Frontera Fund News

Missing Migrants: Part 2


The Colibrí Center for Human Rights is “fighting for the lives of migrants” – even after they’ve died.

The two skeletons lay in the desert for perhaps a year, the bones blown by wind, snatched by vultures, gnawed by coyotes, bleached by the sun. Nature was no more merciful to them in death than it was when it took their lives.

One day, someone stumbled across them, notified law enforcement, and the bones were bundled together in a bag like so many Pick-Up Sticks.

That’s how they arrived here, at Tucson’s Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner: ground zero in the crisis of migrant deaths. For years, this office has examined more immigrant remains than any other in the country – an average of one every other day.

Now, the PCOME and the small staff at Colibrí Center for Human Rights will devote themselves to giving these remains names.

Because they know the other side of this story: Somewhere out there, someone is looking for these people. Someone waited by a phone that never rang. Someone called consulates, or was afraid to call. Someone sleeps each night next to a photograph, not sure if their loved ones are dead or alive.

Migrant deaths are marked by red dots on this map of the Arizona borderlands.

Migrant deaths are marked by red dots on this map of the Arizona borderlands.

The process of tracing a body’s identity is as complex as the Rubik’s cube of the immigration crisis. “The best way I can think to describe it,” says Chelsea Halstead, Colibrí’s program manager, “is if somebody took a giant puzzle, cut it in half, and scattered all these pieces on this side and all the other pieces on the other side.”

On one side of the puzzle are clues from the bodies.

In the Arizona desert, especially in summer, a body can decompose into a skeleton in a couple weeks, says Dr. Gregory Hess, the PCOME’s chief medical examiner. Bodies often arrive blackened and mummified, with skin so parched and taut the fingerprints are erased.

If this is the case, Hess and his team have developed a method of soaking the hands in a sodium hydroxide solution to re-plump the fingerprints. They can examine a coal-colored corpse under infrared light, which sometimes illuminates tattoos distinctive enough to make a positive ID.

Even partial skeletons tell tales. Leg bones reveal height. A DNA sample sliced from the skull determines sex. The condition of the joints in the pelvis and ribcage – as well as the Rio Grande-like sutures that squiggle across the skull – suggest age.


Hess picks up one of the skulls and examines the teeth. An extra baby tooth protrudes next to an adult molar. “That could potentially be a distinctive characteristic,” he says. “But oftentimes people from Mexico or Central America may have never had dental work done… so we don’t make a lot of dental comparisons.”

That in itself tells a story, says Robin Reineke, Colibrí’s director. “The story is one of extreme poverty and vulnerability… You can tell [from the remains] these people have lived difficult lives: malnutrition, very poor dental health, severe abscesses, shockingly severe untreated pathologies that most people in the U.S. would be able to treat.”

The clothing and belongings found with the bodies also tell a story. Colibrí’s staff looks for cultural clues like a prayer booklet typical of El Salvador or a saint card common in Michoacán.

“It’s a mixture of very strict scientific points of comparison,” says Halstead, “and more circumstantial things like, ‘Did she have a particular ring she always wore?’”

On the other side of the puzzle are missing person reports, which are scattered helter-skelter across numerous organizations – consulates, police departments, nonprofits, morgues, private investigators’ offices, and more.

“I would wager that there’s probably a hundred or more little tiny lists along this border of people who’ve disappeared,” Reineke says.

Halstead slides open a file cabinet drawer filled with sheets of information on missing people’s height, age, clothing, dentition, when the person was last seen, where they crossed the border, plus photographs that stare out from the pages like pleas for help.

“You have hundreds of people with similar age ranges and similar heights coming from similar regions dying in a geographically remote and vast area,” Reineke says. “At the same time you’ve got families calling from Alaska to Peru looking for missing people, and it’s a disaster of information management.”

Almost a decade ago, Reineke traveled to various agencies across the border, collecting cold cases languishing in drawers and convincing the organizations to funnel their information through Colibrí. “Our mission is to centralize that data so we can really bring forensic science best practices to an issue that has not been apprehended as a disaster but really meets the criteria of a disaster.”

Robin Reineke at a showing of Who Is Dayani Cristal?, a documentary about Colibrí's work.

Robin Reineke at a showing of Who Is Dayani Cristal?, a documentary about Colibrí’s work.

Once Colibrí’s staff has pieced together a match between an autopsy and a missing person report, it must be confirmed scientifically through fingerprints, dental records, radiographs, or DNA.

And then they must deliver the news to the family.

Building trust with families is another piece-by-piece process. Even though Colibrí is non-governmental, families of the undocumented are often afraid to give data to an organization in Arizona, Halstead says. What if their loved one is still alive, and the information leads to the person’s arrest? What if it prompts their own deportation and separation from family?

But searching on their own is impossible. Bureaucratic systems are labyrinths blockaded by red tape and language barriers. Electronic missing person databases and DNA databases are firewalled for people who do not file reports through law enforcement.

“Oftentimes by the time [families] call us they’ve also spoken to people who’ve turned them away – police officers who’ve declined jurisdiction, Border Patrol who’ve declined searching for their loved ones,” Halstead says. “Our task is to make families feel at ease, that they’re OK giving us the data. I think we really honor the families by taking the time to do that. It’s not just, ‘Let’s fill out a form.’ It’s relationship building.”

It is heart-wrenching work with no promise of a happy reunion. When Colibrí successfully identifies remains, they provide answers and closure for families. But they also achieve something more, something that keeps the staff at Colibrí going. They humanize people the system often views as expendable.

“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,” Reineke says.

“It feels good that we’re in resistance to this whole structure that dehumanizes people,” Halstead adds. “It feels good to [provide] this kind of care that people really deserve.”