Frontera Fund News

Missing Migrants: Part 1

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Thousands of unidentified people have died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. The Colibrí Center is trying to give each of them a name.

What stories do your belongings tell? The photograph of your wife in your wallet? The phone numbers in your purse? Your rosary, your lipstick, your silver belt buckle?

What if these were the only clues left to tell your story?

The staff at Colibrí Center for Human Rights pieces together details like these to form stories of migrants who died while journeying to the U.S. to find work or family. Colibrí’s challenging mission is to identify remains found in the Arizona desert, to track down the decedents’ families, and to give them answers about what happened to their missing loved ones.

Each year, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, with which Colibrí works, sees an average of 176 deceased migrants. The U.S. Border Patrol recorded 6,029 migrant deaths across the American borderlands between 1998 and 2013.

In the public sphere, discussions of immigration usually focus on the collective: an influx, a deluge, a flood of migrants. As if these people had no more individuality than a drop of water.

Colibrí’s work shifts the focus onto “individual, irreplaceable human lives,” says director Robin Reineke. “We are tracing individual people back to their individual loved ones. Not just any person will do; it has to be that one.”

They do this using a mix of forensics and anthropology: the evidence from each person’s body, plus clues from the tokens they carry. “These very ephemeral, little things are big things to the families when someone’s identified,” Reineke says.


The boy carrying this wallet and phone number for his mother was between 14 and 19 years old. He was found by Border Patrol in a remote desert wash 5 miles east of Lukeville, Arizona, some months after his death. By then, his body was a skeleton wearing a blue plaid shirt, black pants, and blue socks. Is his mama still looking for him?


The man who carried these objects was found only days after he died near North Komelik Village in Arizona. He was partially suspended from a tree, with his shoelaces tied around his neck. Dying of thirst is so excruciating that some people try to hasten their deaths. That may be what happened to this man.

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Are the women in this photograph the decedent’s sisters? His daughters? It’s difficult to tell. Only part of this man’s skeleton was found by Border Patrol agents in a remote desert wash. DNA tests on his skull indicated he was male, but his age can only be estimated at between 24 and 46.


The man wearing this belt buckle was one of eight migrants who died when the SUV they were riding in rolled over near Sonoita, Arizona. The vehicle’s back seat had been removed, and at least 22 people from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico were packed inside. Human smugglers often drive fast at night with their headlights off to avoid detection. Though this man, age 25-33, was found hours after death and his face was recognizable, he has still not been identified.

Photos by Jonathan Hollingsworth from Left Behind: Life and Death Along the U.S. Border (Dewi Lewis Publishing).

Find out how Colibrí uses forensics, anthropology, missing person reports, and interviews with families to identify missing migrants in Missing Migrants: Part 2.