The Busiest Morgue on the Border

Hundreds of unidentified migrants die every year crossing the U.S. border in Arizona. The only hope of identifying them is to read their sun-bleached bones

Credits: Judith Dubin and Paul Ewen

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Unless you live in Tucson, Arizona, you may never have heard of Pima County. But its morgue has earned itself a notorious reputation. It’s the busiest one in the country for migrant deaths—the end of the road for more than 2,000 people who have tried to cross the vast Sonoran Desert north of the Mexico border since 2001.

The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office lies about an hour north of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, a 262-mile stretch of border that is consistently the deadliest in the country for migrants trying to enter the U.S. illegally. An average of 176 migrants die in that area every year, mostly from dehydration or hypothermia. Smugglers divert migrants into increasingly remote parts of the desert—some say as a result of enhanced border security in the more populated areas of Arizona.

About a third of the migrants who have passed through Pima County’s morgue remain unidentified—creating a backlog of bodies that lie in the cold room until forensic pathologists and anthropologists can conclude their investigation. “If someone dies in the U.S., typically you know who they are and they don’t spend a lot of time at the medical examiner’s office,” says Dr. Gregory Hess, Pima County’s chief medical examiner. “If you don’t know who the person is, then the process stops.” 

A few years ago, the county had to build an additional cold room to accommodate all the remains. It now has storage for about 275 bodies, making it one of the largest morgues in the country.

“It’s like solving a puzzle,” Hess says of trying to identify the migrants. “Not all the remains we find are full bodies. There may be remains or portions of remains that are spread by the weather and animal activity.”  The investigation is made even more difficult because most of the migrants do not carry ID.

Vocativ recently visited Pima County’s morgue, where the cold case investigations bear little resemblance to an episode of CSI. “It’s not solving things in 45 minutes with commercials,” Hess says.

 

Unless you live in Tucson, Arizona, you may never have heard of Pima County. But its morgue has earned itself a notorious reputation. It’s the busiest one in the country for migrant deaths—the end of the road for more than 2,000 people who have tried to cross the vast Sonoran Desert north of the Mexico border since 2001.

The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office lies about an hour north of the U.S. Border Patrol’s Tucson sector, a 262-mile stretch of border that is consistently the deadliest in the country for migrants trying to enter the U.S. illegally. An average of 176 migrants die in that area every year, mostly from dehydration or hypothermia. Smugglers divert migrants into increasingly remote parts of the desert—some say as a result of enhanced border security in the more populated areas of Arizona.

About a third of the migrants who have passed through Pima County’s morgue remain unidentified—creating a backlog of bodies that lie in the cold room until forensic pathologists and anthropologists can conclude their investigation. “If someone dies in the U.S., typically you know who they are and they don’t spend a lot of time at the medical examiner’s office,” says Dr. Gregory Hess, Pima County’s chief medical examiner. “If you don’t know who the person is, then the process stops.” 

A few years ago, the county had to build an additional cold room to accommodate all the remains. It now has storage for about 275 bodies, making it one of the largest morgues in the country.

“It’s like solving a puzzle,” Hess says of trying to identify the migrants. “Not all the remains we find are full bodies. There may be remains or portions of remains that are spread by the weather and animal activity.”  The investigation is made even more difficult because most of the migrants do not carry ID.

Vocativ recently visited Pima County’s morgue, where the cold case investigations bear little resemblance to an episode of CSI. “It’s not solving things in 45 minutes with commercials,” Hess says.

 

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