TUCSON, Arizona (Border Report) – As migrants continue to die along the U.S.-Mexico border, members of an Arizona nonprofit are working to bring closure to their families.

The International Office of Migration (OIM) reported 728 migrant deaths along the Southwest border. It was the deadliest year on record since 2014.

Human remains found in Southern Arizona not immediately identified end up at the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office. The bodies lie inside body bags at a morgue; skeletal remains are kept in cardboard boxes inside a trailer in the parking lot.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors this month earmarked $24 million in next year’s budget for a bigger, more modern ME’s Office. That will help with space issues. But when it comes to finding out whose body or bones were brought to the facility, county officials will continue to rely on partners like foreign consulates and nonprofits like the Colibri Center for Human Rights.

Bringing medical, cultural and language skills to the table

Mirza Monterroso grew up in Guatemala, watching how poverty, crime and violence drove people out of her country. Now a working professional in the U.S., she is using her forensic science skills to tell a family in Latin America, “we found your son, your father, your sister.”

She works out of an office in the Mexican consulate in Tucson, keeping track of DNA databases and contacting families whose loved ones disappeared on his or her way to the United States. It is a delicate, tactful job where she and other team members use their Spanish language and cultural skills to manage highly emotional situations.

“It’s very hard for them to provide DNA. It’s basically an acceptance that their loved ones may have passed. They are in a lot of stress. They get sick, they get anxious, they can’t sleep the night before,” said Monterroso, the Missing Migrants Program director at the Colibri Center for Human Rights.

Mirza Monterroros, Colibri Center for Human Rights, talks to Border Report in her office at the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, Arizona.

She recently traveled to Mexico City for a series of meetings with the families of the missing. The trek took her to Xochimilco, a tourist destination nonetheless surrounded by very poor neighborhoods.

“It’s a very modest area where people basically have to work every day to provide for their families. They get very low wages and don’t have the training for jobs that can allow them to (properly) provide for their families,” she said. “We saw all different kinds of situations that push them to make the journey. Their main concern is to provide their kids with a better future […] a higher education.”

Mirza Monterroso

Monterroso expressed her admiration for the zeal parents in the neighborhood put into providing for their children. But she said they always have unmet needs.

“One mom leaves her house at 6 in the morning and comes back at 9:30 at night. She sells nutritional products and in a good day she can make 200 to 400 pesos. That’s $10 to $20 a day to feed her kids […] and to pay for everything” including rent, she said. “We’re not talking about people who want to buy new cars or expensive phones or TVs. We are talking about people who want to put food on the table.”

The men don’t fare much better. Construction and street vendor jobs pay about the same. The need to migrate is everywhere.

The hand of the cartels in each disappearance

Even after allowing the forensic investigators into their homes, the families of the missing cling to hope.

“They often explore other alternatives, such as that their relative has been kidnapped or that their relative has lost (his) memory. Anything to justify the disappearance,” she said.

The human smugglers who promote unauthorized travel to the United States often feed such delusions. They will tell the family that their loved one was captured by the Border Patrol or that he ran into a legal issue and is detained, Monterroso said. Anything to hide the fact that they may have abandoned him or her to die in the desert because they failed to keep up.

That wastes valuable time that could either be used for a rescue or to more easily identify a body, she said. In other instances, the smugglers will tell families to send more money (extortion) even if the relative has died.

Pima County medical examiner Dr. Gregory Hess walks through the morgue filled with body bags of the dead, including some of those who died trying to cross the US-Mexico border, at the medical examiner’s office in Tucson, Arizona on October 13, 2016. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

The cartels that control all illicit routes into the U.S. also misinform the migrants in ways that put their lives at risk.

“They lie to them. They tell (the migrants) they have to walk only a day or two, but it’s seven days or more to cross,” Monterroso said. “They get their property taken away, their cell phones. So that’s another thing that adds to not being identified – not having your property with you.”

The Colibri Center is currently assisting in more than 100 active forensic investigations. In addition, the group’s web page facilitates remote reporting of missing relatives last seen heading to the United States.

Partnerships ‘invaluable’ to Arizona authorities

Pima County Medical Examiner Dr. Greg Hess has spent the last decade building partnerships to identify the hundreds of migrants who die in the desert. He explains how the 70 rugged miles that separate Tucson from the Mexican border can become a graveyard. Last year, his office received more than 160 new sets of remains.

Dr. Greg Hess

“Portions of Pima County are very remote and arid desert, very little in the environment for people to use as resources should something go wrong with their plan” to reach a destination in the U.S., Hess told Border Report recently. “We know the number of decedents that we find but, of course, there’s going to be more out there that haven’t been found.”

Hess maintains partnerships with the Mexican and Guatemalan consulates and government representatives of El Salvador. He works closely with a group of Argentinian forensic experts that have tracked down the identities of victims of civil wars throughout Latin America. And he has a space in his crowded facility for the Colibri Center.

“Maybe a property item or a document found with the remains may provide a clue to the identity, but just because you find that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s that person,” Hess said. “When you work with (the partners) they will get us information about that name. They are contacting potential family members and eliciting information such as, ‘is it reasonable to believe that the person we recovered could be the missing person?’ Or is that person right there with them?”