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Arizona county's grim lost and found

An ambitious project analyzes belongings in an attempt to identify the remains of migrants found in Arizona's Sonoran Desert.

October 17, 2012|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Gregory Hess, Pima County’s chief medical examiner, shows the personal effects of illegal border crossers found dead in Arizona's Sonoran Desert.
Gregory Hess, Pima County’s chief medical examiner, shows the personal… (Randi Lynn Beach, For the…)

TUCSON — She probably never imagined things would go so wrong — that she'd end up here, on a scuffed metal gurney in a coroner's office far from home.

Still, at age 22, she was old enough to know the dangers of stealing across the U.S. border from Mexico onto a lethal desert landscape, where she would have to take crazy chances amid the heat, cold and rattlesnakes to avoid capture by la migra, the U.S. Border Patrol.

Her body was found in early 2009 near a service road, a two-day walk from the border. She had died of exposure: Her system simply shut down in the high desert's frigid winter temperatures.

Within days, workers at the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office conducted an inventory of the left-behind fragments of her short life. Inside her backpack were family photos, a Spanish-English dictionary, lip gloss, four pens, pink-and-white socks and an ID from Oaxaca that described her as a preschool teacher.

Robin Reineke, a cultural anthropology graduate student at the University of Arizona, studies such possessions like pieces of a puzzle. Most important, she said, the belongings can help determine the crosser's identity. They also tell the story of a very human decision — what personal effects to take on a possibly fatal expedition.

In the young teacher's case, Reineke likened her to a teenager heading off to college, carrying the expectations of her entire family.

"Her possessions reminded me of exactly what I would carry to college," said the 30-year-old Reineke, coordinator of Pima County's Missing Migrant Project. "She probably picked out her favorite things because she wanted to look good. Her items, all of them, just screamed of hope."

Paid by federal and private grants, Reineke is helping to chronicle what is a mass human exodus across Arizona's remote Sonoran Desert, an unforgiving environment that delivers an almost daily whiff of death.

"People find the bodies under trees, near rocks, in the brush and in the open," said Gregory Hess, Pima County's chief medical examiner. "Often people die very close to the road they were trying to reach."

Since 2001, more than 2,035 bodies of illegal border crossers have been discovered in the desert south of Tucson. The highest toll comes during summer, when temperatures soar past 120 degrees and as many as 60 bodies a month are pulled from the sagebrush and sand. Some remains have been there for just days; others are scattered skeletons.

Dying of hyperthermia is excruciating: Victims become confused and delusional, Hess said. Border crossers might insist to companions they can't go on. Some tear off their clothing before collapsing. Often, the only items found are those they carried in their pockets.

Over 700 bodies remain unidentified. Reineke and others rummage through the possessions to try to match the dead with 1,300 missing persons reports that arrive from across Central America and Mexico through local consulate offices, from families and human rights groups.

In a row of orange lockers near Pima County's autopsy room, officials keep plastic sleeves labeled "Personal Effects" and a stark designation: "Doe, John" or "Doe, Jane."

Each sleeve reveals a story to the practiced eye: religious relics such as tattered rosaries and laminated cards bearing the names of patron saints, some that suggest a region where the person lived; photographs of wives, children and grandparents left behind; slips of papers carrying the names and numbers of people on the other side, such as a relative in Los Angeles, in one case identified only as "mi mama."

Jonathan Hollingsworth also has pored over the material, for his new book of photographs titled "Left Behind: Life and Death Along the U.S. Border." He looked for the telltale signs of an individual's story, or narrative, like the ticket stub that read "buena suerte," or good luck; the wristwatch, its face so faded the numerals are indecipherable; the tube of Old Spice body spray. He was most fascinated by a tiny yellow pencil stub, the type almost no one would keep, saying it suggested the desperation and poverty of the person who carried it.

One file contained a red comb caked with dirt and a pen that had exploded in the heat, the leftovers of a migrant who — presumably delusional from exposure — hanged himself using his shoelaces.

"Each sleeve represents a life lost — one that ended in a really horrific way," he said. "They put a face on something that transcends politics or national identity."

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