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Thousands Are Missing or Dead Along the Border. Meet the People Trying to Find Them

August 10, 2018
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Thousands Are Missing or Dead Along the Border. Meet the People Trying to Find Them
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Armadillos Búsqueda y Rescate scouts the desert in search of migrants who've gone missing. Photo by Sean Ryon
Family members are left in the dark after loved ones vanish in the desert. In Tucson, one group works to identify the bodies.

Tucson is a dustbowl. Flanked by mountains to the east and west, the city that was built in the middle of the Sonoran desert — known mostly for fire-red sunsets that cast shadows from long-armed saguaro cacti — can be deadly.

When I visited in June, it wasn’t even summer yet, and midday temperatures were already kissing the tops of thermometers in the triple digits; the pool water at my hotel felt like tepid bathwater. For most people who live here, it’s the beginning of a season for barbecues under shaded awnings and pool parties, in a desperate attempt to stay cool.

But for workers at the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, it’s the season of the dead.

Pima County is one of the many areas along the U.S. southern border that doesn’t have a border wall. Even in areas where there is a wall, desperate immigrants still try to cross on foot.

The number of immigrants who’ve been apprehended trying to cross the border has decreased over the past two decades, from nearly 1.7 million in 2000 to a fifth of that number this year — thanks in part to foreign policy initiatives enacted by the Obama and Bush administrations, in addition to hints of economic resiliency in Mexico. But the number of people who die crossing the border has remained the same, and in some areas has even gone up.

What that means, essentially, is that the death rate has increased dramatically, leaving us with evidence of something more problematic than just a border security issue.

“We’re in the middle of a humanitarian crisis, absolutely,” says Dr. Robin Reineke, an anthropologist and co-founder and executive director of the Colibrí Human Rights Center in Tucson.

The crisis becomes obvious in the Pima County morgue, where body bags are stacked in the freezer, many with identification tags scrawled with “John” or “Jane Doe.” For remains that can’t be assigned a gender, they are designated “Unidentified.” The number of bodies can get so cumbersome that during this time of year, mobile freezer trailers have been brought in to house the overflow.

The bodies — or more often than not, the skeletal remains — arrive in pieces, with little way of identifying them. But a recent partnership between Colibrí and the medical examiner’s office has enabled a unique combination of cultural anthropology and DNA testing to ID the unknown. Working together, they have successfully identified 150 bodies over the past decade.  

Though that number is tiny compared to the thousands who, over the years, have gone missing and are feared dead in the Arizona desert, for grieving families who agonize over whether or not their loved ones are dead, identifying the bodies allows for some sense of closure.

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At the Pima County morgue, unidentified migrant bodies stack up in the summer months.Photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari

Carmina Santa Cruz hasn’t seen her son, Marco, for five years.

Since Santa Cruz first came to the States as an illegal immigrant in 1985, her son and daughter have shuttled back and forth between Mexico and the U.S., in order to spend time with their mother.

It’s not uncommon for immigrants from many countries to come to the U.S. for six months on a tourist visa, then return to their home country to reset the clock, before repeating the cycle again. It’s an easy way to skirt immigration rules without being deported, so long as you’re not caught working. But for those who stay longer than six months and are caught, that’s when people are detained and barred from entering the States for years as punishment.

But Marco wasn’t deported — he had no intention of living in the U.S. He owned a shop in Nogales, Mexico, and lived comfortably, according to his mother, who spoke to NationSwell through an interpreter.

But Marco was depressed. A divorce from his wife, who barred him from visiting his children, sent him into a depression, says Santa Cruz. “He told me that he had no desire to live,” she adds. “According to him, he was coming to my house, but I did not know anything about him crossing the desert.”

In August, three weeks after he said he would arrive, Santa Cruz panicked and went searching for him.

“I went to Nogales to look for him like every 15 days or every week. A supposed friend that [crossed the border] with him came back and tried to reach me to explain that my son had died in the desert,” she says.

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“I could not do anything, I felt as if I was disabled and powerless to do anything,” says Carmina Santa Cruz, who’s son has been missing for years.Photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari

But that was just one of many stories Santa Cruz heard about what had happened to her son. Marco’s friends and acquaintances reached out, sharing different details on where they had last seen him. Santa Cruz followed every lead. She began her search at the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, but quickly realized that they would not be able to help her. She also went to the sheriff’s office, but says that they “treated me like a Mexican, like I wasn’t worth anything.”

