Divided Families

Divided Familes: Missing,1185


Cronkite News Service

MESA, Ariz. _ After spending three weeks trying to cross the border from Mexico into Arizona, 31-year-old Porfirio Montufar had finally made it.

It was a trip that Porfirio, a Mexican national, had made several times before. For the past 13 years, Porfirio had lived and worked in Mesa, Ariz., but he would return periodically to his hometown in Hidalgo, Mexico, to visit his wife, toddler and his mother. After each visit, he would sneak back across the border, dodging the U.S. Border Patrol, and make the 1,500-mile journey back to Mesa.

On this latest trip, Porfirio, who had crossed alone and on foot, had made it to a gas station in Yuma where he called one of his brothers who live in the United States. He asked him to wire money so that he could pay two drivers for transportation to Mesa.

The call came at 3 p.m., July 17, 2004. Porfirio has not been heard from since.

Porfirio is one of the hundreds of immigrants who die or go missing during desert crossings each year.

There were 214 recorded migrant deaths along the Arizona border in 2004, the year that Porfirio disappeared, and his family fears he may be among them.

Still, they have never stopped trying to find him. They have talked to Mexican officials, the U.S. Border Patrol and the Mesa and Yuma police departments. They have checked jails and sought the help of immigrant advocacy organizations such as No Más Muertes and Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras.

Armando Montufar remembers that when he last saw his brother, before he left for Mexico, he had a sixth sense that something was going to go wrong.

“I felt a strong sensation, and I started to cry,” Armando said. “I felt that I wasn’t going to see him again.”

Armando and brother Ken Montufar have tried to reconstruct what happened, but they have only small pieces of the puzzle to work with.

Retracing the Steps

Ken was the one who got the phone call from his brother that day nearly four years ago.

Porfirio said he had met two Mexican-Americans who had agreed to give him a ride to Mesa in exchange for $250. It was a good price, Ken said, since the charge is normally about $1,000.

Before wiring his brother the money, Ken said he talked to the driver on his cell phone. The man said he was going to drive ahead to see if any checkpoints had been set up along the roads to catch undocumented immigrants, then he would return for Porfirio. Satisfied, Ken drove to the Western Union.

Some time later, Porfirio called Ken to check the arrangements: The driver, he said, had not yet returned.

That was the last time anyone would hear from Porfirio.

Ken said that for the next three to four weeks, he kept thinking his brother would turn up, but he never did. The cell phone number that the driver had given him was disconnected, and no one at the gas station could tell him what had happened.

Missing Immigrants

Anne Goodenberger, program coordinator for the organization Humane Borders in Arizona, said she receives one to two phone calls a week from families searching for missing immigrants.

“We tell them to pray and get as much information as possible,” Goodenberger said.

Goodenberger said she knows of 246 missing immigrant cases this year. Many will never be resolved. Even when bodies are found, they often are not identified or the families are not notified, she said.

“It’s a stress,” Goodenberger said. “If the families know (what happened to their loved ones), they can start to grieve; if not, they can’t start to grieve.”

Medical examiners offices in Arizona have handled 1,100 bodies of unidentified border crossers in the last seven years, said Bruce Anderson, forensic anthropologist for Pima County. While there is a 99 percent success rate in identifying the bodies of American citizens, 25 percent of the undocumented immigrant bodies are never identified, he said.

Bodies that cannot be identified are held for one year and then buried in the county cemetery, Anderson said. For Pima County, that numbers 40 to 50 over the past six or seven years, he said.

Anderson said that he thinks other southern counties’ medical examiners have similar numbers.

He said sometimes the search for missing loved ones goes on for generations. “Children in the next generation grow up and want to know, ‘Where’s my dad?’

“I’m afraid this is going to carry on for a long time,” Anderson said. “Some families don’t want to face the reality that something terrible has happened to their loved one.”

Little Hope

It has been four years since Porfirio disappeared.

The Yuma Police Department conducted an investigation but found nothing substantive, said Clint Norred, the department’s public information officer.

The brothers hired a private investigator, but it was too expensive to keep him on for long.

They didn’t want to worry their mother, Fabiana Montufar, so for a long time, they told her Porfirio was busy with work and couldn’t talk to her. They sent money to her and to Porfirio’s wife, Gricelda, and told them it came from Porfirio.

Meanwhile, Porfirio’s wife had given birth to their second child. She eventually concluded that Porfirio had found another woman, Ken said.

Fabiana, Porfirio’s mother, says only, “Pedirse a dios de pronto lo encontró,” “I ask God to find him soon.”

Ken and Armando have reached their own conclusions.

Ken thinks the two men who picked up Porfirio in Yuma may have killed him. Armando believes that Porfirio may have tried crossing the desert on his own, became dehydrated and disoriented and lost his mind. Or he may have been captured by authorities and given them a false name.

Neither holds out much hope that their brother will be found, but they refuse to forget him.

Keeping His Spirit Alive

Ken has hung Porfirio’s cowboy hats above his bed; he says it keeps his brother’s spirit close to him.

Once, when Ken had gone a week without work, one of the hats fell down onto his head, and the next week he got work. Ken said he thinks this was a sign of his brother’s love.
Armando said he misses the days when he shared an apartment with Porfirio, when the two used to go out together to eat and dance. They liked to watch soccer, and Porfirio was a big Diamondbacks’ fan.

“Estábamos compartido muchas cosas y trabajo,” Armando said. “We shared a lot of things and work.”

He said he sometimes has dreams of Porfirio; in the dreams, he and his brothers are together in México again.

The brothers offer a detailed description of Porfirio, just in case someone has seen him: 5-foot-2-inches tall, about 130 pounds, dark brown eyes and hair. He has two scars on the back of his head from when he fell from a palm tree.

“He was a good person,” Armando said. “I hope that I can find a conclusion for my mind. I want to know what happened.”


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Ken Montufar holds a flyer that he made in an effort to locate his missing brother, Porfirio. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Branden Eastwood)

Ken Montufar has been searching for his brother since 2004. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Branden Eastwood)