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Guatemalan officials to work with Pima County medical examiner to identify migrant remains

Guatemalan officials to work with Pima County medical examiner to identify migrant remains

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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

When someone goes missing, most of us would call the local police department., unless the person who is missing is an illegal immigrant.  Many families of missing border crossers are turning to the medical examiners for help.

The Pima County medical examiner's office has been getting an increasing number of missing persons reports, and phone calls from concerned family members regarding those who are missing in the Sonoran Desert.

Many of these calls are coming from relatives of the missing illegal immigrants, some directly from desperate and anxious family members who last heard from their loved ones from the staging points south of the border, just before they embarked on the journey through rough terrain in deadly temperatures.

The increase in the number of missing persons reports has prompted the Guatemalan government to act.  Dr. Gregory Hess with the Pima County Medical Examiner's office said his staff met with representatives from the Guatemalan consulate offices in Phoenix and San Francisco on Thursday morning, to discuss a collaboration to help reunite Guatemalan families with the remains of their family members found dead in the Arizona desert.

Hess said Guatemalan officials were scouting for a location in Tucson, and planned to open a consulate here to work directly with the medical examiner's office and account for their citizens.

Of the 2,200 unidentified remains of illegal border crossers in Pima County, Dr. Hess said his office was successfully able to identify 1,400 of them. 85% of them were of Mexican descent.  7% of them (about 105) were from Guatemala, the rest were from El Salvador.

"The Guatemalan government is interested in doing a similar type of thing, so if we find remains we believe to be of a Guatemalan national, but we can't identify them, they may pay for a DNA sample to be done on the unidentified remains and collect reference family sample information for us," said Dr. Hess.

It cost about $2,000 per body to run a DNA sample, according to Hess.

With his office receiving an increased number of calls from the families of those who've lost loved ones in the desert, Hess said they have partnered up with the Colibri Center for Human Rights, and given them office space in the building to serve as family liaisons.

Staff at the Colibri center deal directly with the loved ones of the missing migrants.  Their symbol was a Hummingbird, after they found a number of Hummingbird's in the pockets of dead illegal border crossers.

Chelsea Halstead, the program manager said, they chose the symbol after learning the migrants believed a Hummingbird symbolized resurrection, and a link between the dead and those alive.  Since their work focuses on helping families reunite with the remains of loved ones, they felt it was an appropriate symbol for the organization.

"We're really excited the Guatemalan consulate is going to open an office in Tucson.  You can think of the Colibri Center as a family response center here in the morgue," said Halstead.

Dr. Hess said in the year 2000 they typically got in the remains of about 75 illegal border crossers.  In the last few years that number has increased to about 176 remains discovered every year.

The number of those missing in the desert also continued to increase.

"We have about 2,000 missing person reports right now.  It's growing everyday.  We get calls every single day, " said Halstead.

Dr. Hess said the concept of missing persons was never something his office was set to handle.  It was a job for law enforcement, but with the immigration crisis it was necessary for them to collaborate with a human rights group like the Colibri Center.

"I think to not know what's happened to someone who is so important to you is in some ways more terrifying and traumatic," said Halstead.

"It matters to the Guatemalans that their countrymen are dying here in Arizona, they're being buried in county plots.  That is something that strikes a nerve and it should," added Halstead.

So far this year the Medical examiners office has received the remains of 86 illegal immigrants found in the Sonoran desert.  Dr. Hess said 85% of them were men between the ages of 20-45.

The rest were women in the same age range.  They typically saw 1-2 bodies of children per year. 

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