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The Deadliest Crossing

With no better options amid Trump's border crackdown, migrants are taking their chances with Arizona’s perilous Sonoran Desert
Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

J ose felt exhilaration and dread as he trailed the coyote. He had just reached the United States, but in the blacked-out night he had to double-time his footsteps to keep up with his guide, navigating cactus spines that sliced his arms and ankles. They were at the beginning of an 80-mile journey through Arizona’s Sonoran Desert, a vast and unrelenting wilderness, and it would take at least a week of hard trekking before they walked out.

Shortly after they ducked under the post-and-rail barrier at the border, one of the most desolate stretches of the U.S.’s 2,000-mile southern frontier, the coyote stopped and turned back, promising Jose that another guide would be waiting for him on the far side of the valley ahead. The pair had struck a deal to make the entire journey together, but now Jose walked alone in the darkness. The provisions the coyote had given him were pitiful: two gallons of water, some beans, and a sleeve of saltine crackers. His adrenaline surged; he was determined to cover a lot of open ground before daybreak, when the desert became a furnace.

In his wildest dreams, Donald Trump could not build a wall more effective than the Sonoran Desert — 100,000 square miles of rugged mountain ranges and wide, bone-dry valleys straddling the Mexico border from southeastern California to eastern Arizona. Summer temperatures can exceed 120 degrees, and surface heat on the rocky floor soars a third higher. Committed to reaching the U.S. at any cost — and fearful of the increasingly hostile U.S. authorities at the border — migrants who have given up on the asylum process are detouring into this remote, scarcely policed stretch of desert, gambling their lives on a journey through hellfire. Nearly 9,000 people are believed to have perished crossing here since the 1990s, but the number is likely much higher than that, as only a fraction of the dead are found due to the vastness of the terrain and scant government resources for search-and-rescue operations. It’s a microcosm of migration at its most brutal extreme, and the ranks of the missing continue to multiply.

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Jose, a stocky 22-year-old with wide brown eyes and a faint mustache, had come a long way from the poor and violent highlands of Guatemala. Gang members extorted half of his store-clerk salary each week, making it almost impossible to raise his two children. “It didn’t matter how hard I worked,” he says. “There was no future.” He saved what he could, took out a loan, and headed north for the U.S. At the border, he considered crossing alone. But the killer heat and harrowing stories about what could happen if he entered the desert without the cartels’ permission made him think twice. He paid a Mexican smuggler everything he had left to take him across, almost $4,000.

Over the next three days and nights, Jose scrambled up and down mountain ridges searching for help. The second coyote who was supposed to meet him never showed up. “Everything looked the same,” Jose says. After four days of wandering, he ran out of water, which he’d stored in matte black jugs to avoid giving off a reflection that could betray his location to border agents. By day five, his feet bled through his shredded sneakers. Vultures began to circle overhead “waiting for me to die,” he says. “I was totally lost, losing my mind.” The next day, he drank his urine.

At some point on day six, Jose staggered into an irrigation pipeline and wrenched the valve open. He drank himself full and then cut the water off completely, hoping someone would come to turn it back on and find him. A man in a pickup truck finally arrived to check on the water and offered, in Spanish, to drive Jose to the nearest town. He had walked in a circle. He was back in Mexico.

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Adolfo, a Salvadoran migrant, waits at a shelter in Sonoyta to cross the Sonoran Desert, a bone-dry wilderness that’s claimed thousands of migrants’ lives. Photograph by Jason Motlagh .

TEN DAYS after being rescued from the desert, Jose sits with his left foot in a bucket, seeping blood and pus at a migrant shelter in Sonoyta, Mexico, a lawless Sonoran border town across from the Lukeville, Arizona, port of entry. Run on donations, the Casa del Migrante is a half-built compound of cinder-block and canvas tents ringed by metal fencing and razor wire. When I first turned up, in June, the atmosphere was tense and insular; the shelter’s founder had been arrested the week before by Mexican authorities on charges of illegally transporting migrants (a move activists say was aimed at appeasing the Trump administration). Wincing in pain, Jose nonetheless plans to make a second attempt to cross the border as soon as the peak summer heat subsides. For the rest of the 60-odd migrants at the shelter — most of them men from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — his near-death experience is a warning, but not a deterrent.

