Main content

Border South

To stem the immigration tide, Mexico and the U.S. collaborate to crack down on migrants, forcing them into ever more dangerous territory.

Every year hundreds of thousands of migrants make their way along the trail running from southern Mexico to the US border. Gustavo's gunshot wounds from Mexican police, which have achieved abundant press attention, might just earn him a ticket out of Nicaragua. Meanwhile anthropologist Jason De León painstakingly collects objects left behind by migrants on the trail, which have their own stories to tell. Fragmented stories from Hondurans crossing through southern Mexico assemble a vivid portrait of the thousands of immigrants who disappear along the trail.

BORDER SOUTH reveals the immigrants' resilience, ingenuity, and humor as it exposes a global migration system that renders human beings invisible in life as well as death.

'Compassionate...Vivid...We receive the message strongly that these are ordinary people expected to do extraordinary things...This is skillful film-making, not to present the migrants as heroes, but just as people with mundane plans and dreams like the rest of us.' Charlie Phillips, The Guardian

'Gustavo's story is fascinating; it's a perspective that's been vilified by the media, and Paz Pastrana seeks to treat him with respect and dignity when giving him a platform to speak...Border South is all about putting a human face to the South American migrant, an important action at this critical time.' Musanna Ahmed, Film Inquiry

'The dangers and threats they face are daunting, but equally evident is the range of personalities, the ingenuity and the creativity they bring...Border South's many small, revealing moments evidence the power of documentary, to tell us what is left out of even excellent researched reporting on this urgently topical issue.' Patricia Aufderheide, International Documentary Association

'A mesmerizing, gritty, and deeply caring portrait of the harsh realities of migration and deaths on the US/Mexico divide. Border South forces viewers to look startlingly close at human beings shot at, trafficked, and abused in their effort to provide for their families. It also shows what the Undocumented Migration Project is doing to address this human rights crisis. This is a spellbinding depiction of the popular slogan: Migrar es amar(To migrate is to love).' Charlie D. Thompson, Jr., Professor of Cultural Anthropology, Duke University, Author, Border Odyssey: Travels Along the US/Mexico Divide, Director, Brother Towns/Pueblos Hermanos

'Border South is an educational film on immigration that students will never forget. It tells the stories of real people crossing the U.S./Mexico border seeking a better life. Navigating danger on trains and hot and desolate deserts, these migrants literally risk life-and-death in pursuit of a better life.' Kevin R. Johnson, Dean, UC Davis School of Law, Co-Editor, ImmigrationProf Blog, Co-Author, Opening the Floodgates? Why America Needs to Rethink Its Border and Immigration Laws

'Essential watching for those wishing to better understand the violence and trauma of the border experience...While the film's focus is on the small and personal, Border South also ensures that the broader political economy that underpins the necessity of migration remains squarely on the horizon.' Jared Margulies, Department of Politics, University of Sheffield

'[A] vital perspective...Border South gives voice to those who have been silenced...Without sanitizing the horrors of life on the trail, Pastrana shows the resilience of those many thousands who are forced to make an impossible choice in the hope of a better future.' Sophie Maxwell, One Room With A View

'An insightful, moving and utterly raw survivalist take on the most crucial issue of our times...An intense, compassionate and provocative diary of an uncertain quest for the future.' Roger Costa, Brazilian Press


Main credits

Paz Pastrana, Raúl O. (film director)
Paz Pastrana, Raúl O. (director of photography)
Paz Pastrana, Raúl O. (film producer)
De León, Jason (film producer)
Girón Pérez, Cecilia (film producer)

Other credits

Editor, Ellen Knechel.

