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July’s heat yields a near-record number of migrant deaths, as families wait for loved ones to be identified

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Dr. Bruce Parks puts on a pair of deep dark sunglasses before he steps into the back lot behind his morgue.

The sun is blazing as usual in Tucson in August, and the truck he's walking to is outside in the heat. Housed under a giant steel ramada to ward off the sun, the big rig is a morgue on wheels.

Tall and lean—he's a competitive bicyclist—the Pima County medical examiner strides over to the huge truck and starts unlocking the padlock on the back doors. Then he stops, and hesitates.

"Are you sensitive to smells?" he asks. "There's a pretty bad smell in there."

Parks is right. When he opens the doors, the stench of death rolls out in a wave. It's overwhelming, dizzying, the smell of people who have died and can't yet be buried. They're here in the truck, in their white body bags, because they haven't yet been claimed or are yet to be identified, their bodies lingering on in a refrigerated limbo between the world and the grave.

"The people are not in the best condition," Parks says, almost apologetically. "Most of them are undocumented border crossers."

By the time they're found out in the wilderness, many of the dead migrants have begun to decompose, their flesh pulling away from their bones after just a few days in the ungodly heat. Maggots invade their eyes, birds gorge on their soft parts and coyotes scatter their skeletons. Some of them are in the desert for months or years, and they arrive at the morgue as disassembled bags of bones. Plenty, Parks says, are "here a long time."

This year has been the worst in years in sheer numbers of migrants dying in the Southern Arizona desert. So bad, in fact, that by early July Parks didn't have enough room in his two regular morgues to accommodate all of the dead. Hence the truck piled high with remains. With the extra slots afforded him by the truck, he's now got nearly 300 bodies in cold storage.

The last time this happened was in 2005, when Parks had so many bodies that he went out and rented a refrigerated truck to house the overflow. Pima County finally bought it—the rent had been $900 a week—and then scraped up funds to build a second morgue for Parks in 2006. With 220 slots in the two main morgues—one in the main building near Kino Hospital, the other in a separate structure outside—the medical examiner was able to retire the truck.

Until now.

The county had been keeping the truck in storage, "if ever there's some kind of disaster situation," he says. "I didn't expect to use it so soon."

The public health disaster that brought the truck back into service was a near-record number of undocumented border crossers losing their lives in the Arizona desert. Despite a significant decline in the number of migrants trying to walk into the U.S., the deaths are up, way up.

As of July 31, the toll was 214 across the four border counties for fiscal 2010, which won't end until Sept. 30. Compare that to 163 as of that date last year. (The entire fiscal year 2009, from Oct. 1, 2008, to Sept. 30, racked up 206 bodies.)

Even before the deadly summer heat started, a wet winter took more lives than usual.

"Ten people did die from the cold this winter," just in Parks' bailiwick of Pima and Santa Cruz counties. "Sometimes we don't get any."

Besides the expected deaths from walking outdoors for too long in the desert, people died in a series of calamities. Four days after Gov. Jan Brewer focused the world's attention on Arizona when she signed SB 1070, Elvira Brambila-Vallejo, 44, died on April 27, of peritonitis near Ironwood Forest National Monument northwest of Tucson. Her coyotes threw her out of the van, leaving her to die at the side of the road in the company of her 14-year-old son. On May 26, 28-year-old Martín Olguin-Lozoya was crushed to death on a train in Tubac. Over in Cochise County, on June 3, Maria Reyes Ramirez and her unborn child were killed in a highway accident in Benson. On June 30, a young woman, as yet unidentified, drowned in a canal near Eloy.

But the burning heat of July took the biggest toll.

It was Parks' second-worst month ever. He got 59 migrant bodies, a huge jump over the 22 that arrived in June, and way more than he saw in the two previous Julys. Last summer, in July 2009, he had the corpses of 33 border crossers; in July 2008, he had 20.

For a while there, in the first two weeks this July, he worried he was going to surpass the terrible toll of July 2005, his worst-ever month, when he got 69 migrant bodies.

On July 1, the day it was 113 degrees in Sells, the body of Alfredo Daboxtha-Daniel was brought in from the Tohono O'odham Nation. After that, the body bags came in waves, five on July 2, one on July 3, then two each on three days running, from the Fourth of July to July 6.

