One Tucson man has taken on the harrowing task of identifying the dozens of bodies that turn up in the Arizona desert each year.
In 2009, the ACLU issued a statement that the deaths on the U.S.-Mexico border were evidence of a "humanitarian crisis," and estimated that since 1994, 5,600 migrants had died while crossing. An estimated 350 to 500 deaths occur along the border a year, according to a Washington Post report.
This part of the U.S. border with Mexico is trafficked and contested by migrants entering the country and often by citizens who roam the desert for their own migrant-related purposes.
Armed volunteer militia groups such as The Minutemen Project patrol the border in order to keep undocumented immigrants out, while volunteer groups like the The Border Angels patrol the desert to provide food, water, and medical attention to border crossers who need it.
In 2011, a year which saw much lower illegal immigration rates than prior years, 117 unidentified bodies turned up in the Arizona desert, according to the Arizona Daily Star. But, thanks to the efforts of Engel Indo, five of those bodies now have names and identities attached to them - and some have even been transported home for family burial services.
"On the bilingual website, Indo puts information about the discovered bodies such as tattoo photos and head shots," The Daily Star reports.
Indo, a technology liaison for the Pima County Medical Examiner and the Mexican Consulate, uses a Facebook group called 'Identificame/Identify me Arizona,' to advertise the missing persons.
"Remains found in the desert," one Facebook post says. The text is accompanied by a picture of the man's clothing he was wearing, and his estimated age.
Indo plans now to venture into the desert with a group of 15 to 20 volunteers once or twice a month to find the bodies himself and alert authorities who will come pick them up, according to The Daily Star.
The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights says by their estimates the actual rate of migrant deaths on the Arizona border have almost doubled in the last two years -- despite the Department of Homeland Security claims that the number of migrant deaths on the border is at an all-time low.
Kat Rodriguez of the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, an Arizona NGO devoted to helping undocumented immigrants, wrote in a January statement:
"Currently, the number of remains recovered in Arizona from October through December of 2011 is 45, already exceeding of the number recovered last year during the same time frame. 82 percent are currently unidentified. 55 percent are of unknown gender, meaning that not enough of their bodies were recovered to establish gender."
Indo told The Daily Star that the job may be dangerous, but ultimately, he sees it as a worthwhile cause.
"I think giving these families closure is really positive. They are human beings that died, and, if nothing else, they deserve their goodbyes from their loved ones."
A child's backpack recovered in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona. Photo taken near Arivaca road, AZ. Credit: Michael Wells, mwellsphoto.com
A tree carving from a migrant station in the Sonoran Desert. "America" could refer to the Mexican soccer team or the country whose undocumented labor markets routinely employ those who can make it through the deadly desert. Credit: Michael Wells, mwellsphoto.com
A water drop maintained by the Tucson group Samaritan Patrol. This group often leaves water along migrant trails in southern Arizona for those who inevitably run out. Credit: Michael Wells, mwellsphoto.com
A large "migrant station" near the town of Arivaca, AZ. Migrant stations are places where people rest, eat, change clothes, and leave items behind while crossing into the U.S. Over time, these sites can become large archaeological repositories of items used by migrants. Credit: Michael Wells, mwellsphoto.com
Migrant shrine in southern Arizona near Arivaca Lake. Migrants will often leave offerings at ad hoc shrines along their dangerous journeys. Credit: Michael Wells, mwellsphoto.com