That’s not an uncommon feeling for many immigrants who learn about lost family members at the border. And going to Border Patrol, which does search and rescue for bodies reported along the border, comes at a risk — especially if they’re undocumented.

“They can contact Border Patrol, they can contact the police department, they can contact [their] consulate, but they also need to know that we’re here to do a job, which is to enforce the immigration laws,” says Operation Officer Hugo Vega, who heads the U.S. Border Patrol’s Missing Migrant Program in southern Texas. “They gotta be aware of any consequences that could arise from coming to the Border Patrol station, and if they’re here illegally, there’s gonna be a process to follow.”

It’s that process that has most families spooked into staying silent. As a result, mothers in Santa Cruz’s position end up losing hope in finding their children.

“Every day I locked myself up in a room to cry because I did not know how to find him; all the doors were closed for me,” she says. “I could not do anything, I felt as if I was disabled and powerless to do anything. In this time of anguish, the only thing that you want is for someone to open a door for you.”

To say the trek over the U.S.-Mexico border is difficult is a radical understatement. I grew up in Arizona, where oven mitts and beach towels were common driving accessories inside hot cars, which could top 130 degrees when parked outside for even short periods of time. We even had a pool cooler, growing up.

So I wanted to see what it was like crossing the border myself, or at least experience what it was like to walk through the desert — something I had never done outside of recreational camping.

In my visit to Tucson, I parked my car on the shoulder of a highway southwest of the city and walked south into the San Xavier Indian reservation toward the Mexican border. According to my GPS, the border was a day’s walk away on the road. Close to 500 bodies have been discovered in this area since 2002, according to the Arizona Open GIS, which tracks migrant deaths along the border through the nonprofit organization, Humane Borders.

Most of the bodies and skeletal remains found there are unrecognizable. Once a person dies, decomposition begins. Leave a body in the desert for even a day and, with the help of heat and hungry desert animals, faces become unrecognizable. Identifying marks, such as tattoos and birthmarks, quickly fade away.

“It’s not uncommon for someone to essentially become skeletal remains within a small period of time, say a few weeks, where it may take a lot longer for that to occur in a cooler environment,” says Dr. Gregory Hess, Pima County’s chief medical examiner.

But immigrants coming to the U.S. by foot aren’t using an iPhoneX to lead their way, like I was. And they generally avoid highways, where Border Patrol might be driving, making the day’s walk last up to a week, I’m told by those who have survived the trek.

I didn’t last more than two hours in the sun before having to turn back. In that short time, the bottoms of my feet were burnt through my shoes, and I was drenched in sweat. I could have easily become dehydrated within a few more hours — which is how most people crossing the border die, according to Pima County officials.

For corpses that are recovered, they are often found in pieces, with skulls and other large bones separated from the bodies. In 2010, then-Arizona Governor Jan Brewer used headless bodies found in the desert as “proof” of illegal immigrants killing people after crossing the border. (Contrary to Brewer’s claims, when a body decomposes, there is very little to hold a skull to the spine, so a head easily detaches and rolls away.) Out of the thousands of bodies that have gone through the Pima medical examiner’s office, less than 50 have been labeled as victims of foul play — and even those are death by firearm, Hess says.

“Almost all of [the deaths] have been from exposure,” he adds.

Some immigrants have gone to great lengths to rescue bodies at risk of getting lost. Stretchers made out of cholla cactus skeletons and bound with shoelaces and underwear bands have been found throughout the Arizona desert. In one instance, Reineke tells me, the body of an elderly woman was carried on a stretcher to the nearest road where Border Patrol was flagged down.

But not all immigrants can afford to waste that kind of energy, or risk being deported by carrying bodies along with them across the desert.

César Ortigoza is the founder of Armadillos Búsqueda y Rescate (Armadillos Search and Rescue) in San Diego, a group of San Diego–based volunteers who perform search and rescue operations for immigrants lost in the desert. Ortigoza is one of a handful of volunteers who are contacted by family members, mostly through Facebook, seeking help in finding their missing loved ones.

“Every single day we get between two and five [calls],” he says. “Most of the time when they call us, they say, ‘I know he went through Arizona.’ A lot of time we say, ‘What part of Arizona?’ And they say, ‘That’s all we know.’”

Ortigoza is short and cherubic, and when he laughs his face wrinkles like the skin of a ripe peach. We are drinking chilled coconut and agave water in his apartment in Vista, California, laughing about the Star Wars action figures he has lined up on his desk, when he gets a call. It’s a woman inquiring about her husband: He had been deported and was trying to get back to his family in the U.S. by crossing the border, but had gone missing instead.

