Activist Scott Warren, facing federal charges for aiding migrants, says he won’t be deterred

Warren, a longtime volunteer with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, was charged with three felony counts for his alleged crime of providing food, water and shelter to migrants in Ajo, Arizona.

SOURCEDemocracy Now!

We broadcast live from Tucson, Arizona, where the government recently put humanitarian activist Scott Warren on trial amid the ongoing policing of the U.S.-Mexico border, separation of families, and cruel and inhumane conditions at immigrant jails across the country. Warren, a longtime volunteer with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, was charged with three felony counts for his alleged crime of providing food, water and shelter to migrants in Ajo, Arizona. The immigrants had arrived at the doorstep of a humanitarian shelter after a perilous journey across the Sonoran Desert. At the same time, he and other volunteers also faced separate misdemeanor charges for leaving water jugs and food for migrants on a national wildlife refuge in the remote desert. The trial took eight days, and after hours of deliberation, the jury returned without a verdict. Eight found Scott Warren not guilty; the remaining four said he was. The government will now retry Warren in November. If convicted, he faces up to 10 years in prison. As he awaits his next trial, Democracy Now! followed him into the Sonoran Desert for his first trip in a year accompanying other No More Deaths volunteers who left water and food for migrants making the treacherous journey north.


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we’re broadcasting from Tucson, Arizona. Just under three months ago, an unprecedented trial took place here. Amidst a catastrophic immigration crisis at the border, ongoing family separation, and cruel and inhumane conditions at immigrant jails across the country, the government put humanitarian activist Scott Warren on trial here in Tucson. His crime? Helping migrants who had arrived on the doorstep of a humanitarian shelter in Ajo, Arizona, seeking help after a perilous journey across the Sonoran Desert. The government charged Scott Warren, a longtime volunteer with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths, with three felony counts, including conspiracy, for providing food, water and shelter to 23-year-old Kristian Perez-Villanueva from El Salvador and 20-year-old José Sacaria-Goday of Honduras. All three men were arrested January 17, 2018. If convicted on all charges, Warren faced 20 years in prison. At the same time, he and other No More Deaths volunteers also faced separate misdemeanor charges for leaving water jugs and food for migrants on a national wildlife refuge in the remote desert.

The trial here in Tucson took eight days. Warren and other No More Deaths volunteers provided hours of testimony on desert conditions and the policies that push migrants deeper into the deadly region each year. After hours of deliberation, the jury returned without a verdict. Eight of the 12 jurors found Scott Warren not guilty. The government will now retry Warren in November, though they’ve dropped the conspiracy charge against him, will try him on two felony migrant harboring charges. If convicted, Scott Warren faces up to 10 years in prison.

As he awaits his next trial, Warren met us in the remote town of Ajo, Arizona, this weekend to show us firsthand the work he does with No More Deaths in the treacherous Sonoran Desert, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Since 2001, the remains of over 3,000 migrants who died in southern Arizona have been found. That’s an average of more than 150 dead a year. But immigrant rights activists say the number may be closer to 10,000. We joined Scott Warren and other No More Deaths volunteers for his first trip in a year as they made a water drop in the desert.

SCOTT WARREN: We are in the center of town here, just south of the plaza, and we are at our newly opened humanitarian aid office. The office is really here to support what’s been a long tradition, in this town and many other places in the borderlands, of providing humanitarian aid — water and food and things like that — to people who are coming through our communities.

AMY GOODMAN: So, today, we’re going to go into the desert with you. And this is the first time you’ll be doing this since the trial?

SCOTT WARREN: Yeah. We’ll go into the desert today on a little tour and see some of the areas that people are walking through or migrating through, and some of the areas that No More Deaths and Samaritans and various other humanitarian aid groups do their work in.

AMY GOODMAN: So, why don’t we go into the office? And I saw a map there. Can you introduce yourself?

PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: Yeah. My name is Paige Corich-Kleim, and I’m our media coordinator, and I’ve been volunteering since 2013.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us where we’re going to go today?

PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: Absolutely. So, right now we’re in the Ajo aid office, right here, in the town of Ajo. And we’re going to drive south out of town and take a right on a road that starts as Darby Well Road but then turns into what is called the Devil’s Highway, and it continues all the way to Yuma, and it’s a pretty well-known road. There was a book written about it, about some migrants who died in that area. But we’re going to follow the road south, right here.

AMY GOODMAN: That book was?

PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: The Devil’s Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea. And it was about a group of migrants that actually died on the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. So, we’ll be south of where that book took place.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Scott, tell us where we’re going.

SCOTT WARREN: We’re headed out into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and we’re going to do a big loop and check on some water drop locations that we maintain out in the desert.

AMY GOODMAN: And water drops are?

SCOTT WARREN: Water drops are the places where we leave food and water and other humanitarian supplies for people who are walking through the desert and would otherwise be without those things.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott, can you describe what’s happening? We see a Border Patrol van up ahead. What is it?

SCOTT WARREN: Oh, yeah. We just — there is some Border Patrol activity in this area, which is not unusual. This is definitely one of the areas of a lot of enforcement and one of the areas that we do our humanitarian aid work in. So, we’re entering into the Growler Valley, which is this big valley coming up here, and that’s also a very active area, so…

PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: Well, let’s throw some water here.

AMY GOODMAN: Paige, can you tell us what you’re doing?

PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: Yeah. So, there’s a rescue beacon right behind us, and so we’re just going to leave a couple gallons there. So, if anybody sees the beacon and walks toward it, they’ll find some water.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s a rescue beacon?

PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: So, a rescue beacon are these towers that are made by Border Patrol. And they have a button on them, where if somebody goes up and pushes it, Border Patrol will come and, what they call, rescue, but what is actually detaining them. But the beacons don’t have water at them, so when we drive by them, we leave some, so that if people see them, they’ll be able to get some water.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re leaving water and?

PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: And just a couple cans of beans, so there’s some food here, as well. Rescue beacons are something that Border Patrol, in all of the trials, have really talked about as their efforts to save lives. But they actually don’t have any data showing how effective they are. And we’ve actually — the one time that they released data, it showed how many times the buttons were pushed and how many rescues they resulted in. And in the Yuma sector, rescue beacons were activated a couple thousand times, and it resulted in, I think, four rescues.

This one, you can’t really tell, but some of them, you can see — there used to be a red cross on them, like on the sticker, and the Red Cross actually told Border Patrol that they had to remove that, because Border Patrol is not a humanitarian aid group that’s associated with the Red Cross. So, it used to have that kind of international symbol of help, and it was removed.

SCOTT WARREN: We’re in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and we’re approaching the boundary with the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. And right on that boundary line between the park and the refuge is what they call Boundary Camp, which is a Border Patrol forward operating base. So, it’s attached to the Ajo Border Patrol station, and they use this as a base in the wilderness here, essentially, to conduct patrols in this Growler Valley area.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ve stopped here, Scott. Why? Why aren’t we going right into the refuge?

SCOTT WARREN: Well, I can’t set foot into the refuge right now. And as you mentioned, Amy, that’s because of the misdemeanor charges that I face that are related to the provision of humanitarian aid on the refuge. And then I also face felony charges for the, what the government calls, harboring of migrants. So, we’re here on the boundary. We’ll continue south through Organ Pipe and check on some water drop locations in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. But we won’t actually go onto the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

AMY GOODMAN: The government was forced to drop conspiracy charges against you for helping migrants, but the felony charges of helping them remain. It shocked many, because it was a hung jury. Eight of the jurors said they would have acquitted you. But the government decided to move forward with this case. So why do you persist? This is the first time you’ve come out on the range since your trial, the first trial, and yet you’re here with your group delivering water.

