Frontera Fund News

Forensic Team With Colibrí Travels to Identify the Missing in the Desert

Written by Carmen Cornejo

It is unimaginable to think of the pain and suffering of those families who have lost loved ones in the desert, after embarking on a dangerous journey across the cruel Arizona-Mexico border. The numbers are staggering: U.S. Border Patrol recorded more than 7,216 deaths of assumed migrants between fiscal years 1998 and 2017.

Many families, spread across South and Central America all the way north to the U.S., have suffered for months or even years without knowing the fate of their sons, daughters, brothers or sisters. They are always hoping they are alive but fearing their remains are among the thousands found in the desert.

Colibrí Center for Human Rights is a group of young activists who combine science and human rights activism to identify the remains stored in massive refrigerators.

Carefully and methodically, Colibrí’s staff takes detailed reports from families through phone calls and face-to-face conversations. They also collect forensic data from the remains found in the desert and the objects that surround them, storing the information in a database. Then they systematically go through the data to match descriptions of the missing with the clues from the remains. After a likely match, the team seeks verification through DNA testing.

We’re fighting for the lives of migrants through saying that they matter, and helping their families in their pursuit of claiming them as real people. –Robin Reineke

Colibrí currently has records for more than 2,400 missing people last seen crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

Thanks to a grant received a year ago from the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, the Colibrí team of forensic anthropologists and activists have been able to travel to cities in the U.S. to collect DNA samples from the families of the missing, who in many cases cannot travel because they are afraid, undocumented and lack the financial resources. Read an article by The Washington Post about how this grant has helped Colibrí’s team to further their mission. 

Using churches and community centers as operation centers, without publicity, the activists meet the families of the missing hoping to bring closure to their search.

“Our work contests the statement that [migrant] lives don’t matter,” says co-founder and executive director Robin Reineke, Ph.D. “We do that every day. We’re fighting for the lives of migrants through saying that they matter, and helping their families in their pursuit of claiming them as real people.”

With this new funded approach, the Colibrí team reaches out to families who have contacted them and schedule appointments to take DNA samples in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, and Tucson. So far they have collected more than 370 samples, which have helped with the identification of more than 30 people.

For the Phoenix clinic, Frontera Fund was able to find support from The Arizona DREAM Act Coalition and Chicanos por la Causa, which generously donated their space and resources during the meeting with the families and the DNA sampling.

With this grant, the Colibrí team is looking forward to visiting more cities in the U.S. to continue making DNA matches and giving families at least a sense of peace.

Additionally, along with the forensic identification work, the team documents the stories of missing people and their families, so the uniqueness of their lives is honored.

Lacey and Larkin Frontera Fund is a proud partner of Colibrí’s work.