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  • Forensic anthropologist Jennifer Vollner with bones of a young migrant who died in the Sonoran Desert after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. Nov. 2018.

    Forensic anthropologist Jennifer Vollner with bones of a young migrant who died in the Sonoran Desert after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona. Nov. 2018. | Photo: Reuters

Published 16 January 2019

Four members of the No More Deaths humanitarian organization were convicted in Tucson for leaving food and water in the AZ desert for refugees, authorities say they were littering.

Four volunteers for the humanitarian organization No More Deaths/No Mas Muertos (NMD) based in Southern Arizona were convicted Friday for misdemeanor charges of littering and trespassing in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge along the U.S. Arizona border with Mexico.

“If giving water to someone dying of thirst is illegal, what humanity is left in the law of this country,” said Catherine Gaffney who is also volunteering with the organization.

Another four volunteers are set to go on trial next month over similar charges, according to NDM.

A ninth volunteer, Arizona State University professor, Scott Daniel Warren, is on trial for allegedly harboring and conspiring against the U.S. government.

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All volunteers were leaving food and water for Central American and Mexican refugees and immigrants traveling through the harsh desert refuge making their way to the U.S.

In the trial which started on Tuesday, in Tucson, Arizona the first four volunteers had to face charges brought against them by federal authorities.

No More Deaths says the humanitarians were leaving behind water, food and vital supplies for migrating Central Americans trekking through the harsh national park located about 60 km north of the U.S.-Mexico border near Ajo, Arizona, in order to cross the U.S. border. Volunteers say they were also searching for the bodies of migrants who died in the desert where temperatures can reach over 43 degrees Celsius.

Pima County Medical Examiner Dr. Greg Hess says the remains of many as 2,816 undocumented border crossers were recovered from 2000-2017. NMD puts that number at  6,915 between 1998 and 2016.

The U.S. government since Bill Clinton has taken on the “Prevention Through Deterrence” tactic of preventing migrants from entering the country through urban sectors forcing the vulnerable to take the more difficult routes through the unpopulated mountainous desert that characterizes the U.S. southern border, increasing their risk of injury, dehydration, heat stroke, exhaustion and hypothermia, according to The Guardian.

Journalist and NMD volunteer Ryan Devereaux told Democracy Now that the charges against the nine were filed last year in January immediately after NMD released a report that that showed that the increased number of U.S. Border Patrol agents in these remote border regions routinely destroyed or confiscated aid items left for them.

The 2018 NMD report says that between 2012 to 2015 alone over 3,600 gallons of water were eliminated by border agents over an “800-square-mile corridor” near Ajo, Arizona. The NMD say agents "are responsible for the widespread interference with essential humanitarian efforts," read the report.

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Scott Warren has a felony charge against him of harboring and conspiracy for leaving water, food and clean clothes in the desert. He could face up to 20 years in prison if convicted on all accusations.

“These charges together sort of indicate a crackdown on No More Deaths and a crackdown on humanitarian aid work in the Arizona desert here, that began really as Trump was coming into office in April 2017,” Devereaux said to Democracy Now in a Tuesday interview.

Dr. Sara Vasquez of NMD told supporters gathered outside of the Tucson courtroom Tuesday, "I really worry about the effect on the health of our community — and our nation — if the humanitarian aid work we do is allowed to be criminalized," according to the No More Deaths website.

Judge Bernardo Velasco from the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, is presiding over the case. In mid-December, Warren was trying to get Velasco removed from the trial saying that the judge was having unacceptable communications with government prosecutors.

Warren’s lawyers, Gregory J. Kuykendall and Amy P. Knight, argued that the communications amounted to “improper influence by the government” saying that Velasco “can no longer issue rulings in this case with the appearance of the strict impartiality demanded of our judicial system.”

On Tuesday during the trial, Velasco said, "I think it goes without saying you need water in the desert and without water, you'll die," according to the NMD Facebook page.

The Trump administration has adopted a nationalist, anti-immigrant stance since taking office in 2016. At the southern border he has order the increased militarization in the region, separated Central American families and turned away asylum seekers at legal points of entry. 

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