Despite all the risks of crossing, the hopefuls keep coming. More than 144,000 undocumented immigrants were encountered by Border Patrol officers along the Southwest frontier in May, the largest monthly total in 13 years and the third month in a row that more than 100,000 were taken into custody at the border. Alone or with family in tow, they took flight north as a last-ditch effort to escape dire poverty, climate-crisis-driven drought, and a plague of criminal gangs that have made life back home unbearable. While intensified anti-migrant measures by the Trump administration and the Mexican government have since led to a drop in arrivals, the flow has not been stopped.

Local volunteers have long tried to ease migrants’ passage by leaving bottles of water, food, and medical aid in the so-called Ajo corridor, a zone running north from the border astride state highway 85 through the small, unincorporated town of Ajo, 40 miles north of Mexico, where migrant deaths and disappearances have been a grim fact of life for decades, instilling a strong humanitarian ethos in the community. But federal authorities are even cracking down on that lifeline, arresting volunteers on charges of littering, trespassing, and human smuggling. Human-rights advocates say the Trump administration is “criminalizing solidarity” while enforcing harsh policies that compel migrants to risk their lives in the desert. “They don’t do a damn thing to help these [migrants],” says Gerardo Campos of the San Diego-based volunteer aid group Aguilas del Desierto. “This is legalized genocide, and the Trump administration wants this to happen.”

Migrant advocacy groups say the roots of the crisis go back to a Clinton-era Border Patrol strategy called Prevention Through Deterrence. By cutting off easy land crossings between the U.S. and Mexico through stepped-up surveillance and policing, authorities effectively forced people to follow more lethal routes. Trump has doubled down on that strategy, weaponizing his nativist rhetoric with ruthless policies such as “zero tolerance,” which separated thousands of children from their parents. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been conducting sweeps around the country, locking up undocumented migrants en masse in grossly overcrowded detention centers alongside asylum seekers rounded up by Customs and Border Protection. Adults are crammed into standing-room-only cells, and families with young children sleep in caged areas on concrete floors. At least seven children have died in CBP custody since last year, after nearly a decade of the agency reporting no child fatalities.

“It’s tantamount to institutional torture, and it’s very purposeful,” says Margo Cowan, a Pima County, Arizona, public defender and manager of a community immigration clinic. The facilities are “designed to hurt people so they break and say, ‘I can’t stand it anymore.’ ”

“We’re all scared to get caught,” says Adolfo, a Salvadoran migrant staying at the Sonoyta shelter who was previously detained in the U.S. “I know how crazy it is — the cells, the way they treat you. It’s a total lie that they respect human rights.”

“The government seems to have completely lost its moral compass,” says Ana Adlerstein, a migrant-aid volunteer who was arrested by a CBP officer in May after escorting an asylum seeker to the Lukeville port of entry. “Targeting people who help migrants navigate the asylum process, leave out water, or provide medical care literally can be the difference between life or death. Outlawing such vital acts of kindness is contributing to the deaths of thousands of people.”

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It’s estimated that nearly 9,000 people have died trying to cross the Sonoran since the 1990s, though the number is likely much higher, as only a fraction of the bodies are recovered due to the vastness of the terrain. Photograph courtesy of Aguilas del Desierto Aguilas del Desierto

AJO APPEARS to be a sleepy desert oasis, with low-slung homes and a whitewashed Spanish Colonial Revival-style plaza ringed by towering palm trees. In its heyday, Ajo boasted one of the largest copper mines in Arizona; today it’s a final pit stop for tourists heading down to beaches on the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.

Last January, Ajo made national news when four volunteers with the migrant-aid group No More Deaths faced criminal charges for entering the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge without a permit and leaving water. All visitors to the federally protected wilderness, which extends west of town, are required to get a permit; mine was issued for free in just minutes online. But authorities have resolutely denied them to NMD volunteers.

The government dropped the charges, but prosecutors aggressively pursued felony counts of smuggling and conspiracy against another volunteer, Scott Warren, a 36-year-old geologist living in Ajo. They accused him of harboring undocumented migrants last year and sought a 20-year prison sentence.