On the seventh day death rested. Then July 8 and July 9 each brought in three. Two of the July ninth deaths were women from Mexican villages—Maria Julieta Lorenzo-Garcia, 23, and Irene Martinez Marta, 38—and one was a skeleton. After these three showed up, Parks ordered up the truck, and not a minute too soon. July 11 brought a staggering harvest of six bodies.

Four more dead migrants came in on the 12th, two on the 13th, one on the 14th, then a record-making seven on the 15th.

Parks says he and his staff don't study why the numbers jumped so high—"It's our job to figure out how people die"—but he did do a little analysis of the July carnage.

"I tagged all the deaths that were handled by the Tohono O'odham Police Department," he says. "Forty-four out of the 59 deaths were on the Tohono O'odham Reservation," for a long time the deadliest migrant corridor. "There seems to be a belief migrants are traveling off the beaten path, off the safer corridors, into inhospitable terrain."

And while plenty of skeletons came in, a majority of the deaths were fresh.

"I did a cursory exam, looking at decomposition. That showed that two-thirds of the people had died within a week or so."

Most of these succumbed to hyperthermia and dehydration, not surprising when the Rez had 20 days in July tht topped 100 degrees.

These deaths of migrants, Parks says, are "senseless and tragic. People say, 'They should have known' or 'They're committing a crime.'" More than anything else, the deaths bear witness to the "drive to get out of poverty," he says. "The innocent are the most difficult to accept. I try not to think about it."

It was 106 degrees the day that Maria Julieta Lorenzo-Garcia stepped into Arizona.

Out on the Tohono O'odham Nation, it had been hot, hot, hot for days, 102, 103, but on July 8 the mercury spiked. The sun beat down, and there was no sign of the monsoon rains.

Maria Julieta, 23 years old, was trudging through this furnace with her husband, Sixto Hernandez Garcia. They had come a long way already, from the little town of Santa Ana Hueytlalpan, high in the mountains of Hidalgo, in eastern Mexico, not too far from the Gulf of Mexico. At 7,155 feet, Santa Ana was cool and well-watered.

This desert was nothing like home. This place was flat and dry, with few trees and even fewer people to ask for help.

She and Sixto crossed into America in a no-man's land near La Lesna Peak, about 20 miles east of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, making their way past the vehicle barriers planted along the international line. Maria Julieta was heavyset, 158 pounds on a 5 foot 3 frame, in no condition to walk in this heat. She didn't get far. Just a short distance from the border she collapsed.

Sixto called for help on his cell, and the message was relayed to Julie Gallagher, one of the highly trained agents in BORSTAR, the Border Patrol's search and rescue team.

Gallagher sped south toward the border and, as she later reported, glimpsed Sixto heading back to Mexico.

When he saw the agent, he waved at her to stop and then came back to the American side. Yes, he told her, it was he who had called, and it was his wife who was in the desert, in danger. He climbed aboard Gallagher's SUV and led her to his unconscious wife.

Gallagher saw right away that Maria Julieta was in a precarious condition. She had gone into the "agonal" breathing that often heralds the arrival of death, gasping for air in short, irregular breaths. The agent loaded her patient into her vehicle, and took the pair to a nearby Border Patrol field base at Papago Farms and called for a helicopter.

The copter arrived at 9:30 in the evening, and the medics worked frantically on Maria Julieta. An hour later, when she was air-lifted to St. Mary's Hospital in Tucson, Sixto wasn't on board. As his critically ill wife flew east, he was driven west, under arrest, to the Border Patrol station in Ajo.

The docs tried to save the young woman—in a desperate attempt to help her breathe, they cut open her throat in a tracheotomy; strung her up to an IV; put tubes up her nose—but by 5 in the morning they gave up. She had gone into multi-system organ failure, with one vital organ after the other shutting down.

The Ajo station got the call that Maria Julieta was close to death, and agents took Sixto to Tucson.

Around 3 p.m. on the afternoon of July 9, she died without ever regaining consciousness. Sixto was by her side when she passed away, the report notes, and he was "provided the opportunity to grieve his alleged wife at the hospital." Then he was taken away to the Tucson Border Patrol station, to be sent back to Mexico.

The young woman from the cool mountains of Hidalgo was taken to Dr. Parks' morgue, but her body spent only a short time there. Sixto had identified her, and authorized her remains to be sent home, courtesy of the Mexican Consulate in Tucson.

