COCHISE COUNTY — By the end of this year, the number of undocumented migrants found dead in the Arizona desert, including Cochise County, will have surpassed the total found in 2020, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office said Thursday.
There have been steady decreases in the number of undocumented people crossing through the Tucson sector alone since this April. However, the overall number of undocumented individuals who have been stopped by federal agents in the sector compared to 2020 has skyrocketed by just more than 207%, statistics by U.S. Customs and Border Protection show.
The Yuma sector’s encounters with undocumented people shot up by 911% during that same period.
The whopping increase in encounters all across the state, accompanied by warmer climes and the number of deaths recorded thus far, are enough to tell Pima County Medical Examiner Dr. Greg Hess that 2021 will be deadlier than 2020 for undocumented migrants.
“We’re already ahead of the pace that we had last year at this same time,” Hess said Thursday in a phone interview. “We have more people crossing and we have record heat.”
So far this year 162 migrants have been found deceased in the Arizona desert, which stretches about 400 miles along the border with Mexico. In 2020, 224 were discovered, Hess said. The numbers are closer in Cochise County, where 20 bodies were found in 2020 and 15 have been discovered in 2021, Hess said.
Sgt. Robert Noland of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team finds some of those bodies when he and his volunteers are sent into the desert. SART, however, is dispatched only if someone calls the Sheriff’s Office. Noland said the majority of deceased migrants he and his team have recovered have been found east of Douglas and in Palominas near the San Pedro River.
“We’ve had a few more than last year,” he said. “Last year we had (found) zero bodies. This year we’ve had four or five.”
In July, for example, the Sheriff’s Office received a call from the Mexican Consulate in Douglas regarding two possible bodies in the desert east of the city, said Sheriff’s spokeswoman Carol Capas. The Mexican Consulate said family members in Mexico had contacted the office about the missing men who had left the country en route to the U.S.
The pair never made it alive.
“We were given coordinates to an area east of Douglas just off State Road 80,” Capas said. “With the help of ranchers and the Border Patrol, we found one body.”
The second man was found a few days later, Capas said. Sheriff’s Sgt. Tim Williams, who found one of the victims, said the man was in his late teens and was only about 2 miles from SR 80.
“It was pretty sad,” Williams said recently.
Since January 1990, more than 3,400 undocumented migrants have been found dead within the Pima County Medical Examiner’s jurisdiction, the agency’s website shows. That includes Cochise County.
Officials with Humane Borders Inc., which partners with the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office to report migrant deaths, said the remains of undocumented individuals have been discovered as far as 75 miles north of Arizona’s border with Mexico.
“Due to the vastness of the territory and the millions of acres of desolate desert that migrants traverse, the sad reality is that a substantial percentage of human remains will never be recovered,” the Humane Borders website states. “It’s especially heartrending to note that, according to medical examiners, as of December 31, 2018, over 1,000 decedents remain unidentified.”
Sadly, officials say, those who die in the open desert or on desolate ranchlands— one Cochise County rancher has found over 10 bodies on his property over the last several years — are usually abandoned by so-called guides who charge exorbitant fees in exchange for crossing the migrants into the U.S. illegally. Migrants who are unable to keep up with their group are left behind, Noland said.
In a message on its website late last month, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said, “Distressed migrants abandoned by smugglers are left in desolate areas when they are unable to keep up with the rest of the group. RGV (Rio Grande Valley sector and other sectors), receive phone calls from family members pleading for agents to search specific areas for their loved ones after being notified the person was left behind by the foot guide.
“Regrettably, there are instances when loved ones find help and return with assistance only to find their loved one has succumbed to the elements.”