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Meet the man who scours the border for lost migrants

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JACUMBA MOUNTAINS, Calif. — Atop a mountain range straddling the U.S. and Mexico border, Rafael Hernandez Larraenza points to grim landmarks: A rocky hill to the south where he found a decomposed corpse after searching for two months; to the east, a spot where he found two men after a desperate call from one man’s wife.

“The only reference point we got was that there were palm trees,” Larraenza said. “Do you see any palm trees around here?”

Gusts of wind and dust hit Larraenza in the face. Beaten and sore on a day he led two reporters into Southern California’s desert wilderness, Larraenza knows how unforgiving it can be. Temperatures climb to 120 degrees in the summer. Winter storms drop blankets of snow, obscuring footpaths.

These are the Jacumba Mountains, or La Rumorosa if you live on the Mexico side of the border.

To the north is Interstate 8, linking San Diego to Calexico. To the south is Federal Highway 20 which connects Tijuana to Mexicali. The international border and 10 miles of hostile terrain lie between the highways.

This is Larraenza’s habitat — a place where he has devoted his life to saving, or recovering, migrants on a treacherous path to the United States. For nearly two decades, Larraenza, 60, has searched for lost wanderers along the border from California to Texas.

Three years ago, with only a vague description of palm trees, he found two men clinging to life. He and a partner searched for nearly 10 hours, until one man, exhausted and desperate, shouted from the top of a hill.

His friend, Miguel, hadn’t moved all day.

“I told him, ‘Miguel we’re here,’” Larraenza recalled. “He didn’t open his eyes. I told him, ‘You’re going home, my son,’ and I grabbed his hand. He gave it a squeeze but that was the last bit of strength he had.”

Miguel didn’t survive, but Larraenza helped the other man escape certain death.

Gustavo Solis
The Desert Sun

“Desert Angels” Group Searches for Lost Immigrants in the Borderlands

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Rafael Hernandez is the director of Angeles del Desierto – the Desert Angels, a non-profit humanitarian group that performs search and rescue missions for immigrants who become lost while trying to cross the border into the U.S.

Often times, Hernandez says, his group’s efforts are more about finding closure for the families of immigrants than about finding the immigrants themselves; many don’t survive the dangerous journey across the rugged borderlands areas they cross through.

Sometimes the Desert Angels are searching for these immigrants’ remains.

Hernandez has been in West Texas looking for any sign of a man named Jesus Javier Adame Riojas, a man from Chihuahua, Mexico who Hernandez says tried to cross into the Presidio County area of Texas sometime around June 2015. According to Hernandez, the man was traveling with 5-6 other people when he became sick and was left behind near the Chinati Hot Springs.

It should be noted that Marfa Public Radio hasn’t independently verified the authenticity of this story, though Hernandez says he has been in touch with the man’s family in Texas and Mexico, and one of Hernandez’ fellow volunteers showed us the business card of a Presidio-area Border Patrol agent that he says helped them identify what authorities believe was Adame Riojas’ last known location.

Hernandez says his group often receives informational support from the Border Patrol and local law enforcement, though they don’t follow him into the field on his search missions. He describes his group as a supporter of law enforcement’s efforts to find missing people, picking up the cases where they appear to have gone cold.

He also describes the Desert Angels as an explicitly non-political group. In our interview, he refused to weigh in on the high-profile political debates happening around border security, nationwide and of course here in Texas.

“We only try to save lives,” he says.

Still, given what he’s seen in his 18 or so years of doing this humanitarian work, Hernandez does have a message for people thinking about crossing illegally into the U.S.: it’s not worth the risk.

“Please, think many times before trying this,” he says. “Believe me, it’s terrible.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post said Hernandez believed Adame Riojas had gone missing in June 2014. That sentence should have read June 2015.


Volunteers across south border

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There are admirable individuals and organizations that the general public hardly hears about, who try to lessen the human suffering at the border, offering relief and resources. Their charity seems to be viewed by the general public as controversial. Their actions are not often covered by the national media. It is hard to believe that these individuals and organizations are frequently harassed by both anti-immigrant groups and government agencies. These charities constantly put their life and property at risk, and avoid the spotlight.

I’ll share with the reader some names I am aware of. I am sure this is the tip of the iceberg! Please visit this page occasionally, for I will continue expanding and updating it.

