San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Chasing a Deadly Sueño: A journey across the U.S. border turns fatal for Costa Rican man

See a graph on the number of people from Central America detained by the U.S. Border Patrol for illegal entry into the U.S. Costa Rica is fifth in the region in detainees:

Read the first part of the story.

PÉREZ ZELEDÓN, San José – Carmen Bermúdez is Costa Rica’s consul in the U.S. city of Tucson, Arizona. If a Tico loses his passport or is detained in the desert for illegal entry or other crimes, she gets a call. Bermúdez then arranges for a new passport or deportation.

If the remains of a Tico are found, Bermúdez must contact the family.

The first thing she does when she is contacted either for a living person or in the case of death is to make sure the person is a Costa Rican citizen.

“The first thing is to identify if they are Costa Ricans or not,” Bermúdez said. “A lot of people who are from other places will say they are Ticos because they want to be deported to Costa Rica. I have to check, so the [U.S.] agent will send me the person’s contact information, and [then] I send it to Costa Rica to get their birth certificate.”

Once a person’s identity is confirmed, the process of incarceration or deportation begins. Ticos who are deported are escorted to an airport by immigration officials and put on a commercial flight back to San José.

In the case of human remains, things are more complicated. Remains found in the Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector generally go to the Pima County medical examiner, whose task is to identify them. Clues such as possessions found with a body are a start, but they aren’t enough for a positive identification. If it is suspected that the remains are Costa Rican, Bermúdez is contacted to collect corroborating documents from the family to finalize the identification.

She said that coyotes, or human smugglers, working in Costa Rica sell false dreams to their victims, who are often from poor areas of Costa Rica like Pérez Zeledón.

“If they could talk to people who have already crossed, that would be the greatest testimony,” Bermúdez said.

She hears the stories of people who have paid smugglers to bring them across the border.

“It’s not only the heat, but also the cold,” she said. “You know it snows in the winter, and they are not equipped. Also there are scorpions, rattlesnakes, a lack of food, a lack of water, and drug cartels that will treat them as slaves if they catch them. It is suicide. It is very sad when I talk to people who have been detained and they tell me, ‘I saw the skeleton of a little baby,’ and it’s just horrible. How could a woman take a child into those conditions?”

Bermúdez said she has been contacted to help identify remains twice since 2004. One case was in 2007. The other was last August.

“The medical examiner wrote me an email. It says, ‘We’re still working to ID the body. We don’t necessarily have enough evidence based on the belongings. The remains are skeletal. Identity has not been established.’” 

“The next thing is to have someone from the family send a swab of saliva or hair to perform a DNA test, but they will have to pay for the test.”

 Bermúdez knew to contact Abdenago Abarca’s family in Pérez Zeledón, a Southern Zone canton, because his cédula, or Costa Rican ID card, was found with the remains that are now in the Pima County medical examiner’s office. But a cédula is not proof. Dental records are proof, but Abdenago didn’t have dental records. A DNA test is proof, but DNA tests are expensive.

Five Days

On Aug. 6, one of the men who went north with Abdenago called Abdenago’s parents’ house. Five days had passed and his parents were already worried. The border crossing should not have taken more than two or three days. Abdenago should have called already.

The man who called, Guillermo, told them he set out on foot to cross the Mexico-U.S. border on Aug. 1 with Abdenago, Abdenago’s brother-in-law Ademar, other immigrants and the pollero, a smuggler who Guillermo believes was 16 or 17.

They walked through desert during the day because the pollero was new and didn’t know the route well. 

“Abdenago told me that he had been told they would only have to walk an hour or

maybe an hour and a half,” Abdenago’s sister, Lisette Abarca, said. “My brother was chunky and he was always scared of that, … he knew he needed to drink a lot of water. But the polleros told him that they would only have to walk a short [distance], and then a car would pick them up.”

Instead, they walked three days, mostly in the sun. None of the crossers carried much water, Guillermo told Abdenago’s family, because they didn’t think they would have to go so far.

By Wednesday night, Abdenago was in trouble. They had been without water for more than a day.

When they stopped to rest, he fell down. He felt cold.

