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Finding ‘Lost Souls’ of Migrants Through DNA

Times Staff Writer

The body of Jane Doe 43-2002 was found last December in a remote stretch of southern Arizona. She was one of hundreds of undocumented migrants who die each year crossing the desert into the United States.

If left unidentified, the woman’s partial skeleton would have been sent to a pauper’s grave, joining the anonymous dead who lie buried and forgotten on the border. But this month, the brittle bones were linked by DNA to a name: Rosa Cano Dominguez, 30, a mother of two from the Yucatan.

The identification was a first in a newly launched project led by Baylor University forensic anthropologist Lori Baker, who is building a DNA database designed to reunite the dead with their worried relatives at home. “So many people die trying to get into this country, and their families have no idea what happened to them,” Baker said. “These are human beings and deserve to be buried with a name.”

Since 1998, 1,850 people have died crossing the 2,000-mile border dividing the U.S. and Mexico, according to the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. More than a third died anonymously, their bodies bloated by the Rio Grande River, scattered by coyotes or baked into splinters by the harsh desert sun.

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Standard methods of identification, such as fingerprinting or dental X-rays, are useless in these cases, said Dorothy Weddle, former justice of the peace in Val Verde County, in south-central Texas. “Sometimes you’ve got very little to work with and there’s really nothing you can do to identify them,” she said.

Baker, 32, is developing a system that will allow her to extract DNA from the bone or tooth fragments of the nameless dead. The results can then be compared with the DNA profiles of relatives searching for a missing family member.

The success of the project hinges on the cooperation of local authorities -- whose interest level varies by county -- and her ability to spread the word to families in remote villages, Baker said.

“People ask, ‘Why are you spending so much time on individuals who are not even citizens?’ ” she said. “But it’s appalling -- there’s no centralized system to help people in this situation, even though we have the technology to do something. It’s all left up to the counties, who are overworked and underfunded. It’s a mess.”

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In Texas, where most cash-strapped border counties can’t afford a coroner, the job of identifying bodies falls first to the justice of the peace. Bobby Contreras, a justice of the peace in Hidalgo County on the South Texas border, said that most of the dead in his area wash up on the banks of the Rio Grande. He decides on the scene whether to order an autopsy. If empty water jugs are secured to each arm for flotation or a plastic bag full of clothes is tied to a wrist, “I know how that person died,” he said. “He drowned trying to cross the river. I’m not going to use county money for an autopsy.”

Photos are taken of the body and notes made of anything that might help identify the remains: fingerprints, clothes, height, estimated age. The information is passed to the local police and to the Mexican Consulate, which tries to locate the family. Bodies claimed by relatives are returned to their home country. The rest are buried in paupers’ graves like the one behind the Kountry Funeral Home in nearby La Blanca.

Thirty John Does are buried in the cemetery, the graves identified not by markers but by a slight depression that appears when weight is put on the grass. “See? You can tell someone’s buried there because your feet go down when you step on it,” administrator Aidee Lopez said.

In her office, Lopez pulls a sheaf of folders from a battered metal cabinet. The files, labeled “John Doe,” each contain one piece of paper: a report from the funeral home noting where and when the body was found. “That’s all we know about him. If someone’s family comes looking, this is all I have,” she said.

Lopez flips open a notebook and points to a chart showing which John Doe is buried where, ordered by date of death. “These are lost souls,” she said. “But the bottom line is, a lot people just don’t care.”

Baker, who traveled the border last year on a fact-finding mission, said Lopez’s diligence is unusual. “Many don’t keep records; they just bury them. You almost have to know exactly where and when someone disappeared to start looking for them, and good luck in an unmarked graveyard trying to figure out where they are. It’s a very bizarre system, and frightening if you’re the one dead and unidentified.”

At a county cemetery in adjoining Edinburg, the graves of the unknown are hidden under a carpet of tangled weeds and cactus. The tombs, if identified at all, are marked with small, mangled aluminum frames. Index cards noting the burial date were long ago bleached by the sun.

These bodies may be hopelessly lost, but it could be worse. Contreras said that at least one funeral home in Hidalgo County has cremated unidentified remains to cut costs. The ashes will be kept for 18 months before they are disposed of, he said.

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Larger border counties with better funding can afford to be more mindful of the corpses. In Arizona’s Pima County, as in San Diego County, autopsies are routinely performed on all undocumented migrants, with fingerprints and dental X-rays taken when physically possible.

Over 100 tissue and bone samples from the unidentified dead are in cold storage at the Pima County medical examiner’s office. Many of these will be sent to Baker, who will work through the backlog to build a DNA database before she begins exhuming bodies from Texas potter’s fields next year.

Although Baylor is allowing her to use its laboratory for DNA testing, Baker is attempting to raise $800,000 in private grants to finance the project for three years. Federal funding is not an option, she said, because families are reluctant to share information about missing relatives with the government.

Her first successful match may prove to be one of the easiest, she said. Rosa Cano’s remains, sent home 17 months after she disappeared, included a tattered voter’s registration card that led the Mexican Consulate in Tucson to her family.

The card itself was not enough to positively identify Cano, since undocumented migrants often carry false identification, Baker said. But when she compared Cano’s DNA with the saliva swabs sent by her mother and one of her young daughters, Baker’s doubts were erased.

“She came here trying to find a better life for herself and children. It was horrible to tell the family she wouldn’t be coming home alive,” Baker said. “But at least they know. At least they’re not left to wonder anymore.”


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