Group Identifies Human Remains Along the Border

In a special broadcast from the Arizona-Sonora border, we look at how the bodies and bones of more than 3,000 people have been found in the Sonoran Desert since 2001, and speak with Robin Reineke, the co-founder of the Tucson-based organization Colibrí Center for Human Rights. Colibrí Center is dedicated to identifying the remains of people passing through the desert and, since its founding, has identified at least 100 migrants through meticulous forensic work and DNA data collection of people’s remains and family members who are alive. In 2018, it launched the Bring Them Back Campaign to call for dignity and demand justice for disappeared migrants and their families.

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We are broadcasting from southern Arizona.

Since 2001, the bodies and bones of more than 3,000 people have been found in the Sonoran Desert. Immigrant rights activists say the number of deaths could be alarmingly higher. We end today’s show looking at how the Colibrí Center for Human Rights here in Tucson is working to identify the remains of the thousands of migrants who have already perished. Since 2013, Colibrí has received nearly 4,000 reports from families in Mexico, Central America and other regions searching for their loved ones who disappeared while crossing the border. In the past three years, Colibrí has identified at least a hundred of them, through meticulous forensic work and DNA data collection of migrants’ remains and family members who are alive.

In 2018, Colibrí Center launched the Bring Them Back Campaign, an initiative advocating for dignity and demanding justice for disappeared migrants and their families. This is Felix Gómez speaking about his brother Pablo Jacinto Gómez, a native of Guatemala whose body was found after he attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

FELIX GÓMEZ: [translated] Pablo Jacinto Gómez, he was my dear brother. The last I knew of him was on Sunday, July 29th, 2018, the date that he decided to cross the border. We did find him, but not the way we had wanted. On August 10th, we learned that the Colibrí Center had found his remains. My brother crossed the border because in our countries we lack so many things, which makes us have to seek other horizons. My brother was a hard worker, brave, and a really friendly person.

And as for whether or not I have hope for the future, of course I do. I hope that there will be better opportunities in our countries, that people from our countries won’t have to risk their lives anymore to cross the desert, and face the same fate as my brother. I am Felix Jacinto Gómez. I demand: Bring Them Back.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Felix Gómez, speaking about his brother Pablo Jacinto Gómez, a native of Guatemala whose body was found after he attempted to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

For more, we’re joined by Robin Reineke, the co-founder of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights and research social scientist at the Southwest Center.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ROBIN REINEKE: Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the numbers are horrifying. In the last, well, less than 20 years, we’re talking about the remains of, the bones of some 3,000 migrants found in the desert in southern Arizona?

ROBIN REINEKE: Yes. And those are the remains that have been found. So we don’t know how many have been yet to be discovered. We do know that in addition to that 3,000, thousands more remain missing. So, Colibrí’s database contains an additional 3,000 names of people who are missing.

AMY GOODMAN: And how do you identify? How do you match up families with their loved ones in the desert?

ROBIN REINEKE: Well, it’s exceedingly difficult, not only because of the desert environment, but also because the families live remotely. They face various blockades due to vulnerability, racism, marginalization. So, really, the desert is a horribly effective disappearing machine. But beyond the Sonoran Desert, where someone my stature could be skeletal within a matter of weeks, families also face the problem that they try to report law enforcement and they’re turned away, or they try to access the federal database and they’re told, “You have to go to law enforcement,” and then they’re referred to Border Patrol.

So, the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, which I co-founded, was founded locally, in the space of the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner, to respond directly to family need, to recognize that the families needed to be received with respect and honoring the fact that they are afraid, that they’re going through something very terrifying, and that they have a human right to justice and truth and information.

AMY GOODMAN: You work with the Pima County medical examiner. Can you explain how that works?

ROBIN REINEKE: Yes. The Colibrí Center for Human Rights works very closely with the Medical Examiner’s Office. In fact, the center was founded inside of that county government office, which is something that we’re very proud of. It’s not only the activists and the nonprofit people who are responding humanely to those losing their lives on the border; it’s also county officials. So, the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner does a beautiful, scientifically rigorous job of examining the remains, of examining every single skeletal case found in the desert borderlands. The challenge is that it’s not their job to collect missing persons information.

And that’s what Colibrí does. So, Colibrí focuses on the families. We build trusting relationships with every single family missing someone, searching for someone lost in that landscape. We collect all the physical information — when did they disappear, what happened, how old were they, what were they carrying, what did she tell you she was going to do when she got there — everything that we can. We build a family profile. And then we collect DNA.

AMY GOODMAN: Groups like No More Deaths often find bones or a decomposing body. Does this help you in your work as you link up with families?

ROBIN REINEKE: Yes. The families are terrified. They’re distraught. They hate the idea that their loved one may be deceased and languishing in a desert, to be consumed by animals. If you can imagine thinking about your loved one’s remains being left out to be consumed by animals, what a horrifying thought that would be. So, No More Deaths has discovered a lot of remains, as have other groups like Aguilas del Desierto and Humane Borders and many others. Alvaro Enciso, the artist, he’s also discovered remains.

AMY GOODMAN: Who we’ll be broadcasting later this week. We just went out to the desert with him to see where he plants his crosses. Can you talk about the importance of this work and restoring dignity to people, so often uncounted in life, not to be uncounted in death?

ROBIN REINEKE: Yes. Colibrí, I’ve always felt — I’ve felt despair in collecting these missing persons reports over the years, to be honest with you. And as I’m writing down the details and the names and the tattoos and everything that this family can remember about their dear loved one, is that we’re involved not only in trying to find truth for that family, trying to find out what happened — in the case of Felix, to his brother, who we were able to successfully identify and give the family answers and some degree of closure — but we’re also involved in a practice of witnessing with the family and recognizing that despite all of this horrifying rhetoric, despite everything going on, despite whatever their loved one went through, that they’re irreplaceable, and they mattered.

AMY GOODMAN: Robin Reineke, I want to thank you so much for being with us, co-founder of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights. Special thanks to our Democracy Now! team here in Arizona: Maria Taracena, Charina Nadura, Tey-Marie Astudillo, John Hamilton, Libby Rainey and Denis Moynihan. And thanks also to Arizona Public Media here in Tucson.

Democracy Now! is produced by Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Nermeen Shaikh, Carla Wills, Tami Woronoff, Sam Alcoff, Robby Karran, Hany Massoud, Charina Nadura, Tey-Marie Astudillo. Mike DiFilippo and Miguel Nogueira are our engineers.

Tune in throughout the week as we continue to bring you our series, “Death and Resistance on the U.S.-Mexico Border.” I’m Amy Goodman, in Tucson, Arizona. Thanks so much for joining us.