You've come to an old part of SW Online. We're still moving this and other older stories into our new format. In the meanwhile, click here to go to the current home page.

Day 4: Tucson

Death in the desert

Previous day | Next day | Feature introduction

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Death in the desert

BORDER POLICY—and its grisly toll—has transformed the unassuming Dr. Bruce Parks, medical examiner of Pima County along Arizona's border with Mexico, into a minor media celebrity.

He ticks off the interviews he's done in recent weeks—60 Minutes, MSNBC, CNN, the German newspaper Der Spiegel, and a slew of U.S. papers, including the Tucson weekly that put him on its front cover—and shakes his head at all the publicity. But he seems resigned to the attention for the simple reason that he wants the world to know about the daily tragedies unfolding in the deserts of southern Arizona.

Dr. Parks works in a nondescript building—a pink one-story faux adobe—on the southern approach to Tucson. In the late 1980s, a new addition doubled the size of the medical examiner's offices—testament to the growth of Tucson (and many other Southwestern cities) as people arrived here looking for jobs, housing and sun, without the steep rents of southern California.

In 2000, a new and ominous demographic trend emerged—in-transit deaths of what Parks calls "undocumented border crossers."

Before that year, "there were so few that it didn't even register as a common phenomenon," he says. "In 2000, that all changed, and we saw about 40. In 2001, it doubled, and it has been going up ever since. Last year, we had 197. This year, we're about 15 behind the pace of last year.

"Last year was unbelievable—we had 69 people die in the month of July. Before that, the record for one month was about 34 or 35, so we about doubled that. It was the hottest July on record."

With its facilities unable to cope with the spiking body count, the medical examiner's office had to park a refrigerated truck outside to house corpses while it attempted to reach the families of the deceased.

"You can hear it—there's a diesel motor that operates the compressors and the cooling system," he said. "And it was so expensive to rent the darn thing that we went ahead and bought our own. We had some funds—through the Department of Homeland Security to pay for the refrigerated truck. But it's not a long-term solution, so the county authorized the construction of a separate refrigeration unit on-site."

In 2005, a record 473 people died trying to cross the border—and according to Parks, "this office was ground zero. I'm not aware of any medical examiner's office that has seen more deaths. We're seeing less than half of them, but the others are spread around, so no other single office saw more than we did."

After Parks rented the truck, the media started paying attention. "I allowed myself to be accessible," says Parks. "I thought it was important for this to be publicized, so that maybe this whole thing would get turned around.

"Each one of these people had dreams, families and so on, but I can't really think much about that, or I wouldn't be able to do my job."

The escalation in border deaths isn't an unfortunate accident. It's a matter of policy. During Bill Clinton's second term, which followed his signing of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, the level of border militarization was dramatically increased to clamp down on undocumented border crossings in urban areas.

The intent was to force migrants into the deserts on the assumption that the more difficult terrain and spreading news of deaths in transit would deter future crossers. In the words of former INS head Doris Meisner, "We did believe geography would be an ally."

More than 4,000 migrants have died trying to cross into the U.S. since 1985, but that only counts those who died on the U.S. side. The actual number is probably twice that figure or more. There are those who die in the deserts on the Mexican side. And then there are those whose journey begins thousands of miles from the U.S.—and die before the desert even gets its chance.

"Tens of thousands of Central American migrants hop trains heading north, from southern Mexico, up to border towns like Nuevo Laredo," CNN correspondent Ed Lavandera reported last May. "They will battle bandits who rob and rape. They will go hungry and thirsty for days. And, out of exhaustion, some have fallen under the trains. Thousands have died. Shelters are filled with migrants who have lost legs and arms."

Dr. Parks leads us out of his office and into the morgue itself, where the faint smell of decomposing bodies hangs in the air. He shows us the board that catalogs the contents of their refrigerators. Undocumented border crossers are outlined in blue.

We walk outside, past the refrigerated truck, glance at the new refrigeration unit that Parks says should be ready by this fall, and then return inside for a sobering look at the bagged and tagged personal effects that arrived with the bodies of the undocumented.

The belongings of the deceased crossers whose families can't be found are kept in a locked filing cabinet and carefully sealed in plastic, providing a glimpse into their lives that is uncomfortably intimate.

"Wallets, jewelry, cards, photographs, pesos, dollars, phone numbers, a birth certificate," says Dr. Parks as he holds up the plastic-encased remnants of lost lives. "This person had a false eye," he says, gesturing to the unblinking glass staring back at us. "If you think about this stuff too much, it'll mess you up. I just do my best to make something good out of a bad situation."

Next day | Previous day | Feature introduction | SW home page