American Dream is being put in the back of a border patrol van, or shipped in a coffin back home. How is that an American Dream?”
Along the dirt road, he points to white posts painted with shades of purple, part of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s border security effort. If you cross a purple post, you are trespassing.
Carrillo shakes his head. “The governor assumes these people know the difference between a purple or regular post. And he’s bringing in guardsmen from Florida, South Dakota? What do they know about the border? It’s just a show.’’
He said Culberson County signed on for the governor’s recent border disaster declaration, “but not for political reasons. I’m just practical. We need to be reimbursed for the $30,000 we spent on the migrants who’ve died so far.”
He said the influx of migrants coincided with the new Biden administration “New administration. New hope,” he said with a touch of sarcasm.
The radio scanner goes quiet. Carrillo looks for drones above, boasting that U.S. technology is so much more effective these days, more so than a wall. Then he talks about the last time he drove this dirt road. It was with Raul, who was dehydrated and in need of medical attention.
“I kept thinking if I could keep him talking, keep him alert, maybe he has a chance,” Carrillo said. “I didn’t want him to go to sleep, and he seemed like he was blacking out.”
It was a seven-minute ride, evidenced by the length of the audio the sheriff recorded where he peppers Raul with questions:
“You were abandoned?” Carrillo asks.
“Yes,” Raul replies. Raul and Christian paid smugglers $27,000 for the trip. They’d been out in the desert for three days, getting weaker by the minute.
“We walked all this road,” Raul says. “And the drones, I tried to get their attention, waving my phone.”
“Drones, you say?” Carrillo asks.
“Yes,” Raul responds, “And they didn’t see us. … All I wanted was for immigration authorities to detect us, me and my son. That’s why I would walk on the road so they could spot me. … They never noticed us. They never paid attention to us.”
Raul says he dropped Christian’s backpack on the road to leave a clue.
“What did smugglers promise you, Raul?” asks Carrillo.
“According to them, it would all be beautiful,” Raul responds.
“Yes, sir,” Carrillo says, then quietly adds, “Raul, you were disoriented, going in the wrong direction,” pointing out that he was headed back to Mexico.
“I just wanted immigration to find us,” Raul responds.
“Was this your first-time crossing?”
“No, I already live in the United States,” Raul says.
“In New Jersey?” Carrillo asks.
“Yes,” Raul says.
“So you came back to pick up your son?”
Raul doesn’t answer. The silence is deafening.