Deaths along a stretch of Arizona's border with Mexico dropped to an eight-year low in the recently completed fiscal year, but remained within range of the average yearly tally of the last decade.

The 182 bodies of illegal border crossers recovered in fiscal year 2011 from New Mexico to Yuma County (the area within the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector) are the fewest since fiscal 2003 when 177 bodies were found, the Arizona Daily Star's border death database shows. The database is based on information from Southern Arizona county medical examiners during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30.

The tally marks a 28 percent decrease from the record in fiscal year 2010, when 252 bodies were found. The yearly totals have ebbed and flowed over the last decade, with an average of about 200 a year. Since 2001, nearly 2,160 men, women and children have been found dead after trying to cross illegally into the United States through Arizona's desert.

The yearly totals don't necessarily reflect the number of people who died in that year because many bodies are found weeks or months later, often badly decomposed and skeletonized.

Of the 176 bodies handled by the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office in Tucson, at least 80 were skeletal remains, shows an unofficial count based on autopsy reports.

The office began tabulating an official yearly tally of skeletal remains in its first annual report that came out earlier this year. That report found that 45 percent - 103 of 230 cases - in calendar year 2010 were skeletal remains.

Like past years, the majority were found during Arizona's scorching summer months, with 89 of the 182 bodies found in June through September.

The most deadly stretch occurred over four days from June 28 to July 1 when the bodies of 13 border crossers were brought to the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office in Tucson. That came after an especially hot stretch when temperatures reached 105 or higher for nine straight days from June 21 to June 29, with the high of 112 on June 27, according to the National Weather Service.

Ten of those 13 people died from heat or exposure, medical examiner reports shows. The Pima County Medical Examiner's Office has identified 10 of them so far, including Valentin Ibarra Valdivia, a 25-year-old from Puebla, Mexico; Florencio Anzueto Hernandez, a 43-year-old from Chiapas, Mexico; and America Flores Padilla, a 21-year-old from Mexico State, Mexico.

The Pima County Medical Examiner's Office handled most of the bodies again this fiscal year: 176 of the 182. The office receives bodies found on the Tohono O'odham Nation and in Pima, Pinal and Santa Cruz counties.

Border deaths in Arizona have not declined along with illegal crossings, suggesting that illegal immigrants face a deadlier trek than ever across Arizona's desert.

The death rate - the number of bodies found per 100,000 Border Patrol apprehensions - has been on the rise for the last decade. Even with a decrease in deaths in 2011, the rate has increased again. Through the first 11 months of fiscal year 2011, there were 144 known deaths per 100,000 apprehensions in the area covered in the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson Sector, the Arizona Daily Star's border death database indicates.

In the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector - the busiest for illegal border crossings since 1998 - apprehensions have decreased each of the past seven years. Final fiscal year 2011 figures are expected to be about 70 percent lower than they were in 2004 and as low as those in 1994. Final apprehension figures for fiscal year 2011 have not been released.

The precipitous decline is the latest measurement to suggest illegal immigration, especially from Mexico, has fallen substantially.

Law enforcement officials and humanitarian groups believe the buildup of border fencing, technology and agents has caused illegal border crossers to walk longer distances in more treacherous terrain, increasing the likelihood that people will get hurt or fatigued and left behind to die.

The Border Patrol concurs that people are crossing in more remote and rugged areas but says the blame should be placed on greedy smugglers leading them there despite the risks, not on agents protecting the nation's border. The agency points to its rescue efforts as evidence that its presence prevents deaths rather than causes them. Agents rescued 441 people through the first 11 months of fiscal year 2011 in the Tucson Sector, said spokesman Mario Escalante.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or