TUCSON, Arizona (Border Report) – The rugged Sonoran Desert has been claiming migrant lives for decades — just not in the numbers Pima County officials have seen in the past two years.

The Medical Examiner’s Office recovered a record 226 sets of skeletal remains in the fiscal year 2021 – most presumed to be unauthorized migrants – and a slightly smaller number a year earlier. The county is working with the consulates of Mexico and Guatemala, as well as with a group of forensic experts from Latin America to identify the deceased and provide closure to their families.

“In the 90s we used to process less than 20 remains per year. It wasn’t a number that raised alarms,” said Dr. Gregory Hess, the Pima County medical examiner. “That really changed.”

American and Mexican officials attribute the spike to various factors. They include increased migration – the U.S. last calendar year encountered more than 2 million migrants – hotter temperatures, more coordinated search efforts, and immigration policies that prompt foreign nationals to attempt clandestine crossings in remote, dangerous environments.

“We think the increased numbers in the past couple of years are secondary to heat and essentially the environment. We set some records for heat and drought and number of days above 100-degrees,” Hess said.

Pima County, Arizona, Medical Examiner Dr. Greg Hess (Border Report photo)

Mexican Consul General in Tucson Rafael Barceló Durazo said the practice of immediately expelling migrants through the Title 42 public health order is prompting people to attempt several crossings to evade the Border Patrol.

“We are working on informing (Mexicans) of the risks of using the desert as a crossing pathway. It can be very dangerous (and) it can be difficult to get help” in case of a medical emergency in the middle of nowhere, Barceló said.

Southern Arizona law enforcement officials have told Border Report that smugglers associated with the Sinaloa cartel are leading large groups of migrants on foot through trails and open desert. When somebody can’t keep up or gets injured, the smugglers will keep going and it’s up to travel companions to seek help.

“I don’t think it’s uncommon that people will seek help for people in distress. It just may not be right away, it might not be soon enough, it may not be accessible for them to call for help. The location where someone was left behind may not be accurate enough for help to arrive,” Hess said. “Also, some guides may not allow people to call for help or maybe they collect all the phones from people until they get to a destination.”

The end result is more unclaimed bodies piling up at the Pima County morgue.

DNA testing is last resort amid lack of native documentation

Migrants tend to travel light. Sneakers, jeans, loose long-sleeved shirts and baseball caps are standard fare. Some may not carry IDs from their home countries for fear of losing or having them stolen. That means U.S. officials have little to go on when trying to identify a body found in the desert.

Hess and his staff have learned to look for clues in the absence of identity documents. A photograph, tattoos or a distinctive personal belonging such as a belt buckle provide clues. Some experienced travelers have learned to sew hidden pockets in their clothing, so medical examiner staff look for those as well.

When all else fails, DNA tests are the last resort.

“The way we identify people has changed over time,” Hess said. “DNA tests used to be very expensive, used to take a long time. The cost is not cheap but it’s not as expensive as it used to be. The techniques that the labs use to generate a DNA profile even from substandard specimens are much better.”

Both Pima County as well as nonprofits who assist with the identification of deceased migrants have applied and received grants for such tests. Communication between local governments and dedicated nonprofits in the U.S. has also improved and expanded with respect to Latin American entities.

Hess says his office works closely with the consulates of Mexico and Guatemala; nonprofits like the Tucson-based Colibri Center for Human Rights also have built alliances.

“We help them in locating the families of the deceased. At some point, they may have information about an ID found with the remains, and through databases we have access to, we can access the names of the families and get in touch with local authorities in Mexico,” Barceló said.

The rectangular incision on this bone is from where the DNA test material was drawn. (Border Report photo)

That help comes in the form of collecting DNA samples from families whose loved ones left with the intent of crossing into the United States and were never heard from again. “We can provide the biological material necessary through our Foreign Ministry. […] If we find a match, we can inform the family that their relative has died and provide help with the repatriation of a body,” Barceló said.

Providing closure to relatives of the missing

The spike in skeletal remains found in the Southern Arizona desert coincided with higher mortality rates due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hess said local hospitals and physicians took the lead in establishing the cause of death, so the medical examiner’s office avoided a workload crisis.

Still, the Pima County ME has some 500 unidentified sets of skeletal remains in its custody right now. Some of the bones are kept in cardboard boxes inside a trailer parked in the back of the building.

“Sometimes if we don’t have complete remains, we have more than one decedent in a box. So here we have two decedents, both recovered in 2021,” Hess said as he stepped inside the trailer. “We have this decedent and this decedent separated here. We do sometimes retain some property items in here. Here’s a little belt buckle with this little money symbol on it. It’s kind of distinctive, so we kept that.”

The bones are dry and bare from prolonged exposure to the sun.

“Somebody that died on the surface of the desert and were not buried, therefore have this sun exposure. All the ends of the bones have been gnawed off by animals and birds. We have a mandible here. You can see some of the teeth,” he said.

Some of the bones have an inch-long rectangular piece missing. That’s the portion sent to a lab for DNA testing.

Identifying the cadavers is something Hess feels compelled to do. “It provides a sense of relief. It’s not a happy occasion but it helps with the anxiety. There’s always the hope that (a loved one) is alive out there somewhere, even if it sounds implausible. You don’t let go because you don’t know what happened,” he said. “Usually, people are appreciative when you identify (the remains). It provides closure.”