Atlas of Death

John Annerino documents the harsh history of dying along the border in Southwestern Arizona

A local writer I know keeps a candle burning on his back porch day and night.

The idea, he explained, is that as long as the candle stays lit, then whatever god you happen to pray to will hopefully keep the thousands of poor Mexicans safe and alive on their journey through the dry hell of the Sonoran Desert. Through the darkness, bandits, rapists, snakes, lack of water, loneliness and terror, those folks need all the help they can get.

The candle must never be allowed to go out, he warned.

Later, while guzzling wine and playing ball with his smart but insistent black poodle, the candle got knocked over and flickered out. I nearly had a coronary rushing to get the damned thing lit again.

I now intend to light my own candle after reading John Annerino's newly revised and updated Dead in Their Tracks: Crossing America's Desert Borderlands in the New Era.

Dead in Their Tracks is about dead people. Annerino says it was on Oct. 27, 1987, when he began "researching, documenting and compiling a comprehensive border death toll." He created lists: "The Historic Death Toll 1541 to 1940" and "The Modern Death Toll, 1941 to 2000." He made another, calling it "No Olvidados (Not Forgotten)," updating the list of deaths in modern times to include the period from Oct. 1, 2001 to Sept. 20, 2002. A final list, records the 151 "U.S. Border Patrol Agents Killed in the Line of Duty on the Southwest Border, 1896 to Present."

Altogether, he unearthed records for more than 9,703 people who have lost their lives in Southwestern Arizona's harsh borderlands.

Annerino created a map of his data, sticking in the front of the book where it smacks you upside the head with the title "America's Killing Ground: The Death Toll." It's peppered with little symbols. Crosses, skulls, broken airplanes, jet fighters, bombs, question marks, a lost mine, a lost city, a military fort and a bighorn cremation site—each representing different modes and circumstances of death in the desert. Encompassing all of Southwestern Arizona, the map illustrates for all the visual learners out there the tidal wave of death rolling through our backyard year after year after year. It's the damnedest, and most damning, thing I've ever seen.

A widely published writer and photographer, John Annerino grew up an American kid of Sicilian descent. He remembers what it was like being taunted and harassed about things like Al Capone and the Saint Valentine's Day massacre. Children can be very cruel, and little bigots grow up to be big bigots.

Today, everyone has an opinion about the border. Few of these people have even been on the border, much less seen the other side. Fewer still have taken the time to educate themselves about the real and complex issues behind why people come here. Border issues do not lend themselves to black-and-white solutions.

Meanwhile, people keep dying out there.

This whole thing began as a series of news articles and photo essays, then morphed into a book. It reflects the obsessions of a man who actually gives a shit about the fact that these are not simply Mexicans dying out there in the dirt—they are fellow human beings deserving of empathy, understanding and compassion.

Annerino includes stories of his own very personal quest to understand what is happening out there. He describes backpacking along el Camino del Diablo, the Devil's Highway, across the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. Another chapter describes a death-defying journey while accompanying four young immigrant men making the crossing in August. He visits with families left behind in Mexico. He goes out with the Border Patrol. He photographs dead bodies. He sees ghosts. He cries for the fallen.

Each book uniquely contains a card labeled "In Memoriam," remembering someone who has died along the border. The one in my book was for Victor Galindo Torres.

RIP, Victor.

Dead in Their Tracks is a deeply troubling book, and that's the idea. It is an atlas of death, a memorial to one of the greatest human tragedies of our time. Ultimately, the point of Annerino's book comes down to one very simple idea: In a nation where the majority claims to be Christian (and in a state that issues license plates urging us to "Live the Golden Rule"), what precisely is the nature of our obligation to people less fortunate than ourselves?