After the hottest, driest summer in state history, authorities have recovered close to a 10-year record in the number of bodies of people who crossed from Mexico into Arizona’s deserts, valleys and mountains. It’s a reminder that the most remote paths to enter the U.S. can be the deadliest.
Enforcement efforts in neighboring states over the years have helped drive people into Arizona’s difficult terrain, and some officials and activists believe stepped-up construction of President Donald Trump’s border wall this year, largely in Arizona, also could be pushing migrants into dangerous areas without easy access to food and water.
De la Cruz and Lopez Valencia were among 214 confirmed or suspected migrants whose deaths at the Arizona border were documented from January to November by the nonprofit Humane Borders and the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office, which together map recoveries of human remains.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that the high temperatures have had a lot to do with it,” said Mike Kreyche, Humane Borders’ mapping coordinator.
The highest annual number that the project documented was 224 in 2010. It wasn’t clear if 2020 would exceed that once December is factored in.
The Border Patrol keeps its own statistics, counting the remains of suspected migrants it learns about in the course of its duties, according to its parent agency, Customs and Border Protection. CBP said that if another agency recovers remains and doesn’t notify the Border Patrol, it won’t be included in its tally.
For the first nine months of 2020, the Border Patrol listed 43 deaths in the Yuma and Tucson sectors that make up the Arizona border area. The mapping project tracked 181 deaths over the same period.
During the 2019 calendar year, the federal government listed 70 deaths in Arizona, while the mapping project counted 144.
Federal statistics show that search and rescue operations near Arizona’s border inexplicably dipped to 213 during a record-hot July and August, from 232 in July and August 2019. But early fall figures indicate rescues across the Southwest were trending up.
Hess told the Pima County Board of Supervisors in October that high temperatures and dry weather were apparently the reason more bodies were found this year. While recoveries included skeletons, many deaths were recent.
The National Weather Service in Phoenix says the average high temperature was nearly 110 degrees (43 degrees Celsius) in July and nearly 111 in August, helping make it the hottest summer in history. Phoenix’s highs tend to be roughly the same as those in Arizona’s Sonoran Desert just north of the boundary with Mexico, forecasters say.
The weather service said July and August also were the state’s driest summer months on record.
Hess told county supervisors that he didn’t detect any major changes in where people crossed.
The remains of more than 3,000 migrants have been found near the Arizona border in the two decades since heightened enforcement in San Diego and El Paso, Texas, began driving people into Arizona’s deserts and mountains.
Authorities have been able to identify about two-thirds. Most came from Mexico and Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
“It is important to remember that these are human beings, not just numbers,” said Tony Banegas, CEO of the Tucson-based Colibri Center for Human Rights, which works with the medical examiner’s office to help identify the bodies. “The only thing we can be sure of is there are a lot more people who died out there that we don’t even know about.”