As Roberto Resendiz cautiously reached the end of a secluded stretch of rock surrounded by cacti, he stopped.
The 44-year-old Californian looked over his shoulder. The sunrise glowed and shone brightly over the Arizona desert, its barren landscape undeniably beautiful not far from Organ Pipe National Monument, about 100 miles as the crow flies from Tucson.
Beautiful, but also desolate, as surrounding Pima County alone has become a graveyard for at least 3,500 migrants over the past two decades.
Resendiz, a member of Armadillos, a humanitarian group, had set out with a dozen other volunteers for a tough 12-hour session in the early hours of the morning to search the arid terrain near a sharp peak known to migrants as La Aguja – the Needle – is known.
Resendiz carried supplies for the group but also a wooden cross in case they found the remains of a specific migrant they were looking for, 19-year-old Diego Lizardo Chávez, who has been missing for nearly two months.
“You see the real urgency here,” Resendiz said, using a stick to remove the jacket of a child who was caught in a bush. “Many people are risking their own lives for the American Dream.”
More than 800 migrants have died trying to enter the US along the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico in fiscal 2022, making it the deadliest on record by the US government.
According to the Pima County coroner responsible for examining the vast majority of migrant remains recovered in southern Arizona, the remains of 154 such people were discovered there in 2022, but only 65 of them have been identified so far.
According to his family, in late August Diego took a bus from his hometown of Chalchihuites in central Mexico and traveled 900 miles north to the border.
Diego is survived by a four-year-old daughter, a wife and parents who told the Guardian he doesn’t earn enough money as a construction worker to support his young family.
When other relatives in Southern California told him they would pay for his trip to San Bernardino, Diego accepted the offer, seeing it as his only way out of poverty. An uncle from Chalchihuites accompanied him on the journey north and they landed in Sonoyta on the Arizona border.
According to Diego’s father, Miguel Lizardo Lopez, a smuggler told them their best bet was to get to that region and then prepare for a treacherous trek across the desert to the United States. Many migrants follow a path far from the cities, trying to avoid detection by US Border Patrol agents, who since March 2020 have been quick to expel many migrants, particularly Mexican adults, under a pandemic-era restriction known as Title 42.
Diego and his uncle hiked in early September when temperatures can reach 115F. According to Diego’s father, they both carried gallons of water in preparation. However, it is unclear how much water they had left when they got near the mountain where Resendiz later searched.
Diego, his father said, texted his mother via WhatsApp on the night of September 5 that his uncle was dehydrated and blisters were peeling off his feet, stopping him in his tracks.
Diego knew there were still 40 miles to Interstate 8, a freeway that spans southwest of Phoenix towns like Gila Bend, Sentinel, and Dateland, which often serve as areas where migrants are picked up by smugglers and taken to a so – Hideout house called before onward journey.
With his uncle suffering and unable to continue the journey, Diego considered calling 911. But that would have doomed his efforts to enter the US undetected.
He recognized his uncle’s need and did it anyway. But when border guards came to rescue his uncle, Diego was nowhere to be found. His uncle is now recovering in California. He declined an interview and asked that his identity be kept secret.
Rafael Barceló Durazo, the Mexican Consul General in Tucson, confirmed the map coordinates of where Diego’s uncle was found. Another humanitarian group, Aguilas del Desierto, had already searched for Diego in October without success.
So Resendiz, with his volunteers and a reporter for the Guardian, planned a different route, a 15-mile loop over La Aguja, a shell-shaped mountain known by migrants and smugglers as La Tortuga – the turtle – and dozens of arroyos, dry streams where migrants stop to rest.
At around 12.30pm, James Holeman, the founder of another volunteer group, Battalion Search and Rescue, issued a warning over the radio: “Atencion, atencion, tengo un cráneo“ – “Warning, warning, I have a skull.”
Resendiz accelerated. The skull’s location was eight miles from Diego’s last known whereabouts and may be the culmination of their solemn search.
Seven back teeth remained on the white skull lying in the dust. The volunteers marked the find with yellow tape.
There was silence as Resendiz fell to his knees. He borrowed a machete and dug a hole, something he’d done at least a dozen times.
He carefully placed the cross and adorned the spot with bright orange cempasúchil Flowers, the Mexican marigold commonly used to celebrate Día de los Muertos each fall.
Volunteer Angel Davila, 34, who was brought to the United States from Mexico when he was two years old, took a picture.
Such images are sent to the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, and eventually the remains are sent to the Tucson Coroner’s Office.
Forty-eight hours later, chief investigator Greg Hess showed the Guardian the image of the skull he’d received via email.
“This is a few years old … not someone who may have gone missing in September,” he said, noting the bleached and broken nature of the bone, which is being kept in his office awaiting possible identification.
Hours after the conversation with Hess, Diego’s father was informed that the skull was being examined.
“I still hope that Diego is somewhere in the desert. Until I get the bad news, Diego isn’t dead to me,” said Miguel Lizardo.