Identity Crisis

Written by Tom Marcinko Category: Valley News Issue: August 2014
Group Free
Pin It

Weird science helps ID anonymous bodies found near the Mexico-U.S. border.

In 1998, the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office in Tucson recorded 11 deaths along the Arizona-Mexico border. Last year, it was 194, according to the U.S. Border Patrol. Often the bodies can’t be easily identified – exposed to the elements of the low desert, the corpses have literally become dry enough to be classified as “mummified.”

When that happens, the county’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Gregory Hess, knows a grisly but scientifically accurate way to get a fingerprint, using sodium hydroxide – also known as lye, or caustic soda – and water. “What it involves is soaking the mummified tissue in this rehydration solution over a period of time, until it’s rehydrated enough to take fingerprints,” Hess says.

The process takes about three days and costs less than $20 per test. Publishing in the Academic Forensic Pathology journal, Hess and Pima County death investigator Gene Hernandez reported that from 2011-12, the M.E. office got fingerprint IDs on 34 of 76 pairs of mummified hands – a 45 percent success rate.

“It’s not a new technique,” Hess says, dating it back to at least 1988. “I’ve said that how many times, but every time you read about it they say ‘new technique.’” Nonetheless, with total Southwest border deaths soaring from 263 in 1998 to a high of 477 in 2012, colleagues have taken new notice.

Dr. Greg Davis, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, recalls using the technique a few years ago to obtain fingerprints from a fire-charred body.  “Nobody I know does this lightly,” Davis says. “Bodies are special.” Dr. Judy Melinek, author of Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner (Scribner, 2014), says the NYPD used a similar technique, injecting fingerprints with glycerin: “This was done during the 9/11 recovery efforts to identify victims that had been buried under rubble for weeks and even months.”
Identification, and the closure it brings, can make a big difference to the families of people gone missing as they tried to cross the border. “They may have been in contact with family along the journey to get into the United States and then they don’t show up,” Hess says. “And so the family’s left wondering where they are and what happened to them and they may be looking for them.” Usually they’re grateful to learn what happened, even if it confirms their worst fears.


Families of missing people often contact Hess through humanitarian groups or other channels. There’s no single way to get the information, and sometimes families are reluctant to contact their own countries’ law-enforcement officials. “They may not trust their own government because of corruption or something like that,” Hess says. “Sometimes we have families show up in a parking lot.”

To help families of missing border-crossers find out what happened to their loved ones, Hess’ team works closely with a humanitarian group: the Tucson-based Colibrí Center for Human Rights. In Spanish, colibrí means hummingbird, a symbol of good luck. The organization took its name from a dead hummingbird in the pocket of an unidentified border crosser found in 2005.

William Masson, Colibrí’s co-founder and operations director, says his group has records on 800 still-unidentified remains. “If all the deaths on the border stopped as of this moment, we’d still have more than a decade’s worth of work, to catch up on all the cases that have occurred to date,” he says.

About 80 percent of border crossers are from Mexico, with Guatemala and El Salvador runners-up for country of origin. “Families understand that this is a high-risk endeavor,”  Masson says. “Ignorance is not the problem.” It’s not always easy to understand the desperation that motivates border crossers, he says. One of Colibrí’s goals, Masson says, is to help collect scientifically valid data on who is crossing the border and why, to draw attention to so many preventable deaths.

Hess concurs with the need to know more. “We don’t know who these people are. And sometimes they may have identification with them, but we don’t know if it’s really their identification, or if it’s an alias, or what it is. Sometimes they have an incentive not to accurately identify themselves. If they’re crossing clandestinely, and they’re from Guatemala, they may not want to be deported back there. So maybe they say they’re so-and-so from Mexico. So we see that quite a bit.”

Since the 1990s, border enforcement policy has focused on preventing crossings near heavily populated areas. Officials “felt that the more rugged, more remote areas... would be a natural deterrent to people trying to enter the United States illegally,” Hess says. “And it didn’t work out that way.”

The result is “sort of an extended mass fatality,” he says. “If you have a plane crash, you know the cause of death is going to be injuries as a result of that crash. That’s not really the challenge. The challenge is figuring out who’s who.”

Undocumented Border-Crosser Deaths in the Tucson Sector (2004-2012)
2004: 170
2005: 200
2006: 171
2007: 209
2008: 167
2009: 190
2010: 225
2011: 181
2012: 171
34% of all deceased undocumented border-crossers between 1990-2012 remain unidentified
source: The Binational Migration Institute, University of Arizona