Friday, August 19, 2005

Illegals "HU-mYns" dying at record rate in Arizona desert

Illegals dying at record rate in Arizona desert
10:45 PM 8/19/2005

By Dennis Wagner, USA TODAYFri Aug 19, 7:18 AM ET

The smell of death floated on a sweltering August breeze near the Mexican border, emanating from an immigrant's corpse.

He had expired beneath a mesquite tree on the Tohono O'odham Indian nation 45 miles southwest of Tucson, apparently trying to escape the Sonoran sun, trying to get to America.

John Doe No. 130.

That's the name and number given to him by authorities in a year when Arizona has set new records for deaths among undocumented immigrants along the state's 389-mile border with Mexico.

With about six weeks remaining in the Border Patrol's fiscal year - and more Border Patrol agents patrolling than ever - 201 men, women and children have succumbed to the elements in Arizona.

In Pima County, which includes Tohono O'odham and Tucson, so many corpses are waiting to be identified, autopsied and returned to Mexico that the coroner is storing 60 of them in a refrigerator truck.

Arizona has emerged as ground zero in the nation's debate over illegal immigration. Minutemen Project volunteers launched patrols this spring to stop border crossers, while humanitarian groups set up water stations and gave medical help to immigrants.

"Each of these individuals has dignity, and we need to recognize that," says Beth Sanders of No More Deaths, a coalition of volunteers who cruise the back roads offering water and medical care. Another group, Humane Borders, posts maps on the Mexican side showing where deaths have occurred and warning in Spanish, "Don't go. It's not worth the suffering."

But the incursion is relentless. Since Oct. 1, Border Patrol agents have caught more than 500,000 "undocumented aliens" in the agency's Tucson and Yuma sectors, which include all of Arizona and a 16-mile stretch of California's border. No one knows how many got through.

In the last week, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson declared an emergency in their states' border counties, freeing up money for more law enforcement to combat crime and violence linked to illegal immigration.

The problem stems from federal border policies dating to the late 1990s. First, the government moved to stop illegal immigration in California and Texas. Next, Border Patrol agents clamped down in urban areas along the nation's 1,951-mile border with Mexico.

As a result, smugglers and their human clients have been funneled to a deadly passageway - Arizona's remote desert.

By all indications, John Doe No. 130 was among those.

His past is unknown.

So is where he will wind up.

At the mercy of coyotes

The passage for hundreds of Mexicans every month begins after dark in Altar, a town along the Sonora highway south of Sasabe, Ariz. Coyotes - smugglers - drive carloads of immigrants north on dirt roads to the barbed wire fence that separates Mexico from the USA.

The immigrants, known as pollos (chickens), carry almost nothing: Each has a knapsack, water and a trash bag to sleep on, hide under or wear as a poncho. Many from Mexico's interior cannot comprehend the desert, where summer temperatures reach 115 or higher. Despite Spanish-language media campaigns warning of death, they are spurred by dreams of employment - and by the knowledge that millions have made it before them.

Entering the Tohono O'odham wilderness, they dodge motion sensors, video cameras, helicopters and agents with infrared goggles. They hike under starlight along zigzag trails, getting stabbed by cholla cacti and clawed by thorny scrub. In the heat of the day, they hunker down beneath palo verde trees.

When something goes wrong, says Border Patrol spokesman Gustavo Soto, the coyotes are ruthless: "They are abandoning people in the farthest extremes of the desert. It is a business to these smugglers, and they don't care if they leave people behind (to die)."

Bodies now 'almost routine'

On one recent hot day, Sgt. Vincent Garcia of the Tohono O'odham tribal police wheels his four-wheel-drive Suburban near Sells to an open fence along the border.

Weeks earlier, at the zenith of Arizona's third-hottest July on record, authorities found six bodies in a single day on the reservation. Garcia, 42, recalls entire years with only one or two. "When we first started coming across UDA (undocumented alien) bodies, it was a big deal: 'Hey, somebody died,' " the 16-year veteran says. "Now, it's almost routine."

Minutes later, a dispatcher's voice crackles over the car radio, announcing that BORSTAR, the patrol's search-and-rescue team, has spotted a victim three miles northwest of Comobabi Village.

After taking down GPS (global positioning system) coordinates, Garcia meets with homicide Lt. Mike Ford and thrashes along dirt roads through the Sonoran bush. The desert here, 40 miles from Mexico, is littered with plastic water jugs, clothing and other refuse discarded by the tide of immigrants.

The road peters out. While Garcia looks for another route, Ford walks the last mile, relying on GPS and his nose.

He says he has recovered hundreds of bodies and views it as a service to victims and their families. "If you stand where they died and look around, you can almost feel their desperation at the end," he adds.

Ford says John Doe No. 130 probably hiked three days and nights. Flies buzz around the torso. The severed skull rests a few feet away, perhaps moved by animals.

Ford treats the area as a crime scene, going to work with gloves, mask, camera and other detective tools extracted from a cardboard box. Near the body, someone has fashioned a cross from two sticks and a strip of torn shirt. Ford completes his investigation, reverently removes a rosary from the shrine and says, "Obviously, somebody cared."

As the remains are zipped into a white body bag, the lieutenant wonders: Who was this guy? Where did he come from? What happened?

Pima County coroners have so many corpses they no longer conduct full autopsies on decomposed remains of suspected immigrants.

Nine days after John Doe No. 130 is recovered, an external examination is completed. The cause of death: hyperthermia, or heat stroke.

Bruce Parks, the coroner, says stress overtaxes the body's cooling system. As the body temperature soars to 107 degrees, blood pressure plummets. Vital organs fail. Victims suffer cramps, nausea, exhaustion. Some strip or go crazy. "Ultimately, they just sit down or collapse," Parks adds.

Final stop: County graveyard

Among the remains of John Doe No. 130, coroners found a Mexican birth certificate for someone named "Concepcion Perez Alvarado." Eric Peters, deputy chief medical examiner, says it is unclear whether that document belonged to the deceased.

Police and medical examiners log and preserve details from unidentified bodies - physical marks, clothing, fingerprints, DNA samples - hoping that family members can be traced. The information is shared with the Mexican Consulate's office in Tucson, which keeps a database on missing citizens.

In the end, Parks says, about 30% of the victims are never identified.

"It's really sad," adds Marisol Vindiola, a spokeswoman for the Mexican Consulate. "They call and say, 'My relative is missing. He was supposed to cross the border, and he never showed up.' "

Eventually - sometimes after months in cold storage - Mexican bodies are picked up for embalming by Adair Funeral Home in Tucson, where general manager Patrick Foley provides "repatriation" services at a discount.

"We're doing whatever we can," Foley notes. "There's no money to be made."

A death certificate must be secured for the trip south, along with a corpse removal permit. Remains are flown by commercial jet in sealed containers to the homeland. Foley says there is a lengthy backlog for flights "due to the volume of deceased going to Mexico."

Unidentified bodies, meanwhile, are presumed to be American citizens. They become the responsibility of Anita Royal, Pima County's public fiduciary. She joins the search for survivors.

"I have to try to make this a reunion for the family," Royal says. "But at some point you have to give up and bury those bodies. What we typically get are body parts, if you want to be macabre about it. We bury them in baby caskets."

Royal shuns the term "potters field," referring instead to the county graveyard as a cemetery for indigents. If the body from Comobabi Village is not claimed, she says, it will be interred there one day under a stone marker that says:

John Doe, found Aug. 2, 2005.

Contributors: Wagner reports daily for The Arizona Republic


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