A Labor of Love, Part 2
by Sister Maria Louise Edwards, CSSF
Associate Leonard Velasquez, his wife Mitchie, and Leonard’s brother Joe drove their pickup, loaded with 50 crosses, to Tustin, CA, to deliver them to Geraldo Campos of Aguilas del Desierto(Eagles of the Desert) on Wednesday, September 19.
Over sopes (tortillas) and burritos, Gerry shared the story of how the Eagles began.
Eight years ago, Ely Ortiz (the gentleman in the hospital that we’ve been praying for) got a call from his brother. He and their cousin were crossing the Arizona desert, from Mexico into the U.S., in hopes of a better life. They had kept up with the coyote who was their guide, but Ely’s brother was concerned about their cousin who was struggling with the harsh conditions.
They decided to slow down to give him a chance to rest. They were never heard from again. Hours later, Ely contacted an organization that helped find people in the desert. After being treated disrespectfully and without compassion, Ely started the Eagles to help those concerned about lost loved ones.
Four months later, Ely did find the bodies of his brother and cousin. Gerry explained that sometimes they locate a missing relative in detention, but more often they check their database and have the sad task of informing them of the death of their loved one. Relatives often ask the group to show them where the body of their loved one was found.
Gerry was so grateful for the crosses. He said placing them at the site where a body was recovered would make it much easier to later guide families to the spot where their loved one died.
Gerry explained that most of the leads they receive come from coyotes crossing the desert. Some of them care about the people they smuggle. They will send the Eagles a text, often with pictures and a location, where a body was located. The Eagles then organize a search, typically in the Arizona desert area. They drive as close as possible to the location, set up tents to camp overnight, and then walk in a group of 13 to about 30 (for protection) searching the area for the body.
Sometimes they encounter travelers in distress, and offer water and first aid. Then, out of respect, they ask the person if they want to continue or call the Border Patrol. Gerry explained that they are there to help out, not be policemen.
Each of the Eagles is very committed to their ministry. As soon as they return home, they are asking each other, when are we going back! Gerry shared the group’s disappointment that they cannot organize more searches, especially because they get so many tips. Each search costs $2500 to $3000 for gas and supplies. Most of the equipment they have was purchased with their own money.
They put their lives at risk to go on a search, but, Gerry said, he believes that everyone should be treated with dignity in life and in death. He apologizes to each person they find, and leaves a piece of his heart behind. He said, “We are so blessed in this country. How can we fault someone who only wanted a better life for his family?”
Stay tuned for the next part of the story, as the sisters in Pomona, CA, and several associates join the Eagles on a search in November.
To read the English transcript of a KPBS news story on the Eagles of the desert, click here.