SCOTT WARREN: It’s part of just regular work that we do out here, to check on these water drops and just to be a presence and to witness what’s happening out in the desert. It’s very remote out here. And one of the things that we do is just being a presence out here in case we do run into people. And to be a witnessing presence, as well, is really important. So, being out here is a good thing, and it’s just something that those of us who live in Ajo and do this work really feel compelled to be out here, this time of year especially.

AMY GOODMAN: As we drove here, and we’re right next to the Border Patrol forward operating base, I mean, it sounds like a war, but so do the casualties, No More Deaths having encountered the disintegrating bodies of migrants, the bones of migrants who had died much earlier, not far from where we’re standing right now, your group.

SCOTT WARREN: Yeah, that’s right. You mentioned the casualties here, both the people who have died, migrants that really have been sort of forced out into these remote and rugged areas, for decades now, as a result of prevention through deterrence, the way that the border is enforced. So, there’s the direct impact on people who have died, people who have suffered out here, people who have been disappeared, and then the ripple effects of their families, the trauma that that creates. The traumatic experience of this is another way that it can feel like a conflict or like a war zone. I don’t like the war zone rhetoric that you typically hear politicians use, because it’s deployed to increase militarization and building of walls. But it’s appropriate when you think about the trauma that people have faced as they cross through these areas, and the trauma that their families experience and the pain.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about this forward operating base of the Border Patrol, who come out here, stay for days, in rotation. Actually, this wasn’t built during the Trump years, but under President Obama.

SCOTT WARREN: Yeah. There have been different versions of a forward operating base on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument for probably at least a decade or so. But this one that you see here, it’s very established, is fairly recent, probably within the last five to seven years. It’s built on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It’s —

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is a military base built in a national park.

SCOTT WARREN: A military base built in a national park on Hia-Ced O’odham land and territory.

AMY GOODMAN: On Native American territory.

SCOTT WARREN: On Native American territory. So, the levels of dispossession are many here of the indigenous people that have always lived here, and this has always been their territory. So, it’s layers upon layers, really, of dispossession and pushing people off the land.

AMY GOODMAN: Just as we got out of our car here, just as we — you know, here we are at Organ Pipe, but we’re not going on to Cabeza Prieta, because that’s not safe for you — a helicopter flew overhead. Talk about the significance of these helicopters. Who controls that plane?

SCOTT WARREN: Those are CBP helicopters, U.S. Customs and Border [Protection]. And they are out here looking for people. And they fly really all up and down this valley and through these mountains and in different areas. And on the one hand, they can come across people, you know, who want to get rescued. They want to get apprehended. People might set like a signal fire or something or be desperately trying to signal because they’ve run out of water and they want to be, at that point — you know, they’ve come to the end, and they are doing everything they can to get themselves rescued. Those helicopters are also, though, part of prevention through deterrence. So, they will also end up scattering groups of people. They can chase groups of people, further sort of disorient folks. And that’s really the brutality of it, you know, is that —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain that, the scattering. I mean, there is the famous book, The Devil’s Highway. And if you can talk, back then, what happened and how that continues to today?

SCOTT WARREN: It’s part of a larger sort of enforcement strategy of the border, which is prevention through deterrence, so to really increase hardships on people, with the hopes that people will basically give themselves up. So, on the sort of biggest scale of the border, that looks like building walls and fences in urban areas and pushing people out into the Growler Valley and rugged and remote places like this, where it’s very difficult to cross. On more micro levels, that can be, like we were talking about, with a helicopter, that might cause a group to scatter.

AMY GOODMAN: And what does that mean?

SCOTT WARREN: That means seeing a group of people and flying close to them, flying low to them.

AMY GOODMAN: And they scatter, but what does it mean for them, for the migrants?

SCOTT WARREN: For people who are scattered by that, it can mean death.

AMY GOODMAN: If you could quickly summarize? You’re actually facing — you’re involved in two separate trials right now.

