“Humanitarian Aid Is Never a Crime”

Volunteers with the humanitarian aid group No More Deaths have been venturing into the harsh Sonoran Desert for years to leave life-saving supplies for migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Longtime volunteer Scott Warren was charged with three felonies for the alleged crime of providing food, water and shelter to migrants. After a hung jury in June, he is now facing retrial on two felony counts and faces a possible 10 years in prison. As he awaits his next trial as well as deals with misdemeanor charges in another case of aiding migrants, 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.


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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, broadcasting from Tucson, as we continue our journey into the Sonoran Desert with humanitarian activist Scott Warren and No More Deaths. Deep into the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, Scott and two other volunteers, Geena Jackson and Paige Corich-Kleim, hiked into the desert over the weekend to leave food and water for migrants.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott, how does it feel to be coming out here to be part of a water drop for the first time since your trial, in over a year?

SCOTT WARREN: It’s good to be back out in the desert, and it’s good to just be having a presence out here again and to be part of that, part of the work that people are doing.

AMY GOODMAN: What are your plans right now? Where are we? And what are you going to do?

PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: We’re in Organ Pipe, and we’re heading in to check on some water drop locations that are just up in these hills here. So, we’re hiking in to check on those areas.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you know about the presence of migrants in this area?

SCOTT WARREN: We’ve spent several years now in these areas doing search and rescue, search and recovery, and doing water drops. And so, we just know that people are moving through these areas. And they’ve been moving through in large numbers for a while. Also, in these mountainous areas, oftentimes there’s trails that people will hike. And so, it’s easy to find those trails and sort of find evidence of where people have gone before. And then, that’s where we try to get humanitarian supplies to people.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you found bodies or bones in these hills?

SCOTT WARREN: Yep. Yeah, we have, unfortunately. Where we’re going, in fact, there’s been several recoveries that we’ve been in involved in, and searches, and people who have died in this area, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you describe this area we’re walking through?

SCOTT WARREN: Sure, an area that’s — from here, we’re probably maybe 15 miles north of the border, as the crow flies. And we’re hiking into these mountains on the west side of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which is Hia-Ced O’odham land and territory. And its Sonoran Desert can be really difficult to walk through, because even these areas that might look like they’re flat, there’s actually quite a bit of terrain and topography, because there’s these washes. So, oftentimes what seems like it could be even just a flat, easy walk is like really strenuous, because you’re dropping down into these deep washes and then climbing back out and then going again and going down into a wash and climbing back out again. So, it can be really difficult to hike through here.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you say what a wash is? A little gully?

SCOTT WARREN: Yeah, it’s a gully, yeah. It’ll have water in it when it rains. But most of the time it’s dry. This is one way where we know where to drop water, which is, we’re on these trails that are pretty distinct and are used by migrants.

AMY GOODMAN: And what were they created by?

SCOTT WARREN: By people, by migrants just walking through here over time and establishing this path.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as you drop — make this water drop, I mean, we are standing here. It’s over 100-degree weather. Just walking for — what? — half an hour, it is so beyond depleting.


AMY GOODMAN: For migrants, some of them walk for days, and it can even be hotter than this.

SCOTT WARREN: Yes. Yep, that’s correct. Yeah, days in this weather. You can’t carry enough water. You know, even if you’re able to carry like four gallons of water, you’ll go through that. And so, people are dependent on finding the few water sources that do exist in this desert, which sometimes you get to a watering hole, and the water can be quite dirty, or it can be dry. So, it’s a really —it’s really risky.

PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: So, whenever we leave water gallons, we write messages on them, just simple things for people to find, partially so that folks know that it’s not Border Patrol like putting out water that’s a trap, and also just to kind of show a level of care and solidarity with people who are making a really dangerous trip. So, we just like write little notes on them and then leave those for people to find.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you going to write?

PAIGE CORICH-KLEIM: I usually write kind of religious notes, so like “Vayan con la fuerza de Dios” or “Que Dios bendiga su camino,” which means “Go with the strength of God” or “May God bless your journey.”

AMY GOODMAN: Geena, can you describe what you’re writing on that bottle?

GEENA JACKSON: For this one, I wrote “¡Ánimo!” and “¡Mantenga la fuerza!” and “¡Sí, se puede!” and words of — I don’t know — words of strength. I don’t know. We’ve asked some of our patients before what would feel good to read on the gallon, or what would be like a nice message, or what — I don’t know — what makes the water seem more trustworthy. And a lot of people have said, like, more religious stuff. And a lot of people have said “¡Animo!” So, “¡Animo!” it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Geena, you’re now laying out canned beans. Why beans?

GEENA JACKSON: So, we lay out the cans that have pop tops, so that people can open them pretty easily. And we want to put out things that have calories in them and also salt. Drinking water is not enough. A lot of dehydration comes from electrolyte imbalance. So, you need like sodium in addition to water. So we want to put out salty food, or beans have calories and is, like, starchy and has sugars, as well. Yeah, just for some caloric intake in addition to the water.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’re putting this in the shade.

GEENA JACKSON: Yeah. Well, so, we want to protect the pop tops, because you can’t get in the beans or any can very easily if you can’t get into it. So, a lot of times I put them upside down, so that birds won’t peck at the shiny part and break the pop top. And also, if it rains, we don’t want water to collect in there, because it will rust the pop top. So, I put those underneath, here. And then, we just want the gallons to be in a shadier area, just to protect the plastic so it doesn’t disintegrate and for the quality of the water. But we’ll come back and check on these drops within like one week, two weeks, three weeks, and then can swap out if anything has gotten old, or if things are used, we’ll pack up the empty gallons and leave fresh ones.

AMY GOODMAN: Is this against the law in these parts?

GEENA JACKSON: Humanitarian aid is never a crime. It is a humanitarian imperative to try and ease the death and suffering in this area. And regardless of government agencies trying to prosecute humanitarian aid workers, we maintain that humanitarian aid is never a crime.

AMY GOODMAN: As you watch this, Scott, what your colleagues are doing, from No More Deaths, do you get to describe this in the courtroom?

SCOTT WARREN: Yeah, I’m just noticing the energy of this moment, and I think maybe because all of us are here, and hearing here my friends describe the messages that they’re writing on the bottles. It’s so routine for us that we do this, but even I forget like how important and like how beautiful and really kind of sacred it is for us. And it’s an honor for us to be able to be out here and do this work, I think.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Scott Warren with No More Deaths. It was his first time in more than a year accompanying a water drop in the desert. He faces a November retrial for helping migrants last year. When we come back, we speak with Robin Reineke, co-founder of Colibrí Center for Human Rights. She identifies the remains of thousands of migrants who have been found in the Sonoran Desert.

Originally Posted on Democracy Now!

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