Arizona Daily Star
August 3, 2010
by Brady McCombs
July was the second-deadliest month on record for illegal immigrants crossing in Southern Arizona, with 59 bodies ending up at the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office.
The month's total ranks second only to the 69 deaths recorded by the office in July 2005.
The death toll began early in the month and continued at such a fast pace the office had to bring in additional storage space to house the bodies.
• On July 2, the office handled the bodies of five illegal immigrants who died in Arizona's desert.
• Thirteen more bodies came in over the next eight days. Then, six July 11 and four more bodies a day later.
• July 15 was the worst day, with seven bodies: five men and two women.
The deadly month brings the calendar year-to-date total through July for the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office to 153, ahead of the past two years at the same time and only slightly behind the 159 handled through the same date in the 2007, a record-breaking year.
"I hope that people - no matter which side of the immigration debate they are on - agree that individuals dying in our community is an absolute tragedy and that something needs to be done about," said Kat Rodriguez of Coalición de Derechos Humanos.
The Medical Examiner's Office has handled the bodies of more than 1,650 illegal border crossers found since 2001 on the Tohono O'odham Nation, and in Pima, Santa Cruz and Pinal counties.
The Cochise County Medical Examiner's Office reported two bodies in July, bringing its yearly total to 19, compared with 21 at the same time last year.
More than two-thirds of the dead illegal immigrants who ended up at the Pima County office this past month had died recently, said Dr. Bruce Parks, chief medical examiner. All but nine were men, and 46 of the 59 remained unidentified.
The busy month filled the medical examiner's two refrigerated storage spaces, prompting officials to put a 55-foot refrigerated trailer in service to house additional bodies, Parks said.
It's difficult to track exactly how much taxpayer money is spent handling the illegal border crossers because the 27 employees fit the recoveries, autopsies and investigations in with the rest of their work. One way to estimate is by multiplying the average cost of an autopsy, about $2,000, times the number of bodies, which this year would total $306,000.
It's unclear exactly why this July was so deadly, but heat obviously was a factor: At least 32 of the 59 people died from hyperthermia or exposure to the heat, medical examiner records show. Most of the other causes of death are pending or undetermined.
In terms of the average temperature recorded at Tucson International Airport, July was the seventh-warmest on record for the metro area, said meteorologist John Glueck of the National Weather Service. The month also had 18 days of 100 degrees or higher temperatures in Tucson, with the highs in the desert usually much hotter than the recorded highs in Tucson.
The increase in deaths doesn't track with the Border Patrol's apprehensions, which are down for the sixth straight year. Agents in the Tucson Sector made 184,000 apprehensions from Oct. 1 through June 30, compared with 185,500 at the same time last fiscal year, said Border Patrol spokesman Omar Candelaria. The agency didn't have figures through July available yet.
The Border Patrol believes these numbers show fewer people are crossing, Candelaria said. With 3,200 permanent agents and 400 more here temporarily from other sectors, the agency has more areas under control than before, he said.
Many experts believe the massive buildup of agents, fences and technology along Arizona's stretch of U.S.-Mexico border has forced illegal immigrants into walking longer distances in more treacherous terrain.
"People are being pushed into more and more isolated areas," Rodriguez said.
Candelaria agrees that illegal immigrants are crossing in more remote areas because of the increased presence. "The smugglers are trying to find the places where we are not at," he said.
But the blame should be on the smugglers, not the Border Patrol, he said.
"To lay the blame on the Border Patrol for this is just not right," Candelaria said. "What we are doing is to protect the nation. The smugglers are the ones taking them to these far-out areas and not preparing them."
The Border Patrol - with 48 agents assigned to its search, trauma and rescue team and 200 others who are trained EMTs - has rescued 390 illegal border crossers in the Tucson Sector from Oct. 1 to June 30. That's up from the 300 rescued through the same time period the year before.
With one of the hottest months over and rain more frequent, the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office hopes the death toll will slow, although there have already been two bodies brought in during the first two days of August.
"It will slow down," Parks said. "I can't imagine it getting any worse."
On StarNet: Search an online database of people who have died attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, at go.azstarnet.com/borderdeaths