Hundreds of bodies found near the border remain unidentified

Chelsea Rae Ybanez
Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017Hundreds of bodies found near the border remain unidentified

TUCSON — Artist Alvaro Enciso lives on the Northeast side of Tumamoc Hill in a house full of art, including three-foot white crosses created to deliver a deeper message about death.“The Sonoran Desert has a secret,” the artist said. “Not very many people know about 3,000 casualties here, 2,000 people missing.”Enciso’s art is inspired by the Pima County Medical Examiner’s red-dotted “death map,” which marks the locations of bodies recovered near the border — all of them migrants who attempted to cross into Arizona. His work, which he calls “The Red Dots,” is meant to convey the tragedies of the desert.Every Tuesday, Enciso takes four handmade crosses out to the desert and places them where migrant bodies were found. With a group of volunteers, Enciso digs a hole, pours cement and places the cross. Many of the dead are never identified.

Tucson artist Alvaro Enciso builds one of his handmade crosses to place in the desert. Each one marked with a single red to represent death. (Photo by Chelsea Rae Ybanez/Cronkite News)

“I tell the people this person is unidentified, and the people tend to get disappointed. They want to find a name. The saddest cases are the ones unidentified because there is no closure here,” Enciso said.Each year, the Pima County Medical Examiner receives hundreds of remains from the Sonoran Desert believed to be undocumented border crossers. Since 2001, the office has received 2,728 bodies, with nearly one third still unidentified. This year alone, the medical examiner’s office has received 113 human remains.Fifty percent of the remains are found by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, while the rest are found by hikers, hunters or humanitarian groups, said Pima County Chief Medical Examiner Gregory Hess. Whether the remains can be identified depends on how long they’ve been in the desert.“The odds of us identifying someone are directly proportional to the condition of the remains. If we have someone who is in good condition, that means they died a very short time ago,” Hess said.Dry desert heat, insects, and animals cause bodies to rapidly decompose, making it harder to identify them or determine the cause of death.“Someone dies outside and they are in a remote area, and their remains are not protected from the elements or from animal and insect activity, they may become nearly skeletal remains within three or four weeks,” Hess said.Last year, 94 remains never were identified and in 110 cases, a cause of death could not be determined. Without defining characteristics like DNA, a history of dental work, tattoos, fingerprints or scars, the body may never be identified.Hess said a majority of the remains belong to Mexican migrants, with some coming from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.The office attempts to compare the profile of the remains to international missing persons reports collected by the Consulate of Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador as well as the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, according to a report from the International Organization of Migration. However, the IOM says the Colibri Center for Human Rights obtains the most comprehensive database for missing migrants, which shows more than 2,300 are still missing.If bodies are not claimed, they are cremated and stored at the Pima County Cemetery. More than 800 unidentified remains were recorded at the cemetery in 2015.
    <!-- MasterSlider -->
    <div id="P_MS59f4e2f6daec8" class="master-slider-parent msl ms-parent-id-54" style="max-width:800px;"  >

        <!-- MasterSlider Main -->
        <div id="MS59f4e2f6daec8" class="master-slider ms-skin-default" >

            <div  class="ms-slide" data-delay="3" data-fill-mode="fill"  >
                <img src="" alt="Enciso" title="" data-src="" />

                <div class="ms-info">Tucson artist Alvaro Enciso builds one of his handmade crosses to place in the desert. Each one marked with a single red dot to represent death. (Photo by Chelsea Rae Ybanez/Cronkite News)</div>

<div class="ms-thumb" ><div class="ms-tab-context"><div class=&quot;ms-tab-context&quot;></div></div>