When migrants go missing during border crossings, their loved ones turn to unofficial sources for news

A crew begins to haul away a panga on March 12 at Black's Beach after it and another boat overturned the night before.
A crew begins to haul away a panga on March 12 at Black’s Beach in La Jolla after it and another boat overturned the night before, leaving eight Mexican migrants dead.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Before the sun rose March 12 over foggy and rain-drenched Black’s Beach, news was beginning to spread of a terrible accident late the night before. Eight migrants, who authorities later learned were all Mexican citizens, had died after crossing the border when their two small fishing boats capsized.

One San Diego-based human-rights activist learned about the deadly crash from a Facebook page based in the Mexican state of Puebla, where at least five of the victims were from. At least two families later received anonymous phone calls telling them a relative had been on a boat that overturned. The callers quickly hung up.

So began a difficult process that unfolds each time a migrant dies while trying to cross from Mexico into the United States, with authorities using official channels to try to identify victims and notify their families, and those same families often seeking information through more informal sources.

Despite both sides trying to ultimately accomplish the same goal, it can take days or weeks for officials to contact a person’s closest relatives or get the DNA or fingerprint proof needed to identify someone with certainty.

The issue has become more pronounced as an increasing number of migrants die trying to reach the U.S. According to figures released last month by the federal government, a record of more than 890 migrants died along the border in the 2022 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, up from 565 the year before. Many more remain missing.

“It’s frustrating to end up talking about numbers and statistics, because in the end, we’re talking about human life ... a family that loses their loved one,” said Carlos González Gutierrez, the consul general of Mexico in San Diego. “One is too many. It’s unacceptable for one Mexican immigrant to die trying to cross the border.”

In the Black’s Beach disaster, the San Diego County medical examiner’s office had released the names of only half the victims as of March 17. For the others, officials were still trying to reach next of kin or to verify their identities with DNA or other proof.

Surfers walk past one of two pangas used in a deadly smuggling attempt March 11 off Black's Beach.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The dead include Yecenia Lazcano Soriano, a 22-year-old single mother of a 3-year-old girl; Alma Rosa Figueroa Gorgonio, 17; Guillermo Suarez Gonzalez, 23; and Eloy Hernandez Baltazar, 48.

González said at least five of the eight people killed were from Puebla, southeast of Mexico City, and one was from Jalisco, on Mexico’s west coast. He said Alma was the youngest victim, while the oldest known so far was 58.

Lazcano’s family members told Telemundo that she sent a video to them the night of March 11 as she was about to board one of the boats. The footage showed rough ocean conditions.

Before midnight, she was dead.

Informal networks

The agony Lazcano’s family likely felt when she fell silent is a pain shared by many families whose relatives go missing during a border crossing journey.

It was made even more brutal when an anonymous caller told one of Lazcano’s relatives that a family member had been on a boat that overturned. The caller then hung up.

The relative tried to call back for more information, but there was no answer, according to William Murillo, a New York-based legal consultant who assists migrants.

Murillo said it is common for smugglers to deliver terrible news, then “vanish” so they aren’t contacted again, leaving panicked or grieving families on their own to search for more information.

Most relatives turn to the internet, particularly Facebook. Murillo’s firm published a video on Facebook with the basic details about the Black’s Beach deaths.

“If you have a relative who was going to cross that border and you are unable to communicate with them, call us to help you search,” read the March 13 post, which included a phone number.

Within 24 hours, Lazcano’s family and one other contacted the firm, 1800Migrante.com, saying they believed their loved ones had been on the boats and that they had not heard from them, Murillo said.

By March 14, the firm had published a new video displaying the names and photos of those two people and asking anyone who knew their whereabouts to call. Later that day, the medical examiner’s office confirmed Lazcano’s identity.

Murillo said part of his firm’s goal by publicizing information quickly and broadly is to put pressure on government agencies to be forthcoming with details.

Pedro Rios, a human-rights advocate and director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S. Mexico/Border Program, said he learned details about the Black’s Beach crash through the Puebla-based Facebook page, which had early details about the victims being from there.

Information also travels via word of mouth among community members, Rios said.

No maritime aid

A panga rests on the shore in La Jolla in May 2021 after it capsized in the surf. One person died and 10 others were rescued.
(Nelvin Cepeda / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Though maritime smuggling attempts in the Tijuana-San Diego region have surged in recent years, they still represent a relatively low number of overall border crossings.

That’s part of the reason there is no humanitarian aid available at sea from groups such as Aguilas del Desierto — which often fields calls from family members whose loved ones are believed to be lost or abandoned in the mountains or desert along the California-Arizona border — or groups that leave water and supplies along desert and mountain migrant routes.

“There aren’t any other civil society organizations that I am aware of that specifically dedicate their services to victims of maritime incidents,” Rios said. “We don’t see that type of support in the same way that we see them occur off the coast of Italy, Greece or Spain.”

A representative of the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights said “there are no formal networks or organizations that support migrants deciding to cross over via the sea.”

Maritime crossings also pose serious legal questions — where is the line between helping a boat full of migrants in need and becoming part of the smuggling operation? Communication adds to the complications, as most smuggling boats travel out of range of cellphone towers and without sophisticated radios or satellite phones.

Federal authorities said they intercepted this panga carrying 20 people about 18 nautical miles off La Jolla in June 2021.
Federal authorities said they intercepted this panga carrying 20 people about 18 nautical miles off the coast of La Jolla in June 2021.
(U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

Therefore, when smuggling boats don’t reach shore successfully or are not intercepted by federal authorities, they’re on their own if and when they run into trouble.

Official efforts

Most of the Black’s Beach victims had some form of identification on them, which offered a “clue,” said Chief Medical Examiner Steven Campman.

The next step was to confirm their identities. The medical examiner’s office tries to do so with fingerprints, dental records or DNA, Campman said. There are times when the office might confirm an identification based on the totality of various factors, but “that’s not our preference,” he said.

In most cases for the Black’s Beach victims, medical examiner’s investigators took fingerprints and matched them to records from Mexico. The Consulate General of Mexico in San Diego helped obtain the records. González said the consulate has “very powerful” databases that officials can search to help obtain those records.

In one instance, the medical examiner’s office used dental X-rays to confirm a victim’s identity. The consulate helped obtain the X-rays from the family.

Carlos González Gutierrez, consul general of Mexico in San Diego, speaks during an event last year.
(Ana Ramirez / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Once the victims’ identities were confirmed, the consulate notified families. González said consulate officials, in coordination with Mexico’s federal government and the government in Puebla, would work with the families through the next steps, including obtaining death certificates in the United States and Mexico and a special visa to move human remains south of the border.

“No matter how long you’ve been doing it, no matter how professional or committed you are, the people who are in charge of notifying [families], it’s something that is very difficult; you never get used to it,” González said.

Warnings of danger

Aguilas del Desierto knows migrants will continue to try to cross the border despite warnings of danger. Still, the group distributes fliers and posters at migrant shelters across Mexico and Central America.

The posters provide advice such as how to find precise location coordinates on a cellphone in case a rescue is required.

Before this week’s storms, the U.S. Border Patrol in San Diego released a statement warning of dangerous weather conditions that could put migrants’ lives at increased risk. ◆