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Pima County, Humane Borders mapping migrant deaths

Each year, the Pima County Medical Examiner receives dozens of bodies recovered in the Sonoran desert—the remains of those lost as they tried to cross the border illegally. 

Since 2001, of the nearly 2,100 remains found in the desert, about 700 remain unidentified. However, that could change because of a new database and mapping tool, developed by the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner and the human rights group Humane Borders Inc. 

The database was released to the press and public during a press conference Monday. 

The Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants will combine data from the counties of Southern Arizona, including law enforcement agencies and human rights groups, to build a searchable database based on geographic information. 

"I'm glad to be able to help a small amount. I wish I could do more," said Dr. John Chamblee, research chair for Humane Borders, who has spent seven years putting together the database using data from the Medical Examiner and his own group. Chamblee hopes that the database can be used by researchers to improve knowledge of border crossings and influence policy decisions. 

The effort is funded by an anonymous $175,000 donation to Humane Borders, said Dr. Gregory Hess, the county's chief medical examiner. The data will be updated quarterly. 

Illustrating the problems in identifying remains, Chamblee searched for two sets of remains found two months apart. A comparison showed the remains, one a human jawbone, may be from the same person. A DNA sample was sent to confirm the result. By connecting cases together, the office has shrunk 39 cases to 27. 

Many of the remains are skeletal, so a cause of death remains difficult to determine for 68 percent of those found. For the remainder, the database tracks more than a dozen possible causes, including exposure and gunshot wounds. 

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"We see about 50 people who have died by firearms," said Hess. "By the vast majority have died from exposure." 

While the office handles other remains, migrant deaths are distinguished using a profile, built on a combination of factors, including clothing, personal items, bone condition, and mode of travel. 

That profile is rarely wrong, said Dr. Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist for the ME's office.

According to a report from the office, the vast majority of the dead are Mexicans, followed closely by Guatemalans and Salvadorans. 

As border security efforts have ramped up, the number of migrants who die in the desert has also increased, said Juanita Molina, executive director of Humane Borders.

"It was a miscalculation on the part of the government of the United States to think that the Arizona desert would be its own natural barrier," she said, noting that new enforcement tends to push people further into the desert away from historical travel routes that have natural water sources. 

The map will also help researchers identify shifting travel corridors, according to Jill Nunes, a spokeswoman for the Border Action Network in Tucson, which will give human rights groups a better understanding of where to place water supplies. 

"We are trying to put the pieces together," said Hess. "By doing so we try to give the families whatever closure we can." 

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Latest comments on this storyRead all 4 »

May 7, 2013, 7:28 pm
-2 +1

@Ted Prezelski

Well, sure, that’s an excellent point. Cats are more primal and we really can’t expect them to be able to read warning signs and follow laws. Humans we should be holding to a higher standard. So, perhaps the mistake is mine.

May 7, 2013, 7:26 pm
-1 +1

Here I thought they were human beings and not stray cats.

My mistake.

May 7, 2013, 6:28 pm
-3 +1

Another thought…I can’t recall reading a single time where a LEGAL immigrant died crossing the desert. Just sayin’

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

Dr. John Chamblee and Juanita Molina, both with Humane Borders, review a database that tracks migrant deaths after a press conference at the Pima County Medical Examiner's office on Monday.

“I’m glad to be able to help a small amount. I wish I could do more.”

— Dr. John Chamblee