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New Map Charts Migrant Deaths Along Border with Hope of Saving Lives

'Death map' charts bodies found along U.S.-Mexico border with the hopes of improving knowledge of border traffic, influencing policy makers and helping humanitarian groups identify where resources should be targeted.

Photo Credit: Walters


A tatty blanket hanging over a barbed-wire fence is a tell-tale sign that a group of migrants has recently passed by. It's a mild find: over the past decade, more than 2,000 corpses, often desiccated, with the bones scattered by animals, have been recovered from this area of the Sonoran desert, where daytime temperatures can reach 54C and even the vegetation is painfully hostile.

The true number of deaths may be far higher, says Betzi Younglas, a volunteer with  Humane Borders, as she steers her truck loaded with 1,100 litres of water down a rutted track through a forest of huge saguaro cacti. Humane Borders is one of several groups working to reduce the number of migrant deaths. Yet even as the numbers of Mexican – and increasingly Central American – migrants attempting the hazardous crossing appears to have declined, the number who die trying remains troublingly consistent.The crossing to America is simply becoming more dangerous.

According to the  Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group, the number of deaths is the equivalent of five migrants dying every four days. It's a situation, say humanitarian groups, that began with policies under President Bill Clinton to tighten the US- Mexicoborder, but is exacerbated by inertia in Washington over immigration reform and, at a local level, by new powers to demand immigration papers from anyone suspected of being undocumented.

But nothing, says Younglas, has caused as much danger as the hundreds of miles of border walls that have forced migrants further into the desert, away from historical travel routes that have natural access to water. "When the US began walling off the border cities and erecting a barrier right across Texas, they thought the danger of coming through here would deter the migrants," Younglas says. "But they underestimated their desperation."

She stops to check one of dozens of water-filled barrels the group has stationed across the valley that runs 30 miles south to the border. Water has not been drawn from this tank, marked by a blue flag visible from the rough trails, riverbeds or powerlines migrants often follow, since it was last checked three days ago.

"The two biggest dangers out here are dehydration or, in winter, hypothermia," says Younglas. Besides the danger from rattlers and coral snakes, the desert is full of hardship. "Almost every plant in the desert has thorns, so they're getting scratched up. Often they're just walking around on bloody feet. Plus they're being led fast by their guides, the 'coyotes'. If they're injured and can't keep up, they just get left behind."

And those are the ones, sometimes women with babies, who are found dead and end up with the Pima County medical examiner in Tucson. More than 750 skeletal remains – 68% – are unidentified, as migrants rarely carry ID and there are no dental records for a match. "We see about 50 people who have died by firearms," says Dr Gregory Hess, the county's chief medical examiner. "But the vast majority died from exposure."

But a new project known officially as  The Arizona OpenGIS Initiative for Deceased Immigrants – Younglas call it the "death map" – may begin to reduce the deaths and help families of the missing recover the bones of their members. Aided by an anonymous $175,000 grant, the database based on information from the medical examiner, law enforcement agencies and research by Humane Borders took five years to develop. Advocates hope that by improving knowledge of border traffic they can influence policymakers and help humanitarian groups identify where they should target their resources.