The average temperature in the Sonoran Desert south of Tucson during the first week of August is 36 degrees Celsius (97 degrees Fahrenheit).

“He told them that he was so cold,” Lisette said. “He said: ‘I know I won’t make it because I feel so bad, and I’m cold.’”

Guillermo and Ademar rubbed his body to warm him through the night, but in the morning Abdenago couldn’t get up.

“Thursday was the day he died,” Lisette said. “They said that when they got up in the morning he couldn’t get up, and they had to help him stand up and push him along behind the rest of the group. They said he asked the pollero to give them five minutes to rest.”

The guide allowed a rest, and Abdenago sat in the shade and pulled off his shirt to wring sweat from it. He let it drip into his mouth. Members of the group had already been drinking their own urine in the absence of any water, but when Abdenago tried to urinate that day he was too dehydrated. 

The guide ordered the group to move again. Anyone who wasn’t at the pick-up point when the car arrived would be left on their own in the desert, he said.

“Here, everyone is for themselves,” the smuggler told Guillermo and Ademar when they tried to help. “Leave him.”

Abdenago asked them to leave him. He wanted to lie down.

“Go on,” he told them. “I can’t do it.”


Lisette Abarca holds a portrait of her missing brother, Abdenago Abarca.

Alberto Font

Guillermo and Ademar left him and followed after the rest of the group. A little further on, Guillermo fell and could not move.

Ademar joined the rest of the group under a bridge by a highway. The pollero said it was the pick-up point – they had made it. There was water in the creek that ran under the bridge.

Ademar waited, but the car never arrived. He found some discarded cups, filled them in the creek and went back for his friends, despite the pollero’s warnings that they would be left behind if the pick-up car arrived while they were gone.

He found Guillermo still alive and gave him water. He helped him back to the bridge where he refilled the water and set off again to find Abdenago.

But Abdenago couldn’t move or talk. 

He couldn’t swallow the water Ademar poured into his mouth.

“Out there nobody is looking out for anybody else,” Ademar told Abdenago’s family. “I tried to help him as much as I could, but we left him there.”

The pollero kept them under the bridge until Friday, waiting for a car that never arrived. Then, he marched what was left of his wards back to Mexico. They crossed the border back into Nogales.

 Guillermo stayed a few days in Nogales and then returned to Costa Rica. Ademar tried to cross the border again, this time in Texas, and was detained by the Border Patrol.

Abdenago stayed in the desert.



“As a mother, I always have doubts,” said Luz Hidalgo, Abdenago’s mother.

The body they have in Arizona could be Abdenago, she said. But it is also possible that the coyotes could be holding him somewhere. Abdenago might not have died the way she’s been told. He could have been murdered by the coyotes. She has many doubts.

The only way to begin to know is a DNA test. A member of the family in Costa Rica has to provide a sample to be checked against DNA left in the remains in Arizona. If the DNA proves that the body belongs to Abdenago, she will know. Then the other questions can start to have answers.

When Guillermo and Ademar called the family on Aug. 7, they passed the phone to one of the polleros. He gave Lisette a description of the area where he said her brother’s body could be found.

But when she described the location to U.S. authorities, who searched the area, they didn’t find him. Later, a body was recovered in a different location. Abdenago’s cédula and personal belongings were on the body.

“The only thing left,” Lisette said, “is that they can tell us for sure that it is him. I’m sure that it is. They found his things, they even asked about the type and color of his underwear, and they found some marks on his teeth that mother told them to look for. They need to do the DNA test to be sure.”

DNA testing isn’t cheap. Depending on the type of DNA necessary for identification, the tests can cost upward of $1,000 or even $2,000. That’s money that Abdenago’s family doesn’t have.

“We’re not a family of millionaires,” Lisette said. “We work, and, thank God, we’ve never lacked for rice or beans on our table, but we don’t have much money.”

Abdenago’s mother can’t stop thinking about the possibilities.

“I think about all those things,” she said. “You always think maybe he was killed or maybe he died from thirst or got sick, or maybe it’s not him. And you don’t have the money to be able to be sure.”

For now, it seems, she will have to live with her doubt.

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