Migrant deaths keep Tucson morgue full

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By Tami Hoey By Tami Hoey

TUCSON, Ariz. --  More agents are patrolling the US-Mexico border than ever before, but 2013 is on track to be one of the deadliest years on record for migrants.

As of mid-September, 146 sets of remains have been brought to the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office in Tucson. All border counties contract with Pima to investigate border-related deaths.

Most of the bodies are found in rural areas by hikers, ranchers or Border Patrol agents. They all end up in the cooler at the Pima County Morgue.

Medical Examiner Dr. Gregory Hess allowed 3TV cameras inside to document their unique problem.

The shelves of the morgue are full, mostly of unidentified migrants. The body bags are labeled "John Doe" or "Jane Doe," and some have been in the cooler since 2012.

"Identification is really the difficult part," Hess says.

The staff at the PCME's office investigates the migrants' remains in the same way they investigate those of US citizens.

"We live in a modern, civilized society, and treat all deaths the same. Plus, when you find remains, you don't know if they're from Mexico or the United States," Hess said.

They search cell phones, toiletries, and wallets found with the remains, looking for clues, and manage to successfully identify most of the bodies.

Hess compares the high rate of migrant deaths in Arizona to dealing with an ongoing mass casualty event, like a plane crash.

"But [with a plane crash] you have a manifest to start with. You know who's supposed to be on a plane," he says. In August, the PCME's office turned on an overflow cooler adjacent to their building, in anticipation of more bodies in the final hot summer weeks. It will remain on through September.

The office has 800 cold case files, which date back a decade and are still solved from time to time, Hess says. If bodies cannot be identified, they are eventually cremated and buried in a county plot at a cemetery.

The medical examiner's office applies for federal grants to offset the costs of their work.