Amateur Sleuth Seeks Clues to Immigrants' Fate

John Doe i

A grave marker in the paupers' section of a cemetery in Holtville, Calif., near the U.S.-Mexico border. Nearly 400 unidentified people, believed to be illegal immigrants, are buried there. Carrie Kahn, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Carrie Kahn, NPR
John Doe

A grave marker in the paupers' section of a cemetery in Holtville, Calif., near the U.S.-Mexico border. Nearly 400 unidentified people, believed to be illegal immigrants, are buried there.

Carrie Kahn, NPR

Crossing the U.S.–Mexico border illegally can be a dangerous business. Scores of people die every year and in many cases, their remains are never identified.

Francisco Javier Torres, a clerk at the Mexican consulate in the California border town of Calexico, often takes missing person reports from frantic relatives in Mexico, who are looking for someone who may have tried to sneak across the border.

Torres says he warns people not to use false names and to carry their identification with them, so if something happens, the consulate can find them and help them. But he says most smugglers who bring people across the border take away their identification and change their names. "We'll never find them that way," he says.

Torres says one of his most difficult cases involved a body found in the All-American Canal, a 50-foot-wide irrigation ditch that separates Calexico from Mexicali, Mexico. Its swift current has claimed many lives. The body had been in the canal for 10-15 days and was decomposed beyond recognition. With no way to run fingerprints, Imperial County Coroner Charles Lucas knew the remains would be difficult to identify.

But then Lucas found an anchor-shaped religious medallion in the man's pockets. He turned it over to Torres, who told him he remembered that a family in Oaxaca had mentioned an anchor medallion when they called him looking for their son.

It was an important clue, but not enough to identify the body. A definitive identification could only come from DNA testing and in California, that can take years.

So Torres turned to Lori Baker, a forensic anthropologist at Baylor University in Texas. Baker has created a database of unidentified remains along the border and says she can give families faster results about their missing loved ones.

"The hope that they are alive tears you up inside," says Baker.

Two years ago, the Mexican government began funding Baker's project, enabling her to expand her database. So far, she has identified 100 people. Baker says many families are thankful for an answer about the fate of their loved one, even if it is not the answer they want.

At first, Torres was unable to persuade coroner Charles Lucas to release the remains so they could be sent to Baker for DNA testing.

"I can't give him the samples that he wants all the time," says Lucas. "Because I can't prove that they are Mexican nationals. It's only a guess until we can identify them."

So Torres sent a photo of the medallion to the family in Oaxaca. They immediately recognized it as their son's prized keepsake. The coroner was convinced, and a bone was sent to Baker's lab at Baylor. DNA testing matched it to a sample from the family.

Torres says solving this mystery was typical of how he tries to give families an answer. He says at least the relatives in Oaxaca know what happened to their loved one, unlike so many other families, who are still left wondering.

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