“He said he was about an hour-and-a-half away, but he said to me, ‘I feel weak,’” the woman told Ortigoza over the phone, crying. She told Ortigoza that if her husband felt he was in danger, he would call Border Patrol for help. But now his phone was dead, and there was no way of knowing if he was dead or alive.

Finding bodies isn’t necessarily the largest hurdle for Hess and Reineke. The real challenge is trying to figure out whom the bones belong to — and in many cases, they have only a few possessions found around a body to use as clues.

This is where Colibrí finds its niche. With a limited budget, the group of six staff members, including Reineke, use their training as cultural anthropologists to identify the people whose remains are recovered along the border.

It’s a unique solution to an incredibly difficult problem, where often the only possessions people have on them when they die is some money, maybe a few photos and, more often than not, a couple of phone numbers and a laminated prayer card of St. Christopher, the Catholic saint of travel.

Jewelry or certain clothing items, such as an insignia on a hat, might give clues to regions where people are from. A tattoo or missing teeth might also help identify remains.

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Dr. Gregory Hess and NationSwell reporter Joseph Darius Jaafari examine remains found in the desert.Photo by Joseph Darius Jaafari

Since 2012, Reineke and her team have been able to compile missing persons reports — hundreds per year — that include such details from family members. It’s her team’s job to match them with the bodies that are found.

“For example, we might get a missing person’s report, which says when the person was the last seen alive,” Reineke says. “We then open the files of the unidentified at the beginning of July of that year, and one by one look for any clues. We know that he was missing this tooth, so I flip past any females and anybody who does have a tooth there. Then we get to the point of, ‘Well, it’s a pretty strong comparison but it’s really not strong enough to make a positive ID.’”

That process alone is tedious and time-consuming, and it has resulted in about 10 to 12 identifications per year with the help of the medical examiner’s office. And DNA is the surest way to truly identify someone. So two years ago, Colibrí received a $200,000 grant to send DNA samples of living family members to the medical examiner’s office to help identify more bodies.

Now when families call Colibrí for help in identifying remains, mouth swabs are taken and their DNA is logged with the report. That DNA is then matched against bodies brought to the Pima County’s medical examiner office, where Colibrí is also housed.

“Being here means that we can communicate live with each other. We have access to each other’s databases,” says Reineke. “When the medical examiner’s office receives calls from people searching for missing loved ones, we’ll take the missing person’s report and make sure that data gets compared against unidentified human remains.”

The result has been 56 people identified each year using both DNA testing and the anthropological methods cited above. The federal genetics program, in comparison, has identified only a quarter of that number each year.

Despite an onslaught of negative press directed at the Border Patrol — especially after a Mother Jones article detailed the racism and apathy of self-proclaimed “border militia” members fraternizing with Border Patrol agents, and a viral video showed Border Patrol agents kicking over life-saving water stations in the desert — there is an effort within the sprawling agency to help migrants stay alive.

Through microphotography, a process that can be used to reconstruct skin based on small traces of muscle or skin cells left on bones, Vega has been able to identify up to 60 people by matching reconstructed fingerprints with those logged in the U.S. fingerprint data system after previous deportations.

“We’re working with stage four decomposition levels. This is basically skeletal remains with just a little, tiny bit of skin on the hands, and you’re talking highly dehydrated skin, highly decomposed skin, and we’re capturing the rich details that are found under pretty much all the layers of the skin,” Vega says. “It depends on the circumstances, but I can tell you that we have identified bodies that are pretty close to being skeletons.”

Even though the Missing Migrant Program is intertwined with an agency that breeds resentment and fear among the Latino communities in the U.S. Southwest, Vega says they’re doing their best to identify dead bodies in the service of bringing peace and closures to families.

“To save lives, prevent death, obviously that’s our most important mission,” he says. “But if death happens, [we] dignify the process for the families.”

For Santa Cruz, she is still waiting to hear about her son. Her DNA has been logged and Reineke continues to look for Marco, despite the odds of him being found alive.

“When you know that your son may have died in the desert, it changes your life and the lives of your whole family,” says Santa Cruz. “It is an unbearable pain that drives you crazy and makes you lose your mind. You do not want to continue on living without the son you have lost.”

This article is the fourth and final installment of NationSwell’s multimedia series “Aid at the Border,” which explores the impact of humanitarian efforts along the US-Mexico border.
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