What Remains –  working to identify migrants who have perished in the Arizona desert

What Remains – working to identify migrants who have perished in the Arizona desert


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(car traveling on highway)
– We are at mile post seven
on South Mission Road,
not far from Mission San
Xavier, not far from Tucson,
we’re not far from
Sahuarita and a human being
disappeared here in this
spot where we’re standing.
(gentle acoustic guitar music)
– This is an individual
who was found with no other
personal effects, no clothing,
no backpack, nothing.
Found on the Tohono
O’odham Nation in August
of last year, 2018.
The condition of his
remains suggest to us
that he probably lay out
there for one to three months.
(gentle acoustic guitar music)
– Nancy was from Lima, Peru.
She had two daughters
who lived in New York.
She hadn’t seen them in years.
She was getting
extremely depressed
and when she lost
her job in 2009,
that was the last straw
and she took off North.
Nancy had died her hair
white to look older
so that she wouldn’t be abused
or raped during her journey.
– This is the humorous,
the upper arm bone
that we can see on him
and one of the reasons
we know he’s a teenager
is that that bone
hadn’t fully fused,
so there was cartilage
between this part of the bone
and the main part of the bone,
so he could have gotten taller.
(gentle acoustic guitar music)
– She took buses all the
way through Central America
and Mexico and then she
joined up with a coyote,
with a guide, and another
group of other migrants.
They crossed the international
boundary pretty quickly
on foot and then they
were met by a vehicle
that drove them North.
Border Patrol pulled
up behind them.
Everyone who could escape the
van ran out into the desert,
including Nancy.
From there she was just
missing and the family
began what would be
a years-long process
of trying to find
out what happened.
– Right now we don’t
know who he is,
we have no leads
to his identity.
– As soon as Nancy disappeared,
the family actually flew out
to this area and searched
the desert themselves,
interviewed witnesses.
I met with them in a
hotel off the side of I-10
and took a missing persons
report, tried to go to report
at police where they
were turned away.
They went to Border
Patrol themselves,
they visited consulates.
– We’re hoping that
his mother, his father
or another family
member eventually
reaches out and tells us
that he went missing.
(typing)
Not only is loss,
personal loss a tragedy,
this limbo, this not knowing
if they’re alive or dead,
and if they are dead,
has the body been found
but nobody has put
two and two together.
Or are they still
laying out there?
Part of what we do here is to
determine how somebody died,
the manner of death,
their cause of death,
and then help law enforcement
with identification.
(pickup truck
traveling on highway)
– We now know that actually
her remains were found in 2011
about three and a half
miles north of here.
It took, however, until 2017
for that cranium that was found
to be identified as Nancy’s.
– We’ve had a slow motion
mass disaster played out
over the last 19, 20 years.
3,000 people have
come into this office
for a postmortem examination.
Some were bodies of
people who died that day
or the day before.
Other people were
just represented
by a single sun-bleached bone.
Of those 3,000, 2,000 have
been identified as a specific
individual, all from south
of the U.S.-Mexico border.
(gentle acoustic guitar music)
(car driving on road)
(reverent music)
We’re in the Tohono O’odham
Nation, the San Xavier District
and we’re working with Tohono
O’odham Police Department
on these two mock death
scenes, if you will.
– [Investigator]
That’s at six, four.
– [Bruce] One is a typical
scatter of remains by animals
of somebody who dies
on the desert floor.
The other one, somebody
who dies in a dry wash
and then their body
decomposes, it skeletonizes
and then when the waters come,
as we know they always will,
some of the bones get
washed downstream.
– [Investigator] This
is kind of exposed,
ready to be photographed
and then removed.
– [Bruce] We always like to talk
to the law enforcement
officers who are responsible
for recovering these remains
because we do very few recovers.
The Pima County Office
and the Medical Examiner,
very rarely do we send an
anthropologist or pathologist
or an investigator out to a
scene, so we’re almost totally
reliant on the skills of
law enforcement officers.
– That’s gonna indicate
I’ve got two individuals.
Am I gonna be able to see,
oh, that other left tibia
was found 100 yards from here.
– [Bruce] We want them to
be as thorough as possible,
which means not only
covering the widest area
that makes sense, but
while you’re in that area,
pay close attention to bones
that can turn the
color of the sand.
(reverent music)
It’s not very pleasant at times.
Some of the sites are horrific.
Some of the smells are horrific.
Using your gloved hands
on a decomposing body
is assault to several
of your senses.
These folks lived a
hard life and their skin
and their teeth and their
bones reflect these stressors
that have accumulated.
This young man’s case,
he didn’t live too long,
but he still has some of
these childhood stress marks
written on his bones.
– Something that I observed
about Bruce Anderson
in the early 2000s,
he wrote by hand
hundreds of missing
persons reports.
Families were calling him
and he didn’t turn them away.
It wasn’t the right place.
Forensic anthropologist
usually isn’t taking
missing persons reports.
Usually you refer
that to police.
Bruce knew that they
couldn’t go to police.
(gentle acoustic guitar music)
I started typing all
of his hand-written
missing persons reports
into a database.
One of them was for
a Guatemalan woman.
He has stapled a beautiful
picture of her wearing
traditional Guatemalan traje
to his hand-written report.
And in addition to her name
and the date of disappearance
and her age, he had written
on the margin a note
that said she was a nice person
and that stood out to me.
It was the representation
of someone who was not only
collecting data as a
scientist, but also listening
to a family and
being there with them
in that moment of crisis.
– I know that my best day
as a forensic anthropologist
gleaning some really
important information
that can lead to
an identification,
that then becomes
the worst day a mother
or a wife could ever have
because we now know this
John Doe has been identified
as their son or their
husband, so I have to temper,
I think most of us do,
temper our satisfaction
with ourselves in doing
a good job by knowing
that that’s the outcome.
(gentle acoustic guitar music)
– Forensic anthropology
can not only identify
one individual person, but
it can also show patterns
across many cases.
(gentle acoustic guitar music)
– The genetic estimate
of all living humans
is that we’re 99.9% alike.
In my job, I can
do a better service
if I can find some
of those differences.
(gentle acoustic guitar music)
– There’s a quote from Ruth
Benedict that the purpose
of anthropology is to
make the world safe
for human difference.
It’s a very precise science
that can come to interact
with very deep human need
for answers, for truth
and for justice.
(gentle acoustic guitar music)

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