The day after I arrived in Ajo, many in town breathed a sigh of relief: News broke that a jury in Tucson was unable to reach a verdict in Warren’s case (although federal prosecutors have since announced they’ll retry Warren in November). “I hope Scott gets off for good, otherwise I’ll have to ask dying people for ID before I give them water,” says Jose Castillo, the town’s unofficial historian. The grandson of a Mexican immigrant, Castillo, 80, worked in Ajo’s copper mine until it shut down in the early 1980s. He became a member of the Ajo Samaritans, a loose-knit volunteer group created to help migrants passing through the area.

Castillo took me up to the local museum he manages and dug up a story from the July 10th, 1980, edition of the Ajo Copper News: “Grueling desert search finds 13 alive, 13 dead.” A group of Salvadoran migrants fleeing the country’s civil war had lost their way in the Growler Valley, the same death trap where Warren was charged for leaving water. The migrants were saved by law enforcement and residents who searched to the point of exhaustion in planes, helicopters, and on foot, then demanded survivors receive asylum. “People in Ajo,” they wrote in a letter to their Congress members, “are willing to house them.”

Castillo says that spirit endures, though the 2012 construction of a new Border Patrol station and an influx of agents have sown a quiet tension in the area. The Border Patrol is the “only job that pays real money,” Castillo says, lamenting the hard-line mindset that has accompanied its growth. “Before, we were human,” he says. “Now we’re becoming more robotic.”

By some accounts, Trump is following a playbook that was written in Arizona, a Republican-led state that spawned some of the most draconian anti-immigrant policies in the country. From the infamous “tent cities” — outdoor jails composed largely of migrants — to SB1070 (a.k.a. the “show me your papers” provision), a law that allows police to racially profile and determine the legal status of anyone they suspect to be undocumented.

A coalition of grassroots activists, galvanized by young Mexican Americans and civil-rights groups (the state’s Hispanic population is 30 percent and growing), has fought to change the state’s trajectory. The architect behind SB1070 was recalled, and disgraced Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is gone, his Phoenix tent city closed after 24 years in operation. But the expansion of CBP operations and frustrations over immigration reform have strained sympathies along the border, putting activists and migrants in peril.

The government’s readiness to punish humanitarians has left their ranks uneasy, but locals say they are not cowed. Volunteers continue to make regular water drop-offs in Cabeza Prieta and other off-limits areas, and the Ajo Samaritans recently opened a migrant-aid station at the southern end of town. “If anything, this crackdown has made us more resolved to make sure work continues,” says one. “People of conscience must act.”

At dawn one morning, I accompany Cheryl Opalski, a Samaritan, who was taking a new volunteer out on a water drop-off. The women start the five-mile circuit at a white cross honoring deceased migrants, then hike through a bank of scrubby hills to place gallon jugs at three locations. On each jug Opalski had scrawled in marker, Agua pura, vaya con dios — “Pure water, go with God.” The final stop is just shy of the Cabeza Prieta boundary. “It’s important that we stay visible and get our message out that this is right,” says Opalski.

In January 2018, No More Deaths released a video reel that shows Border Patrol agents dumping out water left for migrants in the desert. (Warren was arrested the next day; some volunteers believe it was in retaliation for the video.) A CBP agent who asks not to use his name for fear of losing his job tells me he’s stopped co-workers from destroying water supplies in the past and adds, “Some activists are good people trying to help.” But he argues that water drop-offs in restricted areas are incentivizing illicit activity and leading to more deaths. In such extreme heat, people rapidly sweat out salt and electrolytes and can’t replace them fast enough, he says. Once a person drops to a critically low level of sodium, drinking more water depletes the electrolytes that remain and causes cells to swell, increasing the likelihood of heat-related death. The border agent says there’s evidence that migrants who have picked up water from volunteer groups have died anyway.

But activists in Ajo believe it is safer to provide water than to withhold it. “People are going to move regardless — they’re not moving because they believe there are water drops ahead of them,” says John Orlowski, an NMD volunteer. “When we drop water, it’s in the moment. Someone’s life is at risk, and if they can find a gallon of water it’s gonna help save their life. What they do from that point on, I have no idea.”

