When it comes to identifying the remains of border crossers, there’s no centralized database that lets experts search missing-persons reports from various states.
It sounds minor, said Robin Reineke, a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Arizona. But without it, it’s extremely difficult to identify the hundreds of people who die each year — the Border Patrol recorded 445 deaths in the Southwest in the last fiscal year.
More than 2,000 people have died while crossing the border in Southern Arizona, and about 900 of their remains have not been identified, in part because many are skeletons when they are found or are greatly decomposed due to the harsh desert conditions.
Identification is also tough because families often don’t report a missing loved one to the police for fear of deportation or because they are outside of the United States. Instead, they contact consulates, medical examiners, humanitarian organizations and the media.
The problem with that, Reineke said, is that the data don’t end up in a place where they can be compared with those of the unidentified remains.
To help facilitate the process, Reineke, together with UA graduate William Masson, got funding from the Ford Foundation to found the Colibrí Center for Human Rights. It was initially established in 2006 as the Missing Migrant Project with Bruce Anderson, a forensic anthropologist with the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner.
The goals, Reineke said, are to provide a database to help medical examiners and coroners across the border identify remains of border crossers, conduct research about missing persons and death on the border, and do outreach and advocacy on the issue.
With 10 staff members and interns, Colibrí will continue to work out of the Medical Examiner’s Office. It will expand on the 2,000 missing-person reports it already has of people last seen crossing the border — the most complete list nationwide — and develop agreements to share the information with other offices.
As Border Patrol apprehensions shifted to south Texas in recent years, so has the number of people dying in that part of the country. Brooks County has seen about a 600 percent increase in migrant fatalities in the last several years.
When forensic anthropologist Kate Spradley first arrived in Texas, she said it took her five years just to figure out what happened to migrants who died along the Texas border because the system is so broken and fragmented.
“Pima County is the golden standard for how every state should operate,” said the associate professor at Texas State University.
The fact that the center is embedded in the Medical Examiner’s Office is something that has never happened before, she said, but that makes a lot of sense.
“It bridges so many gaps and brings families direct access to the Medical Examiner’s Office,” she said.
Spradley is working with colleagues, including Reineke, to identify the bodies of 60 border crossers exhumed in Brooks County. Until recently, most remains were buried without first taking DNA samples, as required by state law.
“The fact that Colibrí is doing what it is doing is going to help me in Texas and facilitate identification to everyone along the border, not just within Arizona,” Spradley said.
On Saturday, the Colibrí Center will co-present the film “Who is Dayani Cristal?” — with Mexican actor Gael García Bernal and directed by Marc Silver — about a decomposing body found in the Arizona desert in August 2010.
The film unravels the mystery about the dead man, who had “Dayani Cristal” tattooed across his chest. He was found by two ranchers, who called the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, and was identified two months later.
The film blends interviews and conventional documentary segments with Bernal’s travels through Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico to reveal the circumstances that led Sanders Martinez on a 2,000-mile trek that ended in the desert.
“We need very radical creative work and not only telling the public about numbers but humanizing the issue and reminding people to ask not how we are going to stop migrants on the border,” Reineke said, “but why they are continuing to choose this journey.”