A Mother’s Agony Over Son Missing in Arizona Desert

A Mother’s Agony Over Son Missing in Arizona Desert

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PHOENIX, Ariz. Deep in her heart Fermina Lopez feels that her son is still alive. A mother knows that, she says. But it’s been more than two months since she last heard her son’s voice. Thirteen-year-old Nelson Omar Chilel Lopez talked to her from Altar, Sonora before attempting to cross over to the United States where she was living.

The border town is a common springboard for migrants to cross the desert into the United States. Many of them come from Mexico; others, like her son, arrive after a long journey from Guatemala.

She knew the risks involved in the crossing. But she couldn’t stop him.

“If you don’t bring me, I don’t know what will happen, “ Nelson told her. “If you don’t do it, before you know it, I’ll be on the border.”

She was heartbroken at the prospect of her son attempting the dangerous trek on his own. At the same time she felt helpless about his life in Guatemala.

“I wanted to save up to build us a home over there,” said Lopez, a short woman who speaks Spanish with an accent of Mam, her native indigenous tongue. “But things weren’t like that, they weren’t like that at all.”

She barely made enough money in Phoenix to be able to help him and Nelson was living at a neighbor’s house, spending a lot of time on the street with little supervision. The young child she left four years ago had become a boy, getting into trouble in school, with gangs pressuring him to join.

“I was afraid of what could happen to him in Guatemala,” she said.

She agreed to let him travel with an older woman from their town in Guatemala. They crossed the border as regular tourists into Tapachula,
Chiapas. They intended to find a smuggler to guide them across the Mexico-U.S. border.

Nelson Omar told his mother that he was given another boy’s birth certificate to travel through Mexico so that he could avoid being detained or questioned by Mexican authorities.

On July 6, he told her they were going to cross through Sonoita, Ariz., a popular crossing point in the desert. Nine days later, she got a call at 2 a.m. It was the group’s “guia,” or guide – the person who helped the migrants cross through the desert.

“We all made it,” he told her. “But your son was left behind with an older woman. She couldn’t walk and he didn’t want to leave her.”

The smuggler told her the Border Patrol had probably found her son, since he left them by the side of a dirt road. He couldn’t provide any landmarks to use in conducting a search.

She kept calling him over the next few days. The phone was eventually disconnected.

Lopez called the Guatemalan authorities. She called the Mexican authorities. She gave them both her son’s name and the name on the Mexican birth certificate.

“Why can’t someone go out there in the middle of the desert and look for him?” she asked.

Border Patrol typically conduct a search when they have specific information about the location of the missing person.

“It’s hard to make a determination or pin-point if a person is lost. Sometimes they don’t have a clue where they are. Some of these incidents could have occurred in Mexico,” said Mario Escalante, spokesperson for the Tucson Border Patrol Sector.

The remains of more than 210 border crossers have been recovered during fiscal year 2010, which began last October. But there are no statistics on how many people have gone missing in their attempt to cross.

“Maybe someone kidnapped him,” said Lopez. “Maybe he is in an immigration detention center under a different name.”

Guatemalan consular authorities said they have been looking for the boy in all of those places.

“The search gets difficult because children change their names. They are told to give another name; they are given a false document from Mexico,” said Julia Guzmán, Guatemalan consul in Phoenix.

Guzmán said they made the earliest appointment possible to visit the morgue at the beginning of October to investigate the case. Currently, the consulate has six pending reports of people who have gone missing while attempting to cross the desert.

This July was the deadliest month in the Arizona desert in the last five years.

The bodies of 59 people were recovered by the Border Patrol. There were so many that the Pima Medical Examiner’s Office had to rent a refrigerated truck to store them. Among them was the body of an 11-year-old boy.

Bruce Parks, the chief medical examiner, wrote in an e-mail that this could be Nelson, but in order to identify the body, he said, it would help to get a picture of the boy smiling, so that his teeth can be seen.

In the pictures Lopez has of her son, he is not smiling.

Another alternative would be to do a DNA test. That could cost up to $1,000, and the medical examiner’s office can’t afford to pay for it.

Lydia Guzmán, the president of Somos America, a pro-immigrant coalition in Arizona, caught wind of Nelson’s case and decided to help his mother as much as possible. She is currently trying to get donations from the public  to raise funds for a DNA test.

“We receive several calls about missing migrants on a regular basis and unfortunately, all we can do is take their information and connect them with the consulates’ offices and give them phone numbers to county morgues and humanitarian groups,” she said. “But this case was different. Due to the young age of little Nelson and because I’m a mother, I got personally involved and felt Fermina’s pain.”

“It was hard for Fermina to hold her son back. Her son wanted to cross mountains and rivers and oceans just to be with her,” she added.

Guzmán is convinced that a DNA test could help.

“It’s important that we help Fermina find closure or an answer to her question,” she said.

Inside her small Phoenix home, Lopez looks into the distance as if she can see her son when she speaks.

“My son is alive. I don’t know where he is. But I know he is alive,” she says. “Where is my child? Le digo a Diosito lindo que me lo devuelva. (I ask God to give him back to me.)”