September 24, 2010
by Dennis Wagner
PHOENIX — The second-highest number of bodies on record has been recovered along the Arizona-Sonora, Mexico, border the past 12 months.
According to Coalicio´n de Derechos Humanos (the Human Rights Coalition), which gathers data on border-crossing fatalities in Arizona, 236 bodies have been found in fiscal year 2010, which ends Sept. 30.
The record of 282 bodies was set in fiscal 2005.
"We've passed the number of remains recovered last year," said Kat Rodriguez, coordinator for the non-profit. "This has been a horrid summer."
The group gets data from medical examiners in Pima, Pinal, Cochise and Yuma counties in Arizona, as well as other sources, Rodriguez says. The tally is not comprehensive, because some counties don't track undocumented immigrant deaths. Rodriguez says there is no national registry keeping track of border fatalities.
According to the organization's website, which lists locations, dates and causes of death, most victims perished from exposure — heat, cold or thirst. Some suffered gunshot wounds. In many cases, Rodriguez said, remains were too damaged to determine cause of death.
Other immigrant-advocacy groups say fatalities appear to be increasing even as the number of illegal border crossers has declined the past five years. Using a formula based on the number of fatalities and arrests, Sarah Roberts, a nurse volunteer with No More Deaths, a non-profit organization that provides humanitarian aid to border crossers, describes the past year as the "most lethal" ever.
Roberts and Colleen Agle, a Border Patrol spokeswoman, cite several reasons for the grim statistics.
Roberts says tighter enforcement has pushed smugglers and undocumented immigrants to make longer treks deeper into the desert. She added that this summer was especially brutal. Extreme nighttime heat saps energy and depletes fluids, even from immigrants who hike after dark, she says.
Roberts and Agle say that increases in Border Patrol staffing have enabled agents to scour previously neglected desert areas and find skeletal remains of victims who may have died before this year.
Not among the remains so far is a missing 13-year-old, Nelson Omar Chilel Lopez, whose mother, Fermina Lopez Cash, refuses to believe her son died in the desert after crossing the U.S. border near Sonoita, Ariz., more than two months ago.
"I am afraid, yes," she says. "But I won't believe my son died that way. I can't."