Identifying migrant deaths in Arizona desert

Tucson (AFP) - A tiny orange-striped baby sock, a hand-written prayer on a crumpled piece of paper, or a lock of hair.

The items may seem meaningless, but for Robin Reineke, they hold precious clues to the identity of the migrants who carried them and whose remains are regularly found in Arizona's harsh Sonoran Desert.

The 34-year-old cultural anthropologist who runs the Colibri Center for Human Rights in Tucson, Arizona, has for several years been helping families look for missing relatives who disappear while crossing illicitly from Central America and Mexico into the United States.

As US politicians argue on how best to tackle illegal immigration -- which has emerged as a dominant issue in the White House race -- Reineke pieces together the human cost of an exodus along America's southern border that has proved a challenge to successive administrations.

"The reality I have witnessed over the last decade is that we have a human catastrophe happening," Reineke told AFP at her center, located in the Pima County medical examiner's office .

"An average of 175 remains are recovered from the desert every year. That's equivalent to a plane crash every single year in southern Arizona for 10, 15 years on end."

The number of dead has significantly increased since 2000, after the US government boosted security along the border -- particularly in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks -- deploying thousands of border patrol agents and building fences.

The measures have forced desperate migrants fleeing violence and poverty in their countries to look for alternative routes in remote and dangerous areas where many die of dehydration or, in winter, hypothermia.

"It's a very painful, horrible, lonely death," Reineke said. "And it's hard to know that people are going through this like a half hour drive from my home."

The death toll spikes during the summer months when temperatures can reach 122 degrees (50 Celsius) in the desert, said Gregory Hess, Pima County's chief medical examiner.

"At present, we have about 900 bodies that are unidentified," Hess said, adding that the vast majority were recovered after the year 2000.

- Jigsaw puzzle -

The personal items found near the remains -- baby pictures, prayer cards, banknotes, tattered wallets or a phone number -- are placed in plastic sleeves that are starkly labeled "John Doe" or "Jane Doe."

The sleeves, kept in a row of orange lockers, still carry the characteristic odor of a decaying corpse, or as Reineke put it, "the smell of death."

Once the personal items are turned over to Colibri, Reineke and her team begin the grim work of piecing together -- much like a jigsaw puzzle -- the identity of the man, woman or child behind the objects.

A rosary, a belt buckle or a child's photo can prove a match to a missing persons reports filed by families in Central America and Mexico and forwarded to the center.

"I think these items are important to look at in the sense that the dead speak loudly for the living," said Reineke. "These items show that these are not threatening people. They show that these are people who are deeply connected to families, who are coming here to work, who are fleeing violence."

- Hummingbird -

The majority of the victims -- 75 percent -- are men and the rest are women, with few children.

"I remember Aristeo and pictures of him next to a wedding cake," said Reineke, recounting some of the cases she has handled. "I remember Ricardo and pictures of him with his daughter next to a Christmas tree.

"We talk with mothers who tell us their son called and said 'I'm gonna cross tomorrow. Here's what I'm wearing. I love you and if I don't see you again, know that I'm thinking about you.'"

She said one case that hit hard was that of a teenager, who was no older than 16, who carried a "small, orange paper flower" found with his remains.

"He was so young and healthy," she said. "The autopsy report said he had a stomach full of prickly pear cactus and thinking of what he had gone through in the desert affected me."

Officials say it is not uncommon for migrants to walk for two or five days in the desert and then succumb to exhaustion and the searing heat or bitter desert cold.

Reineke said she named her center Colibri, or humming bird, which is a symbol of good luck, after one of the tiny birds was found in the pocket of a deceased migrant.

Although her work can often be emotionally trying, Reineke said she and her team are motivated by the fact they are helping families who have lost loved ones come to terms with their grief.

"Our work is more like midwives of that grief," she said. "And I see grief as a human right."

As to the Republican campaign rhetoric about immigration and building a wall along the US-Mexico border, Reineke said it is clear migrants are being used as scapegoats.

"It's more painful to hear the words of Donald Trump about immigrants than it is to see the dead," she said.