Tucson—The workers in the morgue stacked the bodies on tall metal shelving, until the cooler was full, and no one else would fit.
Then, they rented a 55-foot trailer with an air-conditioner that hums in the triple-digit heat. It was supposed to be temporary, but that, too, grew crowded with dead immigrants.
Along the deadliest stretch of the U.S.-Mexican border, coroners and consulates are struggling to keep up with a record volume of bodies that are pouring into morgues like the one in Tucson. Border officials have dealt with unclaimed bodies and burials for decades, but they also face financial, moral and political questions as the bodies pile up.
Dr. Bruce Parks, the Pima County chief medical examiner, has more than 100 bodies of undocumented immigrants in the morgue, some new arrivals, others dating as far back as 2004. Since Jan. 1, he’s received a record number—83—compared with this time last year, when he had 60. The start of the summer temperatures has been brutal, he said, with six dead in one June weekend, the worst so far this year.
“The main thing now is just bracing ourselves for the new people coming in,” Parks said. “We’re already behind, and it’s picking up again.”
Taxpayers pay for autopsies, storage and cremation of dead undocumented immigrants brought into the Tucson facility. Mexican authorities in the U.S. are helping officials identify the dead, but with so many bodies pouring into the morgue, it’s been difficult to get a handle on the situation.
Year after year, the undocumented-immigrant death toll in Arizona has climbed to record levels. In 2005, the U.S. Border Patrol recorded more than 500 deaths along the southern border with Mexico, with more than half of the bodies found in Arizona. Parks estimates that since 2000, the Pima County morgue has taken in at least 830 undocumented immigrants who died while crossing the border, at an estimated cost of more than $800,000 to local taxpayers.
With so many dead, the Mexican consulates and medical examiners along the border have struggled to identify the dead.
Since January, the Mexican consulate has identified just over half of the bodies of undocumented immigrants, 32 of 61 bodies, said Alejandro Ramos Cardoso, a spokesman for the Mexican consulate in Tucson. Last year, the Mexican government launched a database known as SIRLI, System for the Identification of Remains and Localization of Individuals, maintained by the Mexican government. The medical examiner’s office, working closely with the Mexican consulate, carefully maps dental records, notes age estimates and any belongings. The information is put into the SIRLI database, searchable in Mexican government offices, so families can use the Internet to find people who vanish headed north to the United States.
In cases when the body is still not identified, Parks’ office saves a piece of bone to send to a researcher in Waco, Texas, who has created a DNA database for undocumented immigrants who die along the border. Family members from Mexico can send in their own DNA if investigators suspect a match is likely, leading to at least a dozen matches so far, Ramos said.
Still, the bodies keep coming in, far faster than they can be processed.