SCOTT WARREN: That’s right, yeah. I have the — I’m facing misdemeanor charges resulting from humanitarian aid work that we did particularly in the summer of 2017, providing water and food and doing search and rescue and recovery work on Cabeza Prieta. So, the charges I’m facing with that include operating a motor vehicle in a wilderness area and abandonment of property. And the other charges I’m facing are from a separate incident, and that’s — those are the felony charges of harboring, which resulted from an incident that happened in January of 2018, when I was arrested with two men from Central America, José and Kristian, at a property in Ajo called the Barn. And so they charged José and Kristian with illegal entry, and they charged me with harboring.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the jury was a hung jury on that?

SCOTT WARREN: That’s right, yeah, the jury was a hung jury in the first trial. And then the government initially had also charged me with conspiracy, though they dropped the conspiracy charge, and now they’re just pursuing the two harboring charges.

AMY GOODMAN: By dragging out these two cases, are they in fact, whether you are acquitted or not in these two cases, getting what they want, preventing you from speaking fully or going to all the places that you went to help migrants?

SCOTT WARREN: Yeah, it’s a good question. I don’t know what their purpose is, frankly. You would have to ask them what sort of the goal of all of this is. It’s really unclear, I think. But certainly, you know, I have been affected by it — my life, my partner and my family and my friends. And at the same time, there is a lot of awareness and a lot of people that want to help, because of — because of the level of awareness around this, as well. So, it’s ironically had the effect of also bringing a lot of people here who want to do something to help.

AMY GOODMAN: And it clearly looks like it’s across the political spectrum, about humanitarianism, I mean, all of this happening against the backdrop of the separated families, of the children dying in Border Patrol custody, one by one. I mean, since you were first charged, scores of migrants have died. What is the count? From something like 2000 to now, 3,000 migrants have died. That’s averaging what? A hundred fifty migrants a year.

SCOTT WARREN: Right, and that number is for Arizona. For what we know, borderwide, including South Texas and California, it’s much, much larger. And those are numbers of people who have been found.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe this Border Patrol van to us, that just passed?

SCOTT WARREN: That’s a pretty typical Border Patrol truck that’s been used here. And they’re rigged up in that way to carry people they’ve apprehended, detainees. So that’s what that cage is on the back. It can seat — I don’t know how many — people on the back of that, but that’s what they’re for.

AMY GOODMAN: Also at this forward operating base, we see a cage. So, explain what happens, from cage to cage.

SCOTT WARREN: That’s right, yeah. People will be apprehended in the field, typically, and then put into a truck like that or another vehicle. And then they can be brought here to this forward operating base. And there’s a sort of garage door and an enclosed fence area, where they can be offloaded and then put into the facility inside, which is a detention facility. And then, from there, they get taken to the Ajo Border Patrol station, which is probably another one to two hours’ drive on dirt roads to get back to the highway, further processed there, and then, from the Ajo Border Patrol station, taken to the Tucson sector headquarters.

AMY GOODMAN: So, at this forward operating base, tell us how many border agents are here. And how has it grown over time?

SCOTT WARREN: In the Ajo station, there’s something like 400 to 500 agents that work out of there. And it’s grown significantly. In the early 1990s, there were something like two dozen agents at the Ajo Border Patrol station. And that station has the capacity of up to 900 agents. So, that could be the number that could be there, I suppose. So it’s grown significantly in the past couple of decades.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you plan to do from here on in? I mean, you face a trial, and you face this other case, as well.

SCOTT WARREN: Yeah. Unfortunately, it’s become somewhat normalized, I think, this litigation and sort of waiting for trials. And so, we’ll continue to wait, and I’ll do what I can. And I’m being just held and carried by so many good people and so much support, and so I’m extremely lucky to have that as I face a felony trial. I think I’m probably the most supported person that’s ever been in a situation like this.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Geena Jackson, who’s with No More Deaths. Geena, talk about this terrain and what this means for migrants.