An autopsy concluded the obvious: The healthy young woman had died of complications of hyperthermia, commonly known as heat stroke. If she hadn't been in that fiery heat, she wouldn't have died.

The jump in deaths like Maria Julieta's was so noticeable this summer that Dr. Parks began wondering if more migrants were suddenly making the journey north.

Not so, says David Jimarez, a spokesman for the Tucson Sector Border Patrol, which monitors all of the Arizona-Sonora border except for Yuma County.

"Our apprehension numbers are down," Jimarez says. "We've had 194,000 between Oct. 1, 2009, and July 30, 2010." In that time frame last year, in fiscal 2009, the number was 205,000. "So it's a drop."

No one really knows for sure how many migrants try their luck crossing the line, and the only firm numbers we have are Border Patrol arrest records. Even those aren't perfectly clear: The agency counts only total arrests and doesn't separate out those who are arrested multiple times.

These apprehension figures have been tumbling for several years. (Compare the 2010 numbers to 2000, when the Tucson Sector made 616,000 arrests.) Migration has dipped partly because of the economic downturn, partly because of greater enforcement.

But the deaths haven't dropped in tandem with the arrests. Instead, casualties have shot up, meaning that the absolute risk of death per individual has gone way up.

Jimarez chalks up the higher death toll to coyote greed.

"The alien smugglers are consumed with profit and money," he says. "They start taking individuals into treacherous terrain. Often the aliens are being lied to. They're told, 'The trip will be easy, you don't need hiking boots.'

"They come with not enough water. It's physically impossible to carry enough water for a three- to five-day journey." And three days is what it takes to get from the border to, say, a ride along Route 86 in the Tohono O'Odham Nation. A traveler in good shape would require five days' minimum to walk to Tucson. "If they don't keep up, they get left behind."

To make matters worse this year, "the monsoon came late," says Kat Rodriguez of Coalición de Derechos Humanos. Rodriguez tallies all migrant deaths in all four border counties—Maria Julieta was number 172 on her list for fiscal 2010. (Rodriguez's 10-year total is a staggering 2,065 bodies found.) She also works closely with the medical examiner's office to identify the dead who linger longer in the morgue.

"The monsoon was two weeks late this year," she says, accounting in part for the heat in early July and the rash of deaths.

Another culprit is one Jimarez brings up himself.

The Border Patrol "has had more success in getting operational control," he says proudly. "We have been able to move into remote areas and expand." But greater "operational control"—more agents, more walls and more high-tech detection equipment—translates into border crossers getting pushed into more dangerous country.

"They said they were going to make it harder and more difficult to get through," says activist Ed McCullough, "and they succeeded." A retired dean of science at the UA, McCullough is spending his golden years plotting migrant deaths on maps. His most recent, charting deaths through the end of July, clearly shows death clusters on the remote reaches of the reservation.

Rodriguez says family members seeking the missing used to report most often that their loved ones had come through Sasabe. Now that Sasabe is barricaded by walls for miles, "I'm hearing about Sonoyta and Ajo," points closer to the west reservation.

The Sasabe corridor and points east at least have some water, courtesy of activists in Humane Borders and No More Deaths who fill water tanks and place water bottles along well-traveled trails.

The Tohono O'odham Nation, though, for years has denied Humane Borders access to its land. (The group has had some discussions with tribal leaders this summer, says executive director Sofia Gomez, who is hopeful a resolution can be reached.)

Mike Wilson, a Tohono O'odham who lives off-Rez, regularly defies the tribe's ban on water stations. In a years-long, one-man protest movement, Wilson's been putting water out in the eastern edge of the Nation, west of the Baboquivaris and south along the border.

Wilson's dogged efforts haven't stopped the deaths. McCullough's maps zero in on the reservation's death traps: the Chukut Kuk district along the border, where Maria Julieta was found barely alive; the Pisinemo district, west of Sells, where her compatriot Irene Martinez Marta was found decomposing; and the Sells district itself, where Manuel Vargas Zaldivar ended his journey from Honduras.

Manuel Vargas Zaldivar spent much of the summer on one of Parks' refrigerated shelves.

His body was found June 22 out on the reservation, northwest of Sells, near the village of Iron Stand, just three miles south of Route 86. He was not identified until mid-August when his sister, Maria Alicia Catania, tracked him down to the Pima County morgue.