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A map posted at a migrant shelter in Sonoyta, across the border from Lukeville, Arizona, shows key reference points in the desert. Photograph by Jason Motlagh Jason Motlagh

MAURICIO STUDIES a hand-drawn map of the borderlands posted at the Sonoyta shelter. Above it is a picture of a Mexican man who went missing in April; a second map shows mushrooming clusters of red dots denoting where bodies have been found, with a plea: “Don’t go! There’s not enough water! It’s not worth it!”

But Mauricio says there’s no going back to Honduras. He says he tried to steer clear of the gangs that overran his barrio in San Pedro Sula, one of the most violent cities on Earth, but they caught up with him. Ten years ago, his fruit-delivery truck was ambushed by members of MS-13, who hauled him out at gunpoint when he tried to drive away. He ran for it, and they hacked his head with a machete, leaving an eight-inch scar that carves into his forehead.

Still, Mauricio says he didn’t get serious about leaving until the gang started courting his 14-year-old son. He told them to back off. Death threats ensued. He left Honduras alone with a plan to send for his son later, and spent a month on the road evading Mexican authorities, who have intensified their crackdown on migrant traffic to head off Trump’s threat of tariffs on Mexican products.

Mauricio’s goal is to reach Arizona’s Interstate 8, which runs roughly parallel to the border, a seven-to-12-day trek. He’s almost broke, and local construction work pays only $5 a day, so hiring a $5,000 coyote is out of the question. Which leaves him a tough choice: Carry a backpack of marijuana for a cartel, or pay a $500 “tax” for permission to cross on his own, the riskiest option. With no knowledge of the terrain, no ability to carry all the water he would need or find sources along the way, that would be suicide.

And the Sinaloa cartel, the dominant drug mafia in the region, knows this. Migrants who can’t afford to hire a coyote will sometimes mule for the narcos, whose well-worn routes and high-tech smuggling tools (drones, encrypted radios, night-vision goggles) up the odds of skirting Border Patrol and surviving the treacherous desert crossing. Marijuana still accounts for the brunt of smuggling operations, but legalization in Colorado, California, and other key markets has cut deeply into the cartel’s margins, putting a greater premium on hard drugs and migrant trafficking. By some estimates, the cartel gets $3,000, or more than 60 percent of the fee, for every migrant coyotes take across. “Better border enforcement in the U.S.,” says a Mexican government official, “has only increased the narcos’ profits.”

“With very rare exceptions, the cartels have full control of cross-border traffic,” the CBP agent tells me. “If you can coordinate it, it’s still very easy to enter the U.S.” He adds that the cargo seized from migrant conscripts is evolving from pot to more potent synthetics like meth and fentanyl that are devastating American communities.

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Central American migrants steal shade outside a shelter in Sonoyta. Migrants who can’t afford to hire a guide across the desert sometimes mule drugs for the cartels, who control the border on the Mexican side. Photograph by Jason Motlagh Jason Motlagh

This, of course, adds fuel to the fire of Trump’s narrative that migrants bring drugs and crime. Humanitarians counter that many drug mules are vulnerable people acting out of desperation and being exploited. “If they’re carrying a bag of marijuana, I could never call it smuggling because that’s the only way they can get —  I wanted to say ‘safe passage,’ but it’s nowhere near safe, whether you have a guide or not, across this desert,” says Orlowski. “These are people whose lives are threatened, and the only way of saving their lives is providing their labor. That’s the classic definition of human trafficking.”

Cartel scouts are known to rape migrant women and summarily execute people who wander into their borderlands territory without approval. One high mountain pass has a “rape tree” draped with the trophy bras and panties of violated women, and migrant bodies have been found decapitated.

Daniel, a deaf middle-aged barber from Honduras, shares a bunk with Mauricio. He re-enacts how police officers robbed him and two companions on a highway, then passed them off to the Zetas, a cartel known for extreme brutality. In August 2010, the Mexican military found a mass grave in Tamaulipas state with the bodies of 72 migrants who were reportedly executed by the cartel; the following April, the Zetas intercepted several buses headed to the border and systematically murdered 193 migrants on a ranch. Daniel says he and the others were brought to a compound on the outskirts of Sonora’s capital, Hermosillo, and bound hand and foot with electrical cord. The narcos beheaded one man when his ransom call went unanswered; they passed around a joint and laughed. Daniel says he fought frantically to loosen his hands, and as they tortured the second man, he broke free and dashed out an open door, arriving at the shelter two weeks later.