GEENA JACKSON: Sure. So, where we are in the Sonoran Desert, it’s one of the hottest and driest parts of the country — I mean, of the world. And because of government policies, like prevention through deterrence, migrants who are crossing the border are actually funneled into some of the deadliest parts of this terrain. Where we are right now is kind of emblematic of the mountain ranges in this area. These are the Growler Mountains over here. And then, where we’re standing is actually the Growler Valley. It’s really flat, and there’s not much signs of any other humans or civilization. So, to get lost in this area, there’s not a lot of places to go for help.

AMY GOODMAN: And where do people come over the border to get here?

GEENA JACKSON: So, it varies. A lot of people start at a town just south of Lukeville-Sonoyta crossing. Sonoyta is the town. And —


GEENA JACKSON: In Mexico, yeah, in Sonora. And some people leave from the town itself. And some people are dropped off or walk some distance outside of the town. From Sonoyta, which is pretty close to the U.S.-Mexico border, about 40 miles north, there’s a checkpoint. And then there’s the town of Ajo. And then, another 40 miles north, there’s another checkpoint. And that’s the only paved road in the area. So, migrants leaving from Sonoyta are not just walking outside of the little bit of border wall that is outside of the city center and then pushes people deeper into the desert, but then people also are walking deeper into the desert to get around the checkpoint, not just the first checkpoint but two checkpoints. The second checkpoint is about 80 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, which makes this journey over a hundred miles.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us where we are south of right now and the significance of the kind of final mountain in the Growler range, where that is.

GEENA JACKSON: From here to where that peak is continues to be Cabeza Prieta, the national wildlife refuge. Past that peak starts the Barry M. Goldwater bombing range, which is shared by the Marines and the Air Force. And it’s an active bombing range. And there’s also proving grounds out there.

AMY GOODMAN: This is named after the senator, the former presidential candidate.

GEENA JACKSON: Yeah. So, past that peak in the distance, which is the last really distinctive peak that we can see from here, then begins the bombing range, which has no public access and which our humanitarian aid organizations have only gotten access to once in the many years of doing this work. And when we did get access to that area, we found many human remains, in just the couple of hours we had in the land restriction.


GEENA JACKSON: So, there, in this area, we record the human remains that are found. It’s not a good indicator of the total human lives lost, but just the human remains that are found, which is limited because of our limited access to this area. This is the only public access road until all the way up there on the other side of the mountains. That is the next public access road that you’re even allowed on.

We can hike in this area with permits from Cabeza Prieta. In June — in July 2017, Cabeza changed their permits to add a clause that specifically said that leaving food, water, blankets, medical care — specific language to our work — would now be in violation of the permit. So, it’s put us in a place where to do our work, we need to violate a wildlife refuge permit.

The bombing range is completely closed to public access. In one incident, another search-and-rescue group got permission to be escorted onto the range to do a search and rescue with a bombing range escort. And in just a couple of hours, they found over 10 human remains on the bombing range. If you look at the maps of recorded human remains, there are no recorded remains anywhere on the bombing range, which we know is obviously not true, because in the few hours we’ve had access to that land, we found a dozen. So, it can be presumed that many, many people have lost their lives on that land. And we can’t recover their bodies or even like know just how great this humanitarian crisis is.

AMY GOODMAN: The journalist John Carlos Frey alleges there are mass graves under the Goldwater bombing range.

GEENA JACKSON: Yeah, I would agree with that. I mean, just in this area, when we first started exploring along the west side of this range, I mean, days would go by where we’ll find three, four human remains just in one day, after spending many, many days out there hiking. The loss of human life is immense. And the number of people in the U.S. and in other places who have disappeared family members and don’t have any closure of knowing what happened to them is also massive. But for where we are right now in the Growler Valley, this is still south of the bombing range. So, if there’s that number of human remains here in this valley, we can only imagine how many more people are dying 40 miles further north.

AMY GOODMAN: Geena Jackson, as we stood in the Sonoran Desert in southern Arizona. When we come back, she, Paige Corich-Kleim and Scott Warren go on a water drop. It’s Scott’s first time in more than a year. He faces a November retrial for helping migrants last year. Stay with us.


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