Tim Steller, reporter at the Arizona Daily Star.


June 8, 2002 was the day when, for me, border-crosser deaths changed from an issue into a crisis.

It was a hot Saturday - I'd been covering border issues for five years at the Star - and a friend in the Mexican consulate called to say they were in a frenzy at work that weekend. Suddenly, across Southern Arizona, migrants were dying off one by one.

By the time the weekend was over, 11 people had perished in the heat.

I know that precise number and even the locations because I went back over the list Tuesday on a new, interactive database of border deaths put together by the Pima County Medical Examiner's office and Humane Borders. It's available for anyone to use, online at humaneborders.info.

The geographic information system, put together by an anthropology Ph.D from the University of Arizona named John Chamblee, brings together almost 2,000 records of remains found in the counties of Southern Arizona, beginning in 2001.

For people like me, who were there as the wave began crashing, this new database represents the realization of a dream. That year, 2002, my then-colleague Ignacio Ibarra and I began collecting data on border-crosser deaths in earnest, using the coordinates where bodies were found to make spreadsheets and maps.

Subsequent Star reporters Michel Marizco and Brady McCombs turned the information into a searchable database, still available on the Star's website at azstarnet.com/borderdeaths. But this new online tool is surpassingly useful.

Sadly, it took 11 years of crisis for it to become available. Chamblee, a member of the Humane Borders board, began working on it after an anonymous donor gave $175,000 for the project in 2007.

And still it doesn't resolve all the doubts survivors have.

Juan Chaverri Piña looked me up by Facebook in March because I wrote two stories last year mentioning the death of his sister, Mariana, south of Three Points. I wrote that she had crossed the border illegally southwest of Tucson and was walking with a 17-year-old nephew among others in the Baboquivari Mountains when she was bitten by a rattlesnake.

She was found dead not far from Arizona 286 on May 17, 2012.

When we spoke by phone in March, Juan Chaverri Piña was beginning to have doubts if it was really his sister whom they buried last year in Mexico. Her body had quickly decomposed in the heat, and he didn't look at the remains.

He didn't know of any nephew she was traveling with, and his mother had begun to receive calls saying she was alive.

"I didn't think she was traveling with anybody," he said in Spanish.

So he's still looking for the name of the supposed nephew or other confirmation it was really his sister he buried, and I'm culling reports for the information that might settle the issue.

Smugglers sometimes create those doubts in victims' survivors in an effort to con even more money out of them, Pima County Medical Examiner Greg Hess told me Tuesday. But an identification like that of Mariana Chaverri Piña, using both a government-issued ID card she was carrying and dental records, is considered a positive identification, he said.

Chamblee, who now lives in Georgia and volunteers his time building the database, said it's aimed at a variety of audiences.

The primary one is the medical examiner's office, which can use the tool to match records of remains found in an area to each other. For example, Hess said, a jawbone may be found in one area, and it can be matched to skeletal remains found nearby, eliminating duplication in death reports and helping keep an individual's remains together. Other audiences are the law enforcement and consular officials who often receive calls from Latin America as people search for their relatives. Sometimes they have relatively detailed information on their relative's last known location.

Other users include researchers and the general public. The tool allows public debate about the border to be informed by data instead of abstract ideas and preconceptions, Chamblee said.

"The more people see this data and interact with them, the better off the conversation will be," Chamblee said.

It's a reality we were just beginning to grasp in June 2002, not knowing 2,000 more people would die crossing the border into Southern Arizona.

Search StarNet's Border Death database at azstarnet.com/borderdeaths for the names of those who have died attempting to cross the border from Mexico

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter @senyorreporter.