US-Mexico project IDs border-crossing victims

WASHINGTON — Lorenia Ton visits the morgues of southern Arizona searching for clues among the unclaimed bodies and belongings of people who tried to cross the desert.

Sometimes it's a phone number written inside pantlegs, or a piece of paper sewn into a backpack. Other times there are family photos, images of saints, or love letters.

"Sometimes we cannot find anything," says Ton, whose job at the Mexican consulate in Tucson involves helping identify the remains and return them to Mexico.

To confirm the IDs, the consulate sends DNA samples to Bode Technology Group Inc., a private lab in Lorton, Va., outside Washington, as part of a project that has brought closure to dozens of families and countless relatives on both sides of the border.

The lab has made at least 47 positive identifications since the program began a couple of years ago. Many other cases are pending as the number of people who try to cross the border illegally has grown.

The number of deaths along the border hit a peak of 492 in 2005 and had been declining, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

But those numbers only tally the deaths that border patrol officers come across. That doesn't include other bodies found by local law enforcement agencies, immigrant rights organizations, ranchers and other passers-by.

Back in Mexico, families enter their loved ones into a missing persons database, which includes details such as people's clothes, dental records and whether they had tattoos.

If officials find a name with the bodies, they run it through the database. If the body is still recognizable, Ton sends a photo to the family. If the body is not too decomposed, officials can run the fingerprints with U.S. border authorities and see whether that person had been deported before.

Based on those leads, the consulate makes presumptive identifications. It's Ton's job to contact the relatives.