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Sunday, May 12, 2013 - Page updated at 05:32 a.m.

New database may help ID those who died in desert

By Cindy CarcamoCindy Carcamo
Los Angeles Times Los Angeles Times

TUCSON, Ariz. — The harsh Sonoran Desert claims the lives of hundreds of people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border each year. Many of the dead — about 1 in 3 — remain unidentified. Now there may be an easier way to put a name to some of the victims.

The Pima County medical examiner and the human-rights organization Humane Borders has launched an online system that will allow the public to identify the bodies found in southern Arizona — more than 2,000 over 13 years.

“I’m glad to be able to help a small amount. I wish I could do more,” said John Chamblee, research chairman for Humane Borders.

Although Humane Borders and the medical examiner’s office have distinct missions, both agencies want to raise awareness about migrant deaths and lessen the suffering of families. They can do that by helping to identify the dead and return the remains, Dr. Gregory Hess, chief medical examiner for Pima County, said at a news conference.

The Arizona Open­GIS Initiative for Deceased Migrants will include a map documenting deaths as far back to 2001. Any user can make inquiries online; the lists of the dead will be updated four times a year.

An anonymous donor gave $175,000 to develop the project, Hess said.

Since 2001, officials have found about 2,100 bodies believed to be migrants. About 700 of those remain unidentified but were determined to be border crossers, based on items found on the bodies and other factors.

In cases where only bones are found, medical examiner officials tend to assume the person is a migrant, and they are rarely wrong, said Dr. Bruce Anderson, forensic anthropologist for the Pima County medical examiner’s office.

It is unclear if deaths before 2001 will be included in the system, because information about them is incomplete, Hess said.

The hope is that the online portal will become a repository for migrant deaths throughout the Southwest, but that will depend on cooperation from other states and on future funding, he said.

The vast majority of those who die in the desert are Mexicans, followed by Guatemalans and Salvadorans, according to a report provided by the medical examiner’s office. Many die of exposure, Hess said, but the causes of death for 68 percent of the migrants are undetermined.

The website is expected to serve as a tool for humanitarian border groups who leave water along routes in the Sonoran Desert, said Jill Nunes, spokeswoman for human rights organization Border Action Network in Tucson.

“We’ll be studying how migration patterns have shifted,” Nunes said, adding that the maps will help the group know where to allocate its water.

So far this year, the Pima County Forensic Science Center has found 48 bodies believed to have been border crossers. They expect the number to climb during the summer.

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