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The Juan Doe Problem: One Woman's Search for Dead Migrants' Roots

How do you identify a dead border crosser when all that remains is a pile of teeth and bones?

[Editor's Note: See a related photo essay here.]

AGENT GUERRERO'S radio scratches to life: Are you at the bodies yet? In local Border Patrol lingo, the word for border crossers is the same whether they're living or dead.

Yep, we've got four of them, he radios back.

We're crawling along a dusty desert road in Guerrero's Chevy Tahoe, 65 miles southwest of Tucson and miles from anything with a roof and a door. From the sky we must look like a toy army truck, dwarfed by our rust-tinted surroundings—rocks and clay, cacti and mesquite. Guerrero is explaining how easy it is to die out here. "People don't understand how grateful people are to be caught. Depending on where the group crosses, it's almost impossible to carry the amount of water they're going to need," he says. "And during the summer months, there's absolutely no shade."

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By the time the bodies are found, their skin—and with it fingerprints and birthmarks—may be long gone.

We find these bodies in a valley in the San Luis Mountains, 11 miles north of the border. We know their names because we asked them: José Luis Aquino Garcia, 26; Lorena Márquez Ramirez, 25; Eduardo Cardoso Delgado, 34; and Jhoana Stephany Hernandez Márquez, 8. It's harder to find names for the other kind of bodies.

As many as 700 corpses of migrants are found in the deserts and mountains of US border counties each year. Roughly half are anonymous. Undocumented border crossers travel light, sometimes leaving nothing to identify them if they die. It doesn't help that their bodies are often unrecognizable; by the time they're found, hungry javelinas and coyotes have carried away their organs. Sometimes their skin, and with it fingerprints and birthmarks, is long gone. Often their bones are bleached white from the 100-degree sun.

A dead body without a name can't be buried, not in good conscience, at least, until efforts to identify it seem completely hopeless. And each person who deals with border bodies has a different definition of hopeless. That's the Juan Doe problem.

A popular migrant crossing area near the Pima County border. A popular migrant crossing area near the Pima County border.

THE PIMA COUNTY Office of the Medical Examiner is a small, poorly marked cinderblock building in a suburban stretch south of Tucson. It could be mistaken for a dentist's office if not for the ominous fleet of white vans parked in the rear.

Inside, chief medical examiner Dr. Bruce Parks sits behind a U-shaped wooden desk, empty but for some Post-it notes, a microscope under a plastic cover, a Dell computer, and a few photographs of his kids. He's tall and plainly dressed, with a kind face, a receding crown of gray hair, and a paternal awkwardness that probably comes from talking about unpleasant stuff all day. He seems tired and a little sad.

At 9,186 square miles with 126 miles along the border, Pima County has a high rate of crosser fatalities. But Pima's failure rate in identification is lower than others, largely because its examiners have had a lot of practice.

Parks pivots his office chair toward me and tries to pinpoint the moment when death in the desert became his life.

"The whole thing started in 2001, the year those 14 died," he says. "Twenty-eight people had been crossing in a group, and they got lost; basically, they were led astray, and 14 of them died. All 14 came here."

He is referring to the Yuma 14, a case immortalized in Luis Alberto Urrea's book The Devil's Highway. Urrea visited Pima County, where he saw photos of the bodies:

A shrine near Arivaca, Ariz., honors dead crossers. A shrine near Arivaca, Arizona, honors dead crossers.

The dead have open mouths and white teeth. They are stretched in angular poses, caught in last gasps or shouts, their eyes burned an eerie red by the sun. Many of them are naked. Some of them have dirt in their mouths. When the corpses are those of women, their breasts have shrunk and withered and cracked open under the sun...For many of them, these are the first portraits for which they have posed.

"It was a big shock to the office," Parks continues. "I think it was then we realized we might be in the midst of something."

Dozens of bodies soon became the norm. In 2005, the Pima County ME received 69 in one month, forcing the office to rent a refrigerated 16-wheeler for $900 a week to house the remains until they could be identified and released for burial.

Parks turns to face his computer screen. He's offered to show me a PowerPoint presentation he gave at a recent conference. It will include some photographs of the dead: a man wearing gray slacks and one sock, lying under a mesquite tree; a mummified corpse missing skin on its lower back; a roasted-looking body on an autopsy table.

"Hopefully these images won't bother you too much," Parks says soberly, glancing over to see if I object. "If you don't like what you're looking at, just look away."

Next door is the building that houses the examination room—cool metal surfaces, and a white wall with several huge rectangular dry-erase boards, on which a tic-tac-toe grid of numbers is outlined variously in black, blue, and red ink.

"These boards reflect the bins, the spots, the spaces that each person occupies," Parks says, referring to the way the morgue is organized into rows of metal drawers. "So for every number you see within a grid, that's a person."

There are hundreds of boxes in the grid, some of the numbers filled in thickly in black, others smudged in places, perhaps nudged by a clumsy finger. Seventy-eight of the numbers represent border crossers.

Some boxes contain more than one set of numbers. Those remains are skeletonized, Parks explains, which means more than one person can fit in each drawer.

Next, Parks leads me to the windowless "property room," where the valuables of the dead are stored in filing cabinets. He slides open a John Doe drawer and removes a pile of clear plastic envelopes. He begins a litany of the contents.

"Earrings, prayer cards—that's pretty common—wallet. Yeah, it's pretty sad. Some American coins. A radio. You can see their things are discolored because the body's decomposed, and it probably doesn't smell too good."

My eyes gravitate to a black cotton scrunchie, flattened within its plastic enclosure, still wearing a few bits of desert debris and one long black hair. It's such a simple domestic artifact, ubiquitous in women's bathroom drawers. I imagine a young woman who tied her hair back the day she left for the desert with some strange coyote. If her case was typical, she wasn't told it would be an arduous several-day trek, but maybe a two-hour walk, no big deal. She may have worn her Sunday clothes.

After walking for five days with little water, this crosser was unconscious when a ranch hand found him near Green Valley, Ariz. After walking for five days with little water, this crosser was unconscious when a ranch hand found him near Green Valley, Arizona.

Parks waits as I take a quick photograph. Then he closes the drawer.

THE JUAN DOE problem first came to my attention through Chelsey Juarez, a graduate student in physical anthropology at the University of California-Santa Cruz, who has agreed to let me shadow her at the lab.

Today, she wears a white lab coat and tight blue surgical gloves, a long braid hanging over her left shoulder. She's wide-eyed and pale-skinned, her face lit by dangly earrings, a rare splash of color in this stark white room.

She sits down in a ratty desk chair and scoots it toward the drill she'll be using to separate the dentin from the enamel of an anonymous human tooth.

"Some days I spend 12 hours straight staring into this thing," she says, leaning forward so her eyes are obscured by the rubber viewfinder. "We call it the death chair."

Under the microscope, the cross-sectioned molar appears inside a circle of light, like a corn kernel drained of its color. Juarez points out the dull, porous inside area of the tooth. "That's the dentin," she says. Extracting the dentin is the first step, but what Juarez is ultimately looking for exists on an even smaller scale: the element strontium.

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