A gardener in California with a wife and four children, Vargas was the beloved baby of a family of nine brothers and sisters from Honduras.

"He came here 19 years ago," says his big sister Maria Alicia Catania. Maria was the first of the family to come north, after she fell in love with an American citizen and married him. Manuel and five other siblings eventually followed her.

There wasn't much for them back home in Choloma, Cortez, in the rainy tropical lowlands near the Caribbean on Honduras' northwest coast.

"When we were kids, my dad worked in field work," Catania says. "He didn't make a lot of money, $10 or $20 a week, maybe sometimes $100 a month. Families were big and there were no jobs back then."

Manuel was just 18 when he left home for the first time in 1992, crossing easily and safely into San Diego through the porous border at Tijuana.

"He didn't tell me he was coming!" his sister remembers with a laugh. "He called me from L.A. and asked me to come and pick him up."

Manuel settled in Sacramento and married a Mexican woman. They had two boys, now ages 14 and 16, and two girls, 4 and 9. He was happy there, working for himself, tending flowers and plants. On weekends he volunteered at a local Salvation Army, cooking for the homeless, and when friends and family back home needed money, Manuel found a way to send it, his sister says.

But he itched to go back home. His first attempt to return to Honduras around 2000 was cut short when his was picked up by immigration authorities in Phoenix. Somehow they let him go, and he went back to Sacramento. Despite that setback, he was determined to try again. He wanted to visit his elderly father.

"He was obsessed. He wanted to go see my dad, who's 80 years old. But it cost him his life."

Around January, Vargas loaded up a car with American goods—kitchenware for his dad, clothes and an iPod for a grown son from an earlier relationship—and steered south. It took him two weeks to drive all the way through Mexico, through Guatemala and into Honduras, but this time the trip went smoothly.

Vargas hadn't been home in 19 years and he spent five months spoiling his father, getting to know his son, visiting with the brother and sister who stayed in Honduras. When it came time to go back to California, he sold the car; he would use the proceeds to pay a coyote.

Planning to follow the route he took last time, he arrived in Tijuana in June. This time around, post-Operation Gatekeeper—the federal effort to secure the border around San Diego—he found walls and agents everywhere. He asked around and learned that Altar, Sonora, 59 miles south of Sasabe, Arizona, was now the place to go to find a coyote who would smuggle him across.

"He went to Altar and called us," Catania says. "He said it was like a Wal-Mart for migrants, with backpacks and bottles of water, everything you'd need. He called on the 11th of June. He said, 'This weekend I have a coyote who will cross me. On Tuesday I'll be home.'"

That was the last time Catania ever talked to her brother.

At first Manuel had good luck in the weather. The day he started out, June 12, it was only 85 degrees on the reservation. But then the temperatures started climbing: 92, then 97, then, on June 15, 101. Manuel was healthy, a 36-year-old who worked outdoors, but still he succumbed to the inferno. Eleven days after his phone call to his family, the Border Patrol found his badly deteriorated body abandoned in the desert.

Catania has only recently learned of the region's migrant casualties. "I never heard of the dangers of the Arizona desert," she laments. "I wish I would have known."

Her beloved baby brother was labeled a John Doe, and shipped in a body bag to the Pima County morgue. On Kat Rodriguez's chronicle of the year's dead, the unidentified Manuel Vargas Zaldivar was number 145. Cause of death: hyperthermia.

The story of migration is in the bones.

Dr. Bruce Anderson, the morgue's forensic anthropologist, reads a skeleton to learn a migrant's life story. The bones tell him the migrant's ethnicity—almost always either indigenous or a mixture of Indian and Spanish—and even socioeconomic status. Embedded in the bones is a record of the deprivation that pushes the travelers north.

"We're seeing their medical history reflected in their bodies and their bones," Anderson says.

Bones found on the reservation Aug. 8 have made their way to a gurney in Anderson's lab a few days later. They're blackened around the edges, and some tendons still cling to the spine. He has arranged them roughly in the shape of a normal human skeleton and placed the deceased's cheap dentures alongside.

Eyeballing his handiwork, Anderson makes a pronouncement: "He had bad teeth, and underdeveloped stature. Border crossers typically are a good 1½ to 2 inches shorter than local Hispanic Americans." Their small size, he says, bears witness to lifelong poor nutrition, from childhood on, and poor medical care.

