Jesús Alberto Cabral López loved to dance, especially to Norteña music. The night before he left Villa Juárez, Sonora, for the United States, the 22-year old gathered with friends, dancing to the bouncy swing of his favorite songs. He called his mother from the border a few days later — just before he slipped to the other side. "Don't worry, you just ask God to help me across," he assured her. "I'll call you when I get to California." That was May 12, 2006. It was the last time Guadalupe López heard from her son.
One year less one day after Jesús illegally crossed the border, Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist with the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office, opens a white zippered body bag. In it are the remains of John Doe 055, found four days earlier in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Tucson.
Anderson removes 44 dry and discolored bones, including a skull, and arranges them on a table. Next to him, Jerónimo García, a representative of the Mexican Consulate in Tucson, searches an olive green backpack found with the bones for clues — a document, a letter, a name scrawled on a scrap of paper. All he finds are the initials CH.VEL inked onto the outside of the bag.
Anderson believes the remains are those of a young man. He finds no signs of traumatic injury.
"This boy has been out there for about a year," he says. "That's why it's important to find some lead, a phone number, dental work, or a bit of clothing."
The U.S. Border Patrol has recovered 2,994 bodies along the U.S.-Mexico border in the past seven years. Each disappearance of an illegal border crosser is agonizing to family members, whose lives often become a desperate quest for news of their loved ones, no matter how grim.
But the impact of so many people dying in the vast, remote deserts lining the nearly 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border reaches far beyond a mother's tears.
Government agencies in both countries share the burden of identifying the bodies, a number that has climbed to a record 204 handled by Pima County's medical examiner for the fiscal year that ends today.
The Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, which stretches from the western edge of New Mexico to the eastern edge of Yuma County, is by far the deadliest corridor for illegal crossers, with 190 known deaths through Sept. 16 of this fiscal year, and 1,137 since 2000.
Identifying the dead can be exceptionally difficult — roughly half of dead illegal border crossers are found with no identification, and many of the IDs that are recovered turn out to be borrowed or fake.
Factor in the myriad local, state, tribal and federal law enforcement agencies as well as the Mexican government, all expected to work together, and opportunities for fumbles abound.
With no formal procedures in place, and a slogging cross-border bureaucracy bound by complex internal policies and procedures, documents can be lost, misplaced, or delayed.
Stumbling blocks on both sides of the border can frustrate families and government workers alike.
For example, the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Relations, similar to the U.S. State Department, requires that all official U.S.-bound correspondence be sent via diplomatic courier. That can add weeks to the process as the pouch makes its way from consulate office to consulate office in the United States.
Documents, clothing and other property found with the body, which might prove valuable for identification, are sometimes withheld or become separated from the remains — despite verbal agreements that the two be sent together to the medical examiner.
And DNA testing, which in many cases is the last option for identifying the dead, not only is marred by bureaucratic communication requirements, but is done in Texas rather than Pima County, where 85 percent of the cases requiring analysis originate.
The deeply entrenched bureaucracy and regular inter-agency mix-ups slow the process of identifying the dead — and prolong families' pain.
They also cost taxpayers money. Since U.S. border policy pushed illegal crossers away from urban checkpoints in the mid-1990s and deaths in the desert started to rise, Pima County has expanded its Medical Examiner's Office, leased a refrigerated trailer and recently built additional refrigerated storage space to store as-yet-unidentified bodies.
Processing them all, including matching bodies with names, cost Southeast Arizona taxpayers about $409,000 in the 2005-06 fiscal year, the last year for which complete figures are available. That's up from $169,600 in fiscal 2000-01.
The Mexican Consulate in Tucson spent $165,578 in 2006 to send bodies home.
Family searches in vain
When Jesús doesn't show up at his brother's house in Riverside, Calif., as arranged, the family calls a number Jesús left. "I sent three to California, but I don't know where they ended up," his smuggler says. And then he hangs up.
Jesús' little brother Rosendo goes to look for him in Altar, a staging area for border crossers about 140 miles southwest of Tucson. He searches for several days, talking with people and handing out flyers.
In California, older brother Antonio reports Jesús missing at a Mexican consulate.
They keep searching, but as time passes, the family begins to doubt they will see Jesús again.
And then U.S. Border Patrol agents find scattered bones near a green travel bag stuffed with a few bits of clothing. They also find a voter identification card issued to Jesús Alberto Cabral López.
As it always does in Pima County, such a discovery triggers a forensic medical investigation aimed at verifying identity and cause of death.
It's a time-consuming process. Identifying a U.S. citizen who dies unknown and alone can take three or four days, says Anderson, of the local Medical Examiner's Office. The same task can take months when it involves unidentified border crossers — people who may have lost their papers to bandits, or had them taken and replaced with false documents by smugglers.
