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Death in the Desert

Mother Jones has an interesting article in its latest issue about the “Juan Doe” problem: What do U.S. officials do with the dead bodies of migrants they find in the desert? It’s a particularly important question this year, as deaths among border crossers are nearing record levels in Pima County, Ariz.

Increased border patrols often funnel migrants through the harsh terrain and climates in the county, where 170 dead border crossers have already been discovered this year. In many cases, deaths happen when migrants are left by their groups, a border patrol agent told Mother Jones:

Guerrero says the situation is classic. When border crossers get into trouble, it’s frequently because they separated from a larger group, the coyote telling them they’ll be fine if they just walk that way for a little while. Luckily, in this case, Luis had a cell phone, so they called the Mexican equivalent of 911, which called the US Border Patrol, which dispatched Guerrero.

Some days, Guerrero is out on rescues, like the one I tagged along on today. Other days he stalks around like a crime detective, following trails of footsteps and bits of torn clothing on barbed wire fences, trying to find migrants whose compañeros had to leave them behind. The father or friend of the person will finally make it to a road, flag down an agent, explain where they left the person, and ask for help.

“You start seeing the person is going left and then a hard right, and then left, and then you see them kind of make a circle. And you know exactly what’s going on. And you keep walking and now you’ve found a belt. And you keep walking and you find a wallet and…shoes. I mean, you’re starting to picture this person—they’re, they’re…they’ve lost it. Their mind is gone. And they’re just aimlessly…just walking. And you know that when you get to them, they’re going to be dead.”

If border crossers are alive, patrols often find them. If they’re dead, patrols often find them, too, but the outcomes are much different. In Pima County, they are taken to the Medical Examiner’s office, which has investigated increasing numbers of migrant deaths since 2001. About 70 percent are eventually identified, but another 30 percent are turned over to be cremated or buried in a local cemetery.

Devoting resources to the endeavor is somewhat controversial — as are humanitarian efforts to prevent deaths by leaving water in the desert for border crossers. But for now, those tasked with the effort in Pima County seem committed to finding the identities of dead migrants or at least putting them to rest respectfully.

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