"It's not the affluent who are coming. It's not the light-skinned, tall Spaniards. Those people don't have to cross the border. We see a lot more indios. They're underprivileged."

Anderson can't pinpoint the ancestry of the skeleton on his table because he doesn't have the skull. Animals routinely separate heads from the rest of a body they're devouring. "He wasn't beheaded," he hastens to add, responding in advance to Jan Brewer's false claim that migrants have been slicing off people's heads. In all his years at the lab, he declares, "I've never seen a beheading."

What he does see is people who have lived and died in grim circumstances. The man on his gurney was 40 to 50 years old, older than the border crosser average of 27 or 28. He had a healed rib fracture. "He had some trauma probably some years prior," Anderson says. "A lot of them have old fractures. They lead hard lives."

The man's skeleton had been drying out in the desert anywhere from 10 to 16 months, meaning some family, somewhere, has been worrying for a year about a son, a husband, a father. They don't yet know he's dead, and only will know if the lab and its partners can figure out his identify.

Skeletons are the hardest of all the remains to put a name to, but this man's distinctive dentures may provide a clue to his identity. They've left space for the few natural teeth the man still had and one of the fake teeth has a decorative silver topping. The lab's Robin Reineke, Derechos Humanos's Kat Rodriguez and the Mexican consul's Lorenia Ton will pore through their records, trying their best to find a match linking those dentures, that rib fracture and that approximate range for date of death with a missing persons report already filed by a family.

Meantime, the 40-something's bones will remain in cold storage.

Irene Martinez Marta, a 38-year-old woman from Oaxaca, carried no ID, but her body was identified relatively quickly. Her husband in California called Rodriguez after her traveling companions alerted him that Irene had been left behind in the desert.

She had gone back home to her village in southern Mexico to care for her ailing elderly mother. On her return trip, through the reservation, Irene had trouble walking the first day out. It was July 8, the day of the 106-degree heat that also felled Maria Julieta.

That night she told the women with her, "I can't make it." The next morning her companions couldn't rouse her and they left her behind, near Santa Cruz village in the Pisinemo district.

The Border Patrol happened upon her body that evening, and made arrangements to have the Tohono O'odham police pick her up the next morning. Just one day after death, her body was in bad shape, bloated and partially decomposed; her face was unrecognizable.

Once her body was at the morgue, though, identification went swiftly. The husband was able to give Rodriguez details of what his wife was wearing: blue shirt and jeans, a yellow hairclip, a blue hair tie. A dentist e-mailed info on her teeth. And the body in the morgue conformed to Irene's tiny size: she was just 5 feet tall and 105 pounds.

Her body was quickly returned to her old parents in Oaxaca, in the village of San Cristobal Lachirioag. They would bury the daughter who had so lately cared for them.

By contrast, Manuel Vargas Zaldivar lay unidentified in the morgue for weeks while his family frantically searched for him. A coyote was calling them regularly, threatening to kill Manuel if the family didn't come up with $1,000. But his wife and sisters were suspicious—the coyote didn't seem to know his name, and they never allowed Manuel to get on the phone.

His sister Maria Alicia called every agency in Sonora and in Phoenix that she could think of, but it never occurred to her to call Tucson. Then the story of the bodies overflowing at the Pima County morgue made national and international news. Catania happened to catch the story on Spanish-language Univision.

She rang up the morgue immediately and got Robin Reineke on the line.

"As soon as she said his name, I recognized it," says Reineke, a UA grad student in anthro who works part-time at the morgue. "I remembered seeing his name on an ID. I called her back in an hour and a half. I described the things he was carrying, the scar on his index finger.

"She started weeping, got very emotional," Reineke says. "I hate to call people to tell them, but it's better to know than not know."

After more tests were done—an infrared camera detected a tattoo on Manuel's arm that was already invisible to the naked eye—the body was released for burial. On Aug. 18, it was flown to California, where Manuel was to be buried out of the Salvation Army chapel where he once served the homeless. The already grieving family was stricken even more when they made the mistake of looking at his remains. Skeletized and decayed, the body bore the marks of all Manuel had suffered in the desert.

The angry rhetoric raging in the nation against immigrants is a "disheartening thing," Kat Rodriguez says. "We have gotten to such an ugly place."

People forget, she adds, that "these are mothers and children, fathers and brothers and sons who are dying in horrible ways."

More by Margaret Regan

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