Border death tally on pace this year to set a decade low

2011-08-03T00:00:00Z 2011-08-03T17:31:57Z Border death tally on pace this year to set a decade lowBrady McCombs Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 03, 2011 12:00 am  • 

The bodies of 17 men, one woman and three people so unrecognizable their sex couldn't be determined were recovered along Arizona's stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border in July.

But the 21 known border deaths are the second-fewest registered in the scorching summer month of July in the past decade, the Arizona Daily Star's border death database shows.

An average of nearly 44 bodies have been found along the border every July from 2002 to 2010. Last summer, there were 61 border deaths during the month. In 2005, the tally reached a record high of 74 border deaths.

The only July in the past decade with fewer border deaths than last month was July 2008, when 19 bodies were found.

The 2011 border death tally remains on pace to be as low as any year in the last decade. The 101 bodies recovered through July are the fewest at this point in the calendar year over the last decade, the database shows.

In the big picture, however, the decrease is insignificant, said Dr. Gregory Hess, Pima County chief medical examiner. The yearly tally of border deaths has ebbed and flowed since they spiked in 2001. "It's different," Hess said. "But it's not striking."

The Pima County Medical Examiner's Office, which also handles the bodies of illegal border crossers found in Pinal and Santa Cruz counties, has registered about 150-200 illegal border crosser deaths each year in the last decade. This year's total will likely end up on the low end of that spectrum.

The 47 bodies recovered in June and July remain an alarmingly high figure considering that there were fewer deaths annually in Arizona in the 1990s. A mid-1990s security push beefed up enforcement in Texas and California, funneling smugglers into Southern Arizona's harsh desert and deadly heat, which officials expected to be a natural deterrent for illegal border crossers.

Since 2001, the bodies of more than 2,100 illegal border crossers have been recovered in Arizona's desert.

The cause of death for Benjamin Alonso Morales, 22, of Puebla, Mexico, reads like most of those who perish crossing Arizona's desert in the summer: probable hyperthermia. The young man's body was found on July 10 less than two miles south of Arizona 86 on the Tohono O'odham Nation.

Twenty-six of the 47 people found dead here in June and July died from heat exposure, the Arizona Daily Star's border death database shows. The database is compiled using information from Southern Arizona county medical examiners' offices.

There doesn't appear to be a simple explanation for the July decrease in border deaths.

Lower temperatures and rain can help make the desert less lethal in the summer, but July was actually hotter and drier than average, according to the National Weather Service's monthly report for Tucson.

Border Patrol apprehensions in the Tucson Sector are down by nearly half over the past three years, suggesting that fewer people are crossing. But illegal entries have been on the decline for the past six years, including last year when the 249 border deaths set a record.

The Border Patrol continues to rescue illegal immigrants in distress, but the agency has been doing this for years. Through the first 10 months of fiscal year 2011, Border Patrol agents in the Tucson Sector have rescued 381 people, compared to 546 through the same time in fiscal 2010 and 466 in fiscal 2009, agency figures show.

The deadly season isn't over.

An average of 25 illegal border crossers were found dead each August since 2002, the Star's border death database shows.

"Until people choose a new area to migrate through or something happens with the policy that decreases the number of people that come through the desert, I imagine we'll continue to see fairly consistent numbers," Hess said.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com

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