PEREZ ZELEDÓN, San José – When Priscilla asks when her papito is coming home, her mother tells her that he went to the United States.
When she asks when her papito will be back with the pretty clothes and shoes he promised her, her mother says that papito met El Señor, who took him to heaven.
“They’re taking care of papito in heaven,” she tells Priscilla, “and one day we’ll go there and see him again.”
In 2010, the United States Border Patrol arrested more than 463,000 people for illegal entry into the U.S., including 185 Costa Ricans. But 3-year-old Priscilla’s father, Abdenago Abarca, was not one of them. Abdenago became part of a far grimmer and more exclusive set of statistics.
From 1999 through 2010, the U.S. Border Patrol detained some 4,045 Ticos across the U.S. In the same 11-year span, 229,883 Hondurans, 187,183 El Salvadorans, 148,005 Guatemalans, 16, 257 Nicaraguans, 598 Belizeans and 317 Panamanians were detained, ranking Costa Rica fifth in the region in terms of the number of nationals detained by the U.S. Border Patrol.
In 2010, agents in the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector made 212,202 apprehensions of illegal immigrants – about 46 percent of the nationwide total. The Tucson Sector covers about half the state of Arizona, from the eastern edge across the Sonoran Desert.
For years the area has been an avenue for the illicit flow of drugs and people. The desert over which they must pass is harsh – temperatures in the summer can soar to well over 44 degrees Celsius (112 degrees Fahrenheit). From Oct. 1, 2010 to Aug. 31, Tucson Sector Border Patrol Agents made approximately 116,000 arrests in the sector and performed 441 rescues of people in distress. They recovered 166 bodies.
No More Deaths, a U.S. nonprofit group based in Tucson, Ariz., keeps track of the number of deaths that occur each year in the Sonoran Desert. The organization counted 183 deaths from October 2010 through last September.
“Smugglers look at illegal immigrants as a renewable commodity, often leaving them behind to die in the desert without food and water,” said Border Patrol Agent Jason Rheinfrank, a spokesman for the Tucson Sector.
The Tucson Sector has isolated and remote areas that attract human smugglers. They are places far from food, water or any chance of medical treatment.
Rattlesnakes and scorpions are constant threats, but the rugged terrain and the heat are even more dangerous. Rheinfrank said the most common types of medical treatment that Border Patrol administers to illegal immigrants are treatment of dehydration, broken legs, extreme blisters and severed fingers people lose while climbing over the international border fence.
“Smugglers will point at lights in the distance and lie to the illegal immigrants, stating that Phoenix is only a few miles away,” Rheinfrank said. “Illegal immigrants who are unfamiliar with the area believe this and end up walking for five to seven days before loading into a vehicle without proper attire, food or water.”
The distance from the border at Nogales, Arizona to Tucson, the first major metropolitan area north of the border, is 105 kilometers. In the desert, doctors recommend a minimum consumption of 3.8 liters of water per day per person. That weighs 3.6 kilograms, meaning that if a man capable of walking 16 km per day left Nogales in the summer he would need to carry 23 kg of water to make it to Tucson safely.
“All his life his dream, and all the world knew it, was to go to the United States,” said Lisette Abarca, Abdenago’s sister. “From here, a lot of people go to the U.S. They say that of all the Ticos that are there, half of them are from this place.”
Lisette lives with her parents in Barrio Los Angeles, just outside of San Isidro de El General in the Southern zone. Abdenago left from here on July 8 to catch a flight in San José to Cancún, Mexico.
“The day that he left here, I went to drop him off at the bus,” Lisette said. “He asked to me to make sure to take care of our mom and dad. That was what he was thinking about when he left.”
Abdenago was the youngest of 10 children. He and his brothers and sisters grew up working on their father’s farm near Santa Lucia, in the Southern Zone. They planted beans, corn, rice and cassava. The work was hard and it would never make them a rich family, but there was always food on the table.
Abdenago loved motorcycles. He had a small one that he tinkered on while dreaming of making it to the U.S., where he would trade the hard work of the campo for something more – something that would earn him enough money to make things better for his young wife and his growing daughter, Priscilla. He was 22-years-old.
When Abdenago left in July to go to the U.S., his father was recovering from open-heart surgery and Abdenago worried about him. But Abdenago worried about other things, too.
“He wanted Priscilla to be able to study,” Lisette said. “He said, ‘I want her to be able to go to school, but I don’t have the money to pay for it.’ He wanted to go and work for a year, maybe two years to make some money and come back here and be able to have a better life.”
The whole family worried about him, Lisette says. Her parents heard about dangers on the trip – the heat, violent smugglers, bandits and the constant threat of arrest. But Abdenago had heard things, too. A brother of his wife had been in New Jersey for years. He had a roofing business where Abdenago could work. He lent Abdenago the money to make the trip.
Abdenago called home from Tijuana, Mexico after landing in Cancún and travelling overland to meet a pollero, a guide who takes illegal immigrants into the U.S. He and five other young men from Pérez Zeledón stayed for several days crammed into tiny houses arranged for by the human smugglers.
Things didn’t work out in Tijuana. Abdenago told his sister that he and two other men would go to Nogales, Sonora, the Mexican sister city of the U.S. border town of Nogales, Arizona. They would try to cross there with a different pollero.
On Aug. 1 Abdenago called his home from Nogales. Lisette spoke to him at around 11 a.m. He told her that he thought they would be leaving to make the crossing that night. He asked her not to say anything to their mother. He didn’t want her to worry.
“I only spoke with him for maybe six or seven minutes,” Lisette says. “And I asked him how he felt. He said he felt good, but a little bit scared. He told me not to tell mami so that she wouldn’t worry, and that after he crossed he would call her.”
Abdenago never called back.
Next week: A mother looks for answers about her lost son.