Tucson’s NO MORE DEATHS was founded in 2004 by religious leaders, seeking to provide aid to migrants and slow down their increasing death rate. The group trains and sets up volunteers to patrol the Arizona Sonora desert, by car and by foot. They also work across the border, in Nogales, Mexico, helping those that have been returned to Mexico, repatriated individuals who arrive without means, money and often in poor health. In addition to attending to immediate needs, these volunteers also record and document human right abuses on both sides of the border.

These volunteers face harsh working conditions, more than expected. They also face harassment from what should be unlikely sources. In one such episode, in 2005 two No More Deaths volunteers were arrested by the Border Patrol and charged with smuggling, for transporting three immigrants to Tucson to obtain medical attention. Their defense won this case after years of appeal, and the defendants were later recognized with the Óscar Romero Award for Human Rights for their work. In another incident, in 2008 a volunteer was charged with littering for leaving water bottles for immigrants crossing the desert. This case was also overturned on appeal in 2010. You can see clearly that the enforcement agencies do not encourage charity work at the border.

As part of their human rights reporting, No More Deaths released a report detailing U.S. Border Patrol abuse of migrants apprehended on the US – Mexico border. Visit their page and view or download this report for free.


A search and rescue group, LOS ANGELES DEL DESIERTO (Desert Angels), was founded by Rafael Hernandez, a Mexican-American, after an incident over 15 years ago. An immigrant himself, he was a firefighter in Mexico who had conducted extensive search-and rescue missions. When Mr.Hernandez saw a TV report on a missing man in the mountains east of San Diego County, he went there figuring to help. To his surprise, he found that no one looks for lost immigrants at the time, even if their American relatives appeal for help on TV. So he recruited a few people familiar with the area, and indeed found the missing man. And thankfully, he has not stopped helping lost people since, either.

Unfortunately, he can only help an average of two callers out of ten calls. That is mostly because callers must provide some location information to start a search, and callers mostly lack this information. This group survives on donations, and does not charge for searches. Hernandez warns that the desert areas south of the border are now patrolled by gunmen working for drug cartels. The drug smuggling business appears to have expanded into human smuggling, a lucrative field that brings between $3000 to $5000 per head, according to Hernandez. This new development means that Hernandez work is further complicated by dangerous cartel encounters, while also facing diminishing US agencies’ cooperation. To learn more about the Desert Angels, visit their website

Other groups addressing border issues include Coalición de Derechos Humanos/Alianza Indígena Sin Fronteras, Samaritans, Humane Borders, ACLU… I’ll write about these in future blogs.

‘Desert Angels’ search for imperiled border crossers

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At least twice a day, Rafael Hernandez gets calls from desperate people.

Their loved ones —- trying to come into the country illegally —- are lost in remote areas of the border.

Hernandez heads a volunteer search and rescue group called Angeles del Desierto , or Desert Angels. His group has been involved in efforts to find several North County residents, including a Vista father who died in Arizona trying to come back into the U.S. illegally after being deported earlier this year.

The work is dangerous, time consuming, frustrating and seldom rewarded with successful operations, Hernandez said.

But the reason he has done it for 15 years is simple.

“We try to save lives,” Hernandez said.

The 57-year-old native of Mexico said he started the organization after seeing on the news a woman whose husband was missing in the mountains east of San Diego.

Hernandez said he figured there would be many people searching for the man, but decided to go out and help, anyway.

He was wrong.

“I went to the mountains and to my surprise, there was nobody looking. Nobody. Absolutely nobody,” Hernandez said.

He hired a few people who lived on the mountain and found the man, and Hernandez was hooked.

One man’s journey

Since he started the group, coming into the country illegally has become more dangerous because of increased security in urban areas, including San Diego County. The illegal immigrant traffic has turned east to the remote desert in Arizona, where about the bodies of about 200 illegal immigrants are found each year.

One of the bodies found this year was that of Ildefonso Martinez Sanchez, 39, of Vista.

The Vista father of five was deported in March after coming into contact with a Vista sheriff’s deputy at a local store. The deputy asked him for identification and called the U.S. Border Patrol after Martinez produced a Mexican ID card.

According to Martinez’s family, he tried desperately to return several times, but died just north of the U.S.-Mexico border south of Tucson sometime after April 22, when he was last seen alive.

