Before leaving, Hector scratched a message for his cousin on a piece of plywood. “Diego,” he wrote, “when you wake up, use the cell phone and dial this number or call Tacho or someone from your family. Don’t be afraid. Nothing’s wrong. Good luck cousin.”
Diego Sandoval Vallederes, a 16-year-old boy from Michoacán, Mexico had crossed the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas with a group of undocumented border crossers. Once on the other side of the border, the group had dispersed into the vast brush land of Brooks County in an attempt to evade U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints on nearby state highways.
Brooks County, which is mostly made up of private ranches, is not a place you would ever want to get lost. The dry mesquite-laden terrain seems to extend infinitely in every direction. Without the angle of the sun during the day or the stars at night to guide, you could easily loop in circles until you dropped. Besides disorientation and the exhausting distances from one ranch to the next, the dangers of the land are many. There are the snakes, the spiders, the insects, the thorny underbrush, the oppressive heat, the lack of water. And the human dangers can be worse. The coyotes, or human smugglers on which most border crossers rely, are usually connected to larger criminal organizations, and they often prey on women and children. Sometimes smugglers use children like Hector and Diego to carry drugs across the border for them. They frequently traffic women and young girls for sex work.
His cousin’s advice aside, Diego had a lot to be afraid of. But he never even read the note, having died -- most likely from a combination of exhaustion and dehydration -- sometime in the night.
Diego, at least, never likely faced the terror of rape or abuse. There are speculations that Marilu Noely Alas Santos, a 29-year-old mother of two young American-born children, was not so lucky. Marilu,