Gene Hernandez, Pima County forensic medical investigator, examines the belongings of case No. 10-1227 with Laura Ruiz of the Mexican Consulate. Officials hope to create a searchable database with DNA from unidentified bodies such as 10-1227. DEAN KNUTH / ARIZONA DAILY STAR

Families searching for missing loved ones who die in the desert while trying to reach the United States are being offered hope.

The Mexican consulates in Arizona and the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office are working on DNA typing of unidentified illegal immigrants who have been classified as John or Jane Doe.

The hope is to create a searchable database with DNA from unidentified bodies.

Since December 2005 the Mexican government has used DNA samples from those with missing relatives to try to match with deceased illegal immigrants.

But the matching was done only in cases where there was an associated name, a family looking for someone or some type of evidence found with the body.

"Now we are talking about those cases where the only thing we have is human remains ... cases where we couldn't find any evidence or something that could help us to identify these people," said Juan Manuel Calderón Jaimes, the Mexican consul in Tucson.

Bruce Parks, chief medical examiner at the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office, said it's a step forward.

"The last part of the equation is to get the families to submit samples and put those results in a database and start looking for possibilities as far as who they are," he said.

The Mexican Consulate in Tucson has collected 212 samples of John and Jane Doe DNA since 2007, said Calderón Jaimes. Another 35 cases will be sent this month. He said doing DNA typing of unidentified bodies is progress considering that, for example, the majority of deaths in July were of unidentified migrants.

"Out of the 56 we found, 13 were bodies, 28 were badly decomposed bodies and 15 were only skeletal remains," said Calderón Jaimes.

Mexican consulates in Douglas and Yuma are also sending samples to Bode Technology in Virginia.

"It increases the chances for identification. That's very encouraging for being able to make an identification sometime in the future," said Ed Huffine, with Bode Technology - which helped identify victims of the World Trade Center attacks and Hurricane Katrina through DNA testing.

Parks said the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office has sent 250 DNA samples from John and Jane Does to Bode Technology. He said those samples are from unsolved cases before 2007.

The Mexican government pays for the cases sent to Bode Technology, and the Medical Examiner's Office is working on DNA typing thanks to a grant from the U.S. National Institute of Justice, said Parks. Additional grants will keep the program going after Oct. 1, he said.

The Mexican government pays about $800 for each sample, and more than $1,000 for cases with an associated name that requires comparison to a family sample. Calderón Jaimes said identifying bodies found in the desert can be difficult because about half of them have no identification.

In the last decade nearly 2,000 people have died in the Arizona desert.

"At least there's now hope, scientifically speaking, that can help us to identify a lot of these cases," Calderón Jaimes said.


Contact Mariana Alvarado at or 573-4597.