Martinez fell ill after walking in the desert for more than a day, his wife, Juana Garcia Martinez, said. The smuggler and the rest of the group of about 20 illegal immigrants left him behind when he was no longer able to walk.

One man, Isaac Jimenez Hernandez, stayed behind to help Martinez. He later walked about two hours looking for a cellphone signal to call for help.

Jimenez made an emergency 911 call. When U.S. Border Patrol agents arrived, they told him other officers would look for Martinez, according to Martinez’s family.

Two days later, Jimenez was deported to Mexico and called the Martinez family to tell them the story.

Soon after, the family called the Desert Angels to help search for Martinez.

Hernandez said he helped bring Jimenez, who was living in Tijuana, back to the Border Patrol in Arizona to help agents locate the missing man. Within hours, Jimenez led a Border Patrol helicopter search crew to the body on April 26, Hernandez said.

By that time, the body was badly decomposed.

Days later, the Desert Angels went to the site and placed a small wooden cross surrounded by water bottles.

Gladys Dominguez, Martinez’ stepdaughter, said she was thankful for the assistance she received from the Desert Angels.

“I sent them a message with my phone number and within an hour, they called me,” Dominguez said. “So they are really on it. They really help people. They help a lot and they give people hope.”

Hernandez said his group is not always able to help. Only 2 out of every 10 calls he receives results in a search, Hernandez said.

The main reason the group is unable to help people is lack of information about where to begin the search; often, people don’t know where their loved ones crossed the border, Hernandez said.

Number of deaths increase

The Desert Angels became widely known during the 2007 wildfires.

The group found several people, including the body of a San Marcos man, near the top of Tecate Peak in East County, who died during the wildfires.

Juan Carlos Bautista Ocampo, a native of Chiapas, Mexico, was crossing the border illegally, attempting to return to his home in San Marcos, when the Harris fire raged along the border near Potrero.

The number of deaths along the border has increased since the mid-1990s, when the Clinton-era Operation Gatekeeper increased border security in San Diego County through the use of fences and Border Patrol agents. Immigrant smuggling routes were pushed farther east to Arizona and Texas.

Hernandez said he has seen another reason for the deaths. In recent years, he said, many of the people he has searched for are people with established roots in the U.S., who have been deported and are returning to their families.

“The people coming to the United States the first time, they are coming mentally prepared,” Hernandez said during a recent interview with the North County Times. “(An illegal immigrant) driving his car in the U.S. and they get stopped by the Border Patrol or the police, they are not prepared. He has no money. He doesn’t have clothes for the trip. And he believes that the trip is easy. When they start walking, it’s completely different.”

In the vast Sonoran Desert south of the border, lucrative immigrant smuggling routes are controlled by drug cartels. The cartels charge illegal immigrants $3,000 to $5,000 to travel on roads to the border that they control, Hernandez said.

Gunmen patrol the desert on behalf of the cartels, Hernandez said.

The Angels of the Desert are largely allowed to do their work due to their reputation as a strictly humanitarian organization, but they are never completely safe, he said.

The Border Patrol says it neither endorses nor condemns its work.

“We don’t encourage and we don’t discourage,” said Jerry Conlin, a spokesman for the Border Patrol in San Diego. “Preventing deaths is very important to us. That’s why we have BorSTaR (the U.S. Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue). We welcome cooperation from the public about illegal activity or somebody who’s hurt. We welcome that information.”

Hernandez learned his search-and-rescue skills in his native Mexico City, where he worked as a firefighter and paramedic in the 1980s.

He worked in a special unit that looked for lost hikers in the mountains near Mexico City, Hernandez said.

In 1986, Hernandez moved to the U.S. after Mexico City was devastated by a magnitude-8.0 earthquake in 1985, he said.

Now a legal resident, Hernandez said he worked for many years as a heavy-equipment mechanic until he decided to dedicate his life to his volunteer organization. The Angels of the Desert survives on public donations and assistance.

Each Saturday, the man Hernandez calls his “right hand,” Miguel Jimenez of Oceanside, runs a small booth at the Escondido Swap Meet, where they collect donations. The group does not charge people for their help, Hernandez said.

The group doesn’t help people come into the country illegally, Hernandez said. When members find someone who is still alive, they turn that person over to authorities, he said.