The Sonoran Desert, Graveyard of the Migrants ~ NYT


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Listen 55:55

The United States border patrol agent found the body, a man’s, on the southern slope of a hill about three miles outside Sells, Ariz., known to locals with long memories as Bird Nest Hill. The man was face down, his head near a rocky outcropping, his legs stretching downhill. He lay with his left hand clenched beneath his chest, his right beneath his cheek, among tufts of buffelgrass and creosote. So inconspicuously did he blend into the landscape, a passer-by might have overlooked him. The agent might have, too, if not for the bright red waistband on the man’s underwear. Then there was the hair. Thick, dark, spiky, the hair looked fashioned, somehow, almost stylish, after all this time in the Sonoran Desert — surely weeks, the agent figured, and possibly months.

Beyond the dead man the desert sprawled hypnotically. Hills, basins, hills, basins, dusted with monsoon greenery but without a drop of water or a stitch of shade in sight. It was a clear morning, and a golden glow came off the desert. The agent could have gazed deep into Mexico, but he didn’t linger. The sun was pulsing, the humidity enveloping. At 10 a.m. on Aug. 28 last year, the temperature outside Sells was nearing 100 degrees.

There were no telling possessions on the man, no hunting rifle or camping pack, but there was one significant feature: his clothing. He wore a hooded jacket printed with real-tree camouflage and matching pant covers. His shoes were encased in carpet-soled bootees made to hide footprints. This was someone who had wanted not to be seen.

The Border Patrol apprehends migrants who cross the border unlawfully. The dead are not in its purview. When agents find corpses or human remains near the border, as they often do, they contact local law enforcement. In this case, the agent was patrolling on the lands of the Tohono O’odham Nation, and the tribal police had jurisdiction. The agent called the department’s headquarters in Sells and relayed the body’s GPS coordinates. A Tohono O’odham detective went out. Roads are scarce on the reservation, and he drove with a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle in tow.

The Tohono O’odham government does not have a full-time medical examiner, so once the detective retrieved the body, he called the medical examiner’s office in Pima County, Ariz., which borders the reservation. Under state law, unidentified corpses do not require autopsies unless foul play is suspected, but the Pima medical examiner makes a point of looking into the cases of bodies it suspects belong to migrants. An investigator from that office, a tall, hefty, bearded man with a utility vest and a badge on his hip, drove the 60 miles from Tucson, the county seat, to Sells.

The dead man was still on the rear cargo shelf of the A.T.V. at the headquarters when the investigator arrived. The scent filled the parking lot. The Tohono O’odham detective, a tall, clean-shaven man wearing a black cap, cargo pants and a pistol on his hip, gave the investigator the GPS coordinates and scene photographs.

“Did you check the scene?” the investigator asked.

“Yes,” the detective said, with little evident conviction.

At the medical examiner’s office in Tucson, the dead man was taken to the autopsy theater. There, two technicians and a pathologist in aprons, hair covers and face masks began moving about him with dolorous expertise and talking to one another in sentence fragments. One climbed a rolling ladder to photograph the body from above as another removed the clothing and probed the hems, felt the inner panels and inspected the belt and the tags and the labels. Migrants often travel with no identification or fake identification, but they can secret away genuine documents or phone numbers in their clothing. The technician didn’t find any of those things, though from the pants he pulled a nearly empty wallet and a pocket-size Gideon Bible with a blue plastic cover. The photographer fetched an infrared camera and through the viewfinder inspected the man’s limbs and torso, looking for tattoos. “My gut feeling is this guy doesn’t have any,” he said. He couldn’t say why, exactly. “It’s just my sense.”

He was right. His sense came of long experience. He had inspected more U.B.C.s, as the medical examiner calls them — undocumented border crossers — than he could count. The man on Bird Nest Hill was U.B.C. No.104 for the year, and it was only September. In the mid-1990s, the federal government introduced a policy of pushing undocumented migrants away from border cities and into increasingly remote locations. The policy persisted, and as it did, more people died. According to the Border Patrol, just under 8,000 migrants have turned up dead on the Southern border since 1998. The real number is probably much higher, but even going by the Border Patrol’s estimates, that is a rate of about one migrant death per day, every day of the last 22 years.

Slightly less than half of those deaths occur in southern Arizona, most in the Sonoran Desert. Almost all the bodies found there end up at the medical examiner’s office in Tucson. This fact has become widely known beyond the city, and every day the office receives calls about the missing from desperate families and foreign consulates.

The desert reduces its victims with barbarous celerity, and few of them are identifiable by outward appearance. The man on Bird Nest Hill was nearly mummified, his muscles and organs autolyzed and leached out, his eye sockets full of mud and insect carapaces. On the autopsy report, his weight was 38 pounds. That was heavier than many. Often only bones turn up.

Done with the examination, the pathologist and technicians leaned in to look at the man’s hands. Could the fingers be printed? “We can take them off,” a technician said, holding a scalpel apprehensively, “but I don’t know how well they’ll print.” Nevertheless, she severed both hands below the thumbs, placed them in a clear plastic bucket and poured in sodium hydroxide to rehydrate the skin. In a few days, she would see if the patterns of his fingertip pads had re-emerged.

Credit…Kevin Cooley for The New York Timesi

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