May 23, 2006

Fridge fills up in Arizona desert season of death

By Frank Jack Daniel

TUCSON, Arizona (Reuters) - So many illegal immigrants die
of desert heat on the U.S.-Mexico border that an Arizona morgue
has had to buy a refrigerated trailer to store its bodies, and
it is building room for more.

As temperatures begin to soar toward 100 degrees Fahrenheit
(38 Celsius), Bruce Parks, the head of the medical examiner's
office in Tucson, worries that tighter security on the border
may mean a gruesome toll this summer.

The U.S. Senate on Monday backed plans by President Bush to
send up to 6,000 National Guard troops to the border, which
illegal immigrants say will force them to take more dangerous
routes into the United States.

Lawmakers have also approved building 370 miles of new
high-security border fences, which may also push immigrants to
seek more-remote border crossings, such as desolate areas of
the Sonora desert which straddles the border.

"If they shut down some of these other areas, people will
likely keep coming across in places where there aren't fences,"
said Parks.

"Supposedly, that's the reason why they are coming through
this area, because they shut down San Diego and El Paso," he
said, referring to border fences at those two cities.

Last year, the U.S. Border Patrol found 463 dead bodies of
immigrants in the southwestern United States, a 42.5 percent
jump over 2004.

Close to half of those were found in Arizona, most killed
by heat stroke, a lingering death which Mexican official Berta
Alicia de la Rosa described as "like slowly cooking your body
and your brain."


"When we find them their skin is like cardboard - often
they have torn off their clothes or buried themselves in the
sand to escape the heat," said De la Rosa, who works for a
Mexican government agency that tries to cut migrant deaths.

The number of people dying in the desert has leaped so much
in the past few years that in 2005 Parks rented a refrigerated
trailer to store the corpses.

His office has since bought a trailer, of the type used to
transport chilled food, that can hold up to 60 bodies and is
building a new cool room so the morgue can take up to 300
corpses, almost double the current capacity.

It takes so long to identify the bodies, often no more than
skeletons when they arrive, that the morgue's shelves are still
stacked with remains brought to Parks last summer.

"The number goes up every year, and although I wish
otherwise, I don't see the trend reversing," he said.

Seventy percent of the bodies are eventually identified and
sent home, mostly to Mexico. The rest are buried in unmarked
graves after a year in storage.

Every day, De la Rosa's team from the Grupo Beta government
welfare body drives out into the arid scrubland in bright
orange pickups to try to persuade people planning to cross to
the United States to think again, or at least be fully aware of
the risks they are taking.

A few hours road trip south from Tucson, immigrants in the
Mexican town of Agua Prieta vowed to keep crossing the line,
even if that means walking further into the desert or getting
into debt with people smugglers.

"We'll do the impossible, I'd cross heaven and earth to
arrive there with my family," said Maria Nunez, 56, who was
caught by the U.S. Border Patrol after she snuck under the high
metal fence that divides Agua Prieta from Douglas, Arizona.

Talking at a migrant hostel, Nunez shook with fear as she
described how her four children were now in the United States,
being transported by smugglers to meet up with her eldest
daughter in Atlanta.