Eager as Daniel is to leave Mexico, an ill-timed departure could be fatal. The June heat is relentless, and hostile police are swarming around Sonoyta. A state commander and an agent were kidnapped and executed by cartel hit men the week before I showed up. More than 60 police units had swept in, trawling dusty backstreets and kicking in doors while a chopper thumped overhead.

One of the cartel’s control points on the Mexico side is the highway west of the Sonoyta-Lukeville border, just opposite the Organ Pipe National Monument, where cartel gunmen shot and killed a park ranger in 2002. Locals say the cartel monitors road traffic around the clock; anyone who attempts to cross without permission risks a beating, or worse. (One migrant at the shelter tells me he got off easy the day he decided to walk the road without permission: Enforcers with AK-47s soon pulled up and ordered him to turn around.)

I drive out there one morning, past shuttered garages and food stands. The road is dead quiet save for the occasional tractor-trailers that whoosh past en route to Mexicali and Nogales. Less than 40 yards separates the pavement from the border, nothing more than a post-and-rail barrier meant to stop vehicles from plowing through. On April 16th, buses pulled up here and nearly 400 migrants walked across, the largest single group ever apprehended by CBP, mostly families with children. A Border Patrol agent later explains that the cartel coordinates these mass dumps to “tie up agents and create a gap in security so they can move their stuff through uncontested down the line.”

Out of nowhere, a pair of white CBP trucks speeds down the frontage road on the U.S. side. A Sikh migrant from India who had gone off to find water had left her six-year-old daughter and three others in bad shape in the desert. Smugglers had dropped them off along the Mexican highway and told them to walk across the border on a day temperatures climbed to 108 degrees. When agents found the girl, Gurupreet Singh, later that day, she was dead from heatstroke.

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The volunteer group Aguilas del Desierto, which searches for the remains of dead migrants, marks a grave in the Sonoran. “The desert is like a hungry lion that devours everything,” says Aguilas founder Eli Ortiz. Photograph courtesy of Aguilas del Desierto Courtesy of Aguilas del Desierto

THE AGUILAS del Desierto — Eagles of the Desert — search for those who don’t make it out alive. An all-volunteer group composed largely of ex-migrants, they have come to southern Arizona about once a month for the past seven years to search for the missing. They usually act on tips from relatives, who prefer to contact them by phone (the Aguilas say they receive more than 20 calls a day) or on Facebook, rather than alert authorities. Sometimes they track down migrants in detention centers. More often, they find remains in the wilderness.

“I know what it means to lose your own blood in the desert,” says Eli Ortiz, the leader of the Aguilas. In 2009, he found the bodies of his brother and cousin near Cabeza Prieta. “The desert is like a hungry lion that devours everything,” he says.

On a Saturday in June, about 50 volunteers in fluorescent-green shirts gather at a pass that runs into the Growler Valley. A wildlife ranger wearing a bulletproof vest and a Stetson drives up to inspect everyone’s permits. To stay in the law’s good graces, the Aguilas play by the rules and report any encounter with migrants, dead or alive. Everyone loads up on water bottles and puts fresh batteries in their walkie-talkies before filing down into the valley.

I tag along with Ricardo Esquivias, a crusty 56-year-old from San Diego. Dark and sun-creased, he’s been making search-and-rescue trips since before the Aguilas were formed and has seen “hundreds of bodies,” giving him a deep respect for the fragility of life in the desert. And he comes equipped: walking poles, leather rattlesnake gaiters, first-aid kit, two large CamelBaks full of water. “I could walk to the border and back, no problem,” he says.