(train running on tracks)
(train whistle blows)
(men speaking Spanish)
(train running on tracks and people shouting)
(man speaking Spanish)
(train running on tracks)
(people speaking Spanish)
(pots clanking)
(people speaking Spanish)
(train running on tracks)
(car beeping)
Fucking coffee.
(radio playing in Spanish)
- Good, how are you?
- I'm doing great, thank you.
Just the three of you?
- Yup.
(agent speaking away from mic)
- Okay, have a good day.
- Thanks
- [Agent] Bye Bye.
(camera clicks)
We're pretty far north at this point.
We're close enough that people are getting ready to get picked up
and so that's why you're starting to see lots of clothes
and other items being left behind.
- [Woman] What are the coordinates?
31, 37, 18.9 north.
111, 20, 18.8.
- I mean this, that  is turning into nothing.
Totally deteriorating
See this?
It used to look like that.
And that's how quickly the sun will break this stuff down.
In 20 years of stuff will all be gone,  it'll be totally erased.
(dog barking)
(men speaking Spanish)
- No.
(men speaking Spanish)
(men shouting and celebrating)
(men speaking Spanish)
(people speaking spanish)
(train running on tracks)
(man speaking Spanish)
(train running on tracks)
(man speaking Spanish)
- [Child] Wow.
- [Man] Hey, be good.
You want a big one?
It's your choice,
- What is my choice?
- [Man] This one, these are the best, these are like superhero fans.
- These, I want these.
- [Man] Okay, put 'em on, and what shirt do you want (mumbles)?
- Ah, poking blood.
Oh, I don't think we have that one.
Put this on.
All right, let's just take a look.
It sucks, some of this stuff is so fragile, so you just don't want to take ...
[00:17:41.400] out.
I think this guy, this was all found together in a wallet
which just makes me think that he was afunny dude,
like he's got a pretty good sense of humor.
I just love the fact that he's got an illegal alien UFO ID in his wallet.
You know people like looking at the shoes.
This one has come apart and this person has tried to fix it with a
with a metal, with a metal rod, kind of speaking to the damage
that your shoes can can take during this process.
Actually both pairs have been repaired kind of in the field.
These shoes were found near some like hyper-fragmented human remains.
They weren't close enough to kind of be confident
that they're from this some person, but you could kind of,
there's a lot of possibility with these things
that you'll just never know.
Oh cool.
But yeah, we've got a thousand backpacks easily.
Goofy little drawings, graffiti,
Little cholo with baggy pants.
What's inside?
You look inside this thing, it has got socks, some chonies,
Even without people being around you still end up getting kind of
up close and personal with people.
So this is like Darth Maul underwear and it says
penetrating the dark side.
That's I think, I'm less creeped out by the fact that this could be
the objects from someone who died
and more about it feels like invasive sometimes,
like it feels like I'm looking at things I'm not supposed
to be looking at for this process, but I think that's a part of the work.
It's like you can't, if you want to document this stuff,
you have to kind of get up close and personal
and get into people's business.
(banging on can)
(men speaking Spanish)
- I never see Immigration over here in Mexico, until today.
Now I see them everywhere, everywhere around.
(men speaking Spanish)
(train whistle blows)
(train running on tracks)
(man speaking Spanish)
- I remember, actually I think I'm standing
right where she was.
I probably hike this trail a hundred times.
We had just decided on a whim to come out here
to check on some old migrant sites.
And we end up finding the body and which is was,
you know, completely unexpected.
Someone had a really colorful blanket in their backpack.
We ended up using the blanket to cover her up.
We sent two people out to bring the sheriff out here
and we set with her for about five or six hours.
And hopefully, hopefully no one will will take that.
We've found human remains before
usually fragmented just pieces of bone.
But this was the first person that we have found out here
who was complete.
Her skin has started to blacken and mummify,
and the bloating is beginning to obscure some of her physical features.
Her striking jet black hair and the ponytail holder
wrapped around her wrist hint at the person she once was.
High above her turkey vultures circle her corpse.
I marvel at how quickly they have arrived on the scene.
Her name was Carmita, Marisela Zaguifueas
and she was 31 years old when she decided to leave her husband
and three children to try to make it the United States.
She was abandoned by her smuggler after she became ill
and was unable to continue walking.
(man speaking Spanish)
(dog barking)
(people speaking Spanish)
(train running on tracks)
(people speaking Spanish)
- After we found the body of Maricela, I got a Facebook chat
from her sister-in-law who basically said, can I call you?
We've got a family member who's gone missing in the desert.
We'll say the 15-year-old migrants from Ecuador who decided
to cross the border to reconnect with his parents in New York.
That's not going to stick.
Those poles down there.
But my hope is that someone will see this and know something remember...
I mean everybody's kind of holding their breath that,
that he's actually been kidnapped or that he is not able to to call home
for whatever reason.
And you just, you don't know.
(helicopter flying)
There's a reason why people are coming to this environment.
Border patrol and federal law enforcement funnel people through the desert