"Identifying foreigners takes more time, especially if they are crossing in some illegal manner," Anderson says. "The bodies of the undocumented are here much longer."
The Medical Examiner's Office is persistent in its efforts to match names and faces to the dead using clothing, photos, dental records and other evidence gathered during the recovery. It gets assistance from the Mexican government, which works to identify bodies because it assumes all deceased border crossers to be Mexican — until there is evidence to the contrary.
Despite all that effort, about a third of the bodies remain unidentified, according to an Arizona Daily Star database compiled from Pima County Medical Examiner's Office data. From September 2004 to December 2006, 137 of 409 border-crosser bodies processed by the office remain nameless.
Those whose identities are never determined are held at the Medical Examiner's Office for about a year. They used to be buried in the county paupers' graveyard, until it ran out of space. Now they are cremated at county expense.
Identifying the remains found with Jesús' voter-ID card is made more difficult because the card is not sent to the Medical Examiner's Office with the bones, as it's supposed to be. That is the first of a string of hang-ups and delays in the investigation.
Jesús knew risks, rewards
Jesús' trip north in May 2006 wasn't the first time he had gone to the United States. He knew the risks — the shady people and the searing heat.
But at home he couldn't find work as a mechanic, which he trained to be, and the best he could hope to earn as a laborer in his hometown in the agriculturally rich southern tip of Sonora was $50 a week. In the United States, even working for minimum wage, he could make nearly five times that.
In 2003, Jesús crossed illegally into this country for the first time. He and his brother Antonio took jobs at a Riverside, Calif., wood-pallet factory. For a while they earned enough to send some money to their parents in Villa Juárez.
Then, in 2006, Jesús was picked up and deported after a work-site raid by immigration authorities. His brother was working a different shift and missed the roundup.
Jesús spent only about a month with his parents before deciding to return to the United States.
Almost exactly a year later, medical examiner Anderson spreads the bones that could be Jesús' before him in a Pima County forensic-examination room. García, of the Tucson Mexican Consulate, grabs a pair of gloves and a camera and begins taking pictures.
Later, García receives a copy of the missing voter ID card and enters the name on it into a missing-persons database called the SIRLI, Mexico's System for the Identification of Remains and Locating Individuals. The system links the more than 40 Mexican consulates in the United States with the Secretariat of Foreign Relations.
The database flags two missing-persons reports with Jesús' name, including one filed with the Mexican Consulate in San Bernardino, Calif. The database also contains a deportation order dating to April 2006.
Evidence is mounting, but officials still can't say conclusively that the remains belong to Jesús. They need his family's help.
García telephones Antonio in California. "Do you know a young man named Jesús Alberto Cabral López? Is Jesús Alberto still missing?" he asks.
He tells Antonio that the Pima County Sheriff's Department has found some remains.
"I've called to tell you the deceased could be Jesús," he says.
Before he can finish, Antonio begins weeping and hands the phone to a friend.
García explains that DNA testing involving a genetic comparison to the mother's lineage may be the only way to be sure that the bones belong to Jesús. The Mexican government will pay for the $2,000 test.
With his mother's high blood pressure, Antonio is concerned about asking her for a blood sample. But Guadalupe is willing to do what must be done.
"After all this time without knowing about my son, I am resigned," she says. "I'm resigned to whatever happens."
She and her family have endured months of anguish, hoping somehow Jesús is alive. Now they hope the bleached bones found in the desert will end their uncertainty.
If not DNA, maybe a photo
The next week, the Medical Examiner's Office determines there might be another way.
Anderson asks the Mexican Consulate to get a photo from the family that shows Jesús smiling. He wants to see if the photo will show the same gap between the left canine and incisor teeth that's in the skull before him.
His parents have two photographs, both taken in Riverside. They try — and fail — several times to scan and e-mail copies to Tucson from a local cybercafe. Then they're asked to deliver the originals to an office of the Secretariat of Foreign Relations in Ciudad Obregón, which they do.
Despite assurances that the photos will arrive in Tucson the next day, it will take three attempts over nearly two months before they reach Pima County.
Instead of just sending the photos to Tucson, the Secretariat of Foreign Relations ships them to municipal offices in Hermosillo. From there they're sent to Mexico City, and then finally via diplomatic courier to the consulate in Tucson. The entire process takes six weeks.
By that time, in late July, Jesús' family has begun to prepare for a burial in Villa Juárez.
Younger brother Rosendo purchases two side-by-side plots at the municipal cemetery. If the bones in Tucson are those of Jesús, he will be buried in one plot. The other is reserved for his mother.
"So that I can be close to him when I die," she says. "I feel more tranquil. If it is my son, what can I do? At least I'll know he's here."