Ricardo left his home in Mexico’s Jalisco state at 14 and paid $200 to cross illegally with coyotes near Tijuana. Today, he is documented and owns a successful gardening business that will allow him to send his son to college in the fall. He considers himself a full beneficiary of the American dream, but he says that living in the U.S. has left him feeling “like when you pull a beautiful plant out of the ground and put it in a pot — I’ve never been happy here.” He plans to retire and return home in five years. Until then, search-and-rescue work eases his depression.

Entering the valley, the Aguilas try to maintain a line with 25 yards between each person as they pick their way through cholla cactus and brittlebush. Ricardo scans the ground for traces of movement while noting its layers of history: ancient rock drawings, shrapnel from the refuge’s days as a bombing range, an obsidian arrowhead. It isn’t long before severe dehydration sends three volunteers back to camp.

We press deeper into a Mars-like plateau of dark volcanic rock, and another volunteer collapses from heatstroke, which brings everything to a halt. Ricardo grumbles in frustration, and when we resume searching he breaks away from the line to trawl a dried-up creek bed. The tangles of mesquite and palo verde that line its banks offer pathetic cover from the sun, but it’s something: Scattered in the underbrush, we find water jugs, torn shirts, empty tuna cans. “Somebody was just here,” Ricardo says.

It was in this part of the valley, in April, that the Aguilas found a 50-year-old Salvadoran man who had died a few days before. Ricardo shows me a picture on his cellphone; the man is sprawled on his back in camo fatigues, his face pecked apart by animals. Ricardo says an ID card was recovered, and the remains were returned to his family “to give them some peace.” (In December, the team recovered eight more bodies several miles to the north.)

A warning call crackles over the radio: “Clave siete! Clave siete!” Code seven. “Someone has found drugs,” Ricardo says, “a backpack, probably filled with marijuana.” I scan the empty terrain for signs of life. “The alcones [scouts] are always watching from up there,” he says, pointing to a nearby ridge. “This area is cartel land. They use radios and binoculars to guide people at night, and they have long-range rifles. We don’t mess with their stuff, so they don’t mess with us.”

By 4 p.m., the volunteers are withering from exposure. The search has been grinding on for eight hours and my footsteps are leaden, hands swollen, thoughts muddled. Shortly after my water runs out, another member of the group suffers heatstroke. I take cover in the shadow of a giant saguaro cactus as we wait for an Aguilas relief truck to come, a breach of park rules for which the Aguilas are later summoned by authorities. Out here, the rescuers sometimes need rescuing.

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The death and disappearance of migrants have been facts of life for decades in the town of Ajo, Arizona, 40 miles north of the border, where humanitarian groups have sprung up to aid migrants by placing water in the desert. Ajo made news last year when volunteer Scott Warren was accused of harboring undocumented migrants and faced 20 years in prison. The crackdown has only made volunteers more resolved to help. “People of conscience must act,” says one. Photograph by Jason Motlagh Jason Motlagh

THE MIGRANTS killing time back at the Sonoyta shelter are not unaware of the purgatory that awaits them. Between stories from friends and relatives gone before, and the death maps on the wall, they have an idea of what lies ahead. But with families that depend on them, and so many threats at their back, some say they will do what they must to complete the desert crossing.

According to Juan Carlos, an older resident at the shelter, “at least 80 percent” of the men there will end up as drug mules to improve their odds of survival. The buy-in to carry a pack is a fraction of paying a coyote or going it alone. With hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake, the cartels go to extreme lengths to protect their routes from the Border Patrol.

“It’s the safest way,” Juan Carlos says. “I hate drugs — I don’t drink or smoke, but it’s the safest way.” Come September, he’ll hitch a ride east of town to Ejido del Desierto, the cartel’s main staging ground in the area. His contact at one of the ranches will give him a backpack, and he’ll set off at night. If all goes well, he’ll make it through and join his brother in California.

Mauricio can’t wait that long. Though his son is staying with grandparents in the countryside, he says it’s just a matter of time before the gangs get to him. “They are everywhere, like a cancer,” he says. We walk up a hill behind the shelter with a view of the border, and I ask whether he’ll run drugs or go his own way. He’s hesitant to say, but his gaze stays fixed on the other side: “I know that God is protecting me.” He has already survived a near-fatal gang attack and a 2,500-mile journey, and his faith is strong. But he’s never set foot in the desert before.