Those mountains, those are not easy to get over
if you are a seasoned hiker with expensive equipment.
But to be a 15-year-old kid wearing Air Jordans and you know,
carrying one gallon of water in the middle of the summer is.
(Border Patrol Agent talks off mic)
You know that, we're basically here's Atascosa Peak
and we're fairly sure that these kids crossed
a couple of days' walk west of Nogales.
They talk about getting beyond these mountains.
He gets sick on the other side and they leave him basically in a bajada.
So like on a on a sort of flat spot just north of these mountains.
This is all cow,
 - They're all pretty good.
- This is a femur, but like human femur is not going to be that dense.
One of the worries that we have is that if he got sick and died
and he decided that he was going to rest under a shaded area
in one of these washes, the monsoons come through here pretty quickly
and in the summer potentially can just watch a body completely away.
It's like what do you tell the family?
It's spent a day digging around in the woods and I didn't find anything.
Maybe I didn't look hard enough.
Maybe there's one more one more area that we didn't check
that which we could have gone through today.
That's the hard.
I don't know, that's the really hard part.
In fact to go back and I'll call them and say
we didn't find anything today.
We looked but no, no leads.
(people speaking Spanish)
- What I was doing before you guys came in is basically just making a list
of all of the unidentified since he disappeared
where we still don't have the anthro report.
Now some of these, so this was the list so far.
I highly doubt that any of those are going to be somebody
that young sure because again, I would have expected
to be alerted of that.
This is the forensic anthropology report.
Being it's a biological profile, the age range, ancestry, stature.
So depending on the case, that's kind of, I'll as a quick rule out
I'll just move on whenever I see an age range
- His mom calls me all the time.
She texts me a lot and they're constantly saying, you know,
what's going on?
I think it would be helpful for them if I could kind of go back
with information and say this is sort of typically how these things
sort of work.
Like this is this is what what what you guys have done so far.
This is sort of standard operating procedure and and this is kind of
what they could expect to, you know, when they ask like what is going on.
- Sure, the reality is that there's so many problems with the databases
that exist because we basically can't utilize what's out there
because these people are crossing the border and they're undocumented
or not considered, you know, viable to go into these databases
for a number of reasons, which is really frustrating.
So that means that we've got to build and fund our own.
And right now we still don't have one that keeps us on top
of all the cases.
We have to like actually go in and touch the case to update the search.
Here's some females, so that wouldn't be a possibility.
- At what point do people just kind of say
this person is dead.
We're never going to know what happened and we just need to
do something, we need to have some some sort of closure.
- [Woman] As far as families of the missing?
- Yeah sort of like, just I mean, do you find that it's
is this continuous sort of?
- I don't think I've ever talked to a family that has gotten
to what you're describing.
(People speaking Spanish)
(train running on tracks)
(people speaking Spanish)
(saw motor running)
(People speaking Spanish)
(water splashing)
(man speaking Spanish)
- Okay, bye-bye.
(people speaking Spanish)
(drums banging)
(Latin music playing)
(people speaking Spanish)
(Latin music playing)
(man singing in Spanish)
(men speaking Spanish)
(Spanish being spoken on radio)
(people speaking Spanish)
(bell ringing)
(people speaking Spanish)
- [Man] For many years there has been an immense amount of speculation
about what happens to migrant bodies.
People would say the bodies that we recover,
that's probably a good metric for who's died on here
and that was based on nothing.
This research is trying to provide really hard scientific data
on the decomposition process and one thing that we've been arguing
is that a lot of people die out here and they disappear.
So part of this work is to demonstrate the numbers of fatalities
that we have at the medical examiner's office are low.
- [Woman] Put our heads great (speaking off mic).
- 99% of the Scavenging is done by vultures.
We had one animal that went from fully fleshed and clothed
to completely skeletonized with the clothing and the bone spread upwards
of something like 35 meters.
A day and a half.
(wind blowing)
(flies buzzing)
- [woman] So there's (mumbles) and we have to find out
what the green ones are.
We tried this.
These are on right.
We have the half bottles that they use for cups.
Near the food bags there's a (speaks Spanish).
We got burned water bottles, the melted water bottles for boiling water.
- [Woman] Yeah, for boiling water.
(man speaking off mic)
- [Woman] Yeah, that's for when they're sick.
But they're also putting it on (speaking off mic).
(man speaking Spanish)
(phone rings and people speak Spanish)
(people speaking Spanish)
(train whistle blows)
(train whistle blows and train runs on track)
(light music)

Related Films


A very personal journey through Europe and the structures that guarantee…

Brother Towns / Pueblos Hermanos

An uplifting story about Jupiter, Florida's humane response to an influx…

This Is Home

Sundance award-winner puts a human face on the global refugee crisis by…