AThe coronavirus passed through the Valley of Paradise, a backwater flanked by a farm in the Brazilian Amazon, Lenilda dos Santos, a nurse technician, stood on the front line, shaking hands most feared to touch.
“She was a warrior during the pandemic,” said Lucineide Oliveira, a friend and colleague at the town’s understaffed small hospital. “She said, ‘If we are to die, we will die. But we have to fight.
But one morning in early August, as the two women sat at the entrance to their Covid ward, Lenilda announced she was leaving. ” When? Lucineide asked her friend. “Soon,” Lenilda replied, adding words of comfort: “I will be back. “
Two days later Lenilda, 49, walked out of town in front of a sculpture of a Bible open to Psalm 121. “The Lord will keep you from all evil – he will watch over your life,” the inscription reads. .
She never came back. Five weeks later and more than 4,000 miles to the north, US Border Patrol agents found Lenilda’s body in the desert near the town of Deming, New Mexico. She was curled up in a mesquite bush, wearing light brown tactical boots and military fatigues, and had nothing with her except a blue Brazilian passport tucked away in a fanny pack.
The incident report said she was “positioned as if she was lying on her right side with her legs slightly bent and her hands covering her face.”
Capt Michael Brown, one of the law enforcement officers there, said: “I’ll be honest with you, this particular case has probably hit me harder than any other case I’ve had with it. migrants in the desert. I just felt sick for her.
The nature of Lenilda’s death wasn’t the only thing that shocked the officer. His nationality was also unusual in an area where most cruisers are from Mexico or Central America.
“He was the first Brazilian person I met, alive or dead,” said Brown, who has worked on the US-Mexico border for 26 years. “This obviously says that the conditions from which it comes are becoming as bad as they are everywhere else. “
A coronavirus-era depression leads to another perilous exodus from South America as middle and lower class families flee financial hardship, unemployment and inflation caused by the health crisis.
“The region of the world that most affected total economic output in 2020 was Latin America – a drop of 7%. That’s about what you’d expect from a year of civil war in a typical country, ”said Michael Clemens, migration expert at the Center for Global Development.
Other factors include the American recovery, the smothering of most legal migration channels under Donald Trump, and the mistaken belief among migrants that Joe Biden would be less hostile than his predecessor.
Many of those who abandoned South America are Haitians who fled to countries like Brazil and Chile after their homeland was hit by a deadly earthquake in 2010. Covid uprooted them again, along with more than 90,000 Haitians marching in the Darién Gap, a treacherous passage in the jungle. between Colombia and Panama, to the United States this year.
But a growing number of South Americans are also on the move. More than 46,000 Brazilians were detained at the southern border of the United States between October 2020 and August 2021, when Lenilda began her last trip, down from less than 18,000 in 2019 and 284 a decade earlier. The number of Ecuadorians has also skyrocketed, with nearly 89,000 apprehended over the same period, up from around 13,000 in 2019.
“It’s hard to overestimate how for some people this was a livelihood destructive recession… Covid has pushed everything back,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. “It really took us 30 or 40 years back to a time when South America’s economies were really fragile. “
Relatives say Lenilda, who spent three years working as a housekeeper in Columbus, Ohio from 2004 to 2007, began planning for her escape from Brazil earlier this year after a grueling stint battling Covid to the hospital for only 1,100 reais (£ 145) per month.
“What can you do with 1,100 reais?” Her daughter, Genifer Oliveira dos Santos asked, as she sat on the veranda of her mother’s bungalow on Paradise Avenue, a few doors down from the hospital.
Genifer, 28, said her mother planned to return to Ohio, where she still had friends and family, to help fund her two daughters to college.
In April, Lenilda flew to Mexico and surrendered to U.S. immigration officials near the town of Mexicali, hoping they would allow her to stay while her asylum claim was processed. Instead, she was arrested and spent three months in a detention center similar to an Immigration and Customs (Ice) warehouse in Calexico before being deported to Brazil in July.
“It was pretty cruel,” said his brother Leci Pereira. But Lenilda was determined to return.
Less than a month later, on August 12, she left Vale do Paraíso for the second time. She flew to Mexico City and headed for another stretch of the border after agreeing to pay smugglers $ 25,000 (£ 18,000) to guide her through the desert from Ascensión, Mexico. from Chihuahua, to a safe house in Deming.
“She said it would take two days and two nights, because it’s a long way – over 50 km,” Genifer said.
In the early morning hours of Monday, September 6, Lenilda heads for the American border with three childhood friends and a smuggler. “She was really confident. She looked so happy, ”said Genifer, who recalls being assured that her mother would arrive on Thursday.
Things quickly took a turn for the worse, however, as the group trudged north through mountainous terrain in conditions that Brown said would have been punitive. “July to mid-September is monsoon season for us, so we’re dealing with summer temperatures in the desert -om the mid-90s – and… I guess probably 70% of humidity or more, ”he said. “So it was extraordinarily hot. “
Brown suspects Lenilda has fallen behind due to exhaustion and dehydration. “There was no water found near her … and [in the] Better circumstances in this region, at this time of the year and at this temperature, it would not have lasted more than three days without water.
Monday afternoon, Lenilda’s family believe she was abandoned as her companions continued on their way. Panicked, she turned on her cell phone to ask for help from loved ones. “Ask them to bring me some water,” Leci recalled of her pleading sister in a WhatsApp voicemail message. ” I’m dying of thirst.
Lenilda shared her location live, and over the next few hours, distraught parents thousands of miles away in the Amazon tracked her movements through a desolate hinterland inhabited mostly by coyotes, cattle and ground squirrels. .
Then, at 3:08 p.m. local time on Tuesday, the orange circle marking Lenilda’s position stopped moving. “That’s when we realized she hadn’t been successful,” Leci said. “She saved so many lives, only to go to Mexico and lose her own. “
It would take the police another eight days to locate Lenilda’s remains. “It’s always a horrible thing to find. Your heart goes out to them. They’re just trying to find a new life, ”said Brown, who believed the victim was about to find help.
“If she had reached 400 meters to the north, she probably could have made contact with someone who lives in a trailer. “
Lenilda’s death rocked Vale do Paraíso, a tight-knit farming community that was itself founded by migrants when Brazil’s military dictatorship razed a highway through the rainforest 50 years ago. A black ribbon was hung at the entrance to the hospital in recognition of Lenilda’s services during the pandemic. “She was loved so much,” Pereira said. “The whole town is in mourning.
He urged Brazilians to consider the dangers of joining the exodus. “My sister, poor thing, she’s gone in pursuit of a dream. But this dream was interrupted. What about our dreams? Look what happened to them now.
But while South America is in shock, such calls seem likely to fall on deaf ears. “I know six or seven couples who have been there last week, all with their children, even after what happened,” said Genifer, who believes soaring food and fuel prices are part of the reason why so many people are leaving.
In the city’s now empty Covid unit, Lucineide recalled trying to talk Lenilda out of going. The couple had dreamed of opening a wound clinic together once Lenilda, who would have turned 50 this week, returned home.
“Oh, my friend,” Lucineide whispered, staring up at the ceiling with bloodshot eyes of disbelief.