Dead pigs of­fer clues to mi­grants’ fate

Re­searchers say deaths in desert un­der­counted

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - NEWS - Rob O’Dell

ARIVACA, Ariz. – A team of re­searchers had a who­dunit on their hands.

They had placed four pig car­casses in the sear­ing south­ern Ari­zona desert about 10 miles from the Mex­i­can bor­der. Six days later, one – what had been a 170-pound adult pig – had van­ished.

The dead pigs were there to help re­searchers study what hap­pens to the thou­sands of mi­grants who have per­ished in the Sono­ran desert.

The foren­sic an­thro­pol­o­gists turned to a trail cam­era set up to mon­i­tor scaveng­ing and decay to solve the mys­tery of Pig No. 4, but it had mal­func­tioned.

So, they spec­u­lated: Vul­tures weren’t big enough to carry off any­thing more than small pieces of flesh. Nei­ther were the rats spot­ted ear­lier gnaw­ing on the car­cass or a pos­sum seen in the area.

Could it be one of the coy­otes that the cam­eras had cap­tured scaveng­ing the past sev­eral nights, they won­dered? Was it a band of coy­otes?

“It’s just a big wet spot,” Krista Calvo, a grad­u­ate stu­dent at Univer­sity Col­lege Lon­don, said of what was left of the pig. “It looks like a crime scene.”

‘A hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis’

A Univer­sity of Michi­gan as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor, Jason De Leon, is try­ing to solve a big­ger mys­tery. His ex­per­i­ments with dead pigs could il­lu­mi­nate the fate of mi­grants who die cross­ing the bor­der, in­clud­ing many whose bod­ies never are re­cov­ered be­cause of scaveng­ing and the el­e­ments. The pigs would be scav­enged in a sim­i­lar man­ner.

“If you can imag­ine that this hap­pens to peo­ple, it’s in­cred­i­bly dis­turb­ing,” said De Leon, the direc­tor of the univer­sity’s Un­doc­u­mented Mi­gra­tion Project. “We have a hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis, and we need bet­ter sci­en­tific data. These an­i­mals are fill­ing in for hu­mans who are dis­ap­pear­ing and dy­ing in the desert.”

A 2017 Ari­zona Repub­lic and USA TO­DAY Net­work in­ves­ti­ga­tion high­lighted the lack of in­for­ma­tion about the thou­sands of lives lost on the bor­der.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tion found U.S. Bor­der Pa­trol’s of­fi­cial tally sig­nif­i­cantly un­der­counts mi­grant deaths be­cause the agency tracks only bod­ies that its agents en­coun­tered, not those oth­ers found. In three of the four U.S. states that bor­der Mex­ico – Ari­zona, Cal­i­for­nia and New Mex­ico – the in­ves­ti­ga­tion found mi­grant deaths ex­ceeded the of­fi­cial count by 25 to nearly 300 per­cent.

Record keep­ing in Texas was so hap­haz­ard that the true num­ber of deaths there couldn’t be counted.

Pigs and hu­mans

Pigs are phys­i­cally sim­i­lar to hu­mans. They have a sim­i­lar fat dis­tri­bu­tion, body hair, skin and organ struc­tures, De Leon said.

“They are about as a close as we can get to a hu­man body,” he said, es­pe­cially in Ari­zona, where re­searchers don’t have ac­cess to hu­man bod­ies to study in the harsh con­di­tions. In other places in the South­west, scaveng­ing ex­per­i­ments can be car­ried out at “body farms” pop­u­lated with the corpses of peo­ple who do­nated their bod­ies to sci­ence.

Kate Spradley, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of an­thro­pol­ogy at Texas State Univer­sity in San Mar­cos, has run sim­i­lar scaveng­ing ex­per­i­ments with do­nated hu­man bod­ies.

“Fam­i­lies (of mi­grants) have the right to know what hap­pened to their loved one,” she said of her re­search. “These cases de­serve the same re­spect that every­body in this coun­try gets. That’s just how you treat the dead.”

The Ari­zona re­searchers fur­ther ap­prox­i­mated how mi­grants die in the desert by dress­ing two of the four pigs in clothes – shirts, hats, jeans, un­der­wear and shoes.

The cloth­ing was “to keep us grounded in the fact that these are prox­ies for hu­man be­ings,” said Shari Ex, a Univer­sity of Ten­nessee grad­u­ate stu­dent.

Pig No. 4

About six hours af­ter find­ing that Pig No. 4 was miss­ing, re­searchers dis­cov­ered clues about its fate.

“Oh, here we go. I found part of the ver­te­brae. There’s its jaw,” one of the re­searchers shouted.

Nearly 50 feet from where the pig had been killed, the an­thro­pol­o­gists had found the lower jaw. The flesh was gone and many teeth were miss­ing.

Other bones were strewn down a rugged hill­side cov­ered in mesquite shrubs, wild grasses and jagged, fist-sized rocks. In a line run­ning down the hill were leg bones still con­nected with lig­a­ments, a ver­te­bra, a rib, an­other ver­te­bra and more ribs. The ter­rain grew too rugged to con­tinue the search.

Pig No. 4’s re­mains were car­ried up to 100 feet from the death site af­ter six days, show­ing how chal­leng­ing it is to find and iden­tify de­ceased mi­grants, De Leon said. That’s es­pe­cially true when the re­mains are pulled away from per­sonal items most likely to iden­tify them.

Foren­sic an­thro­pol­o­gists can draw con­clu­sions from a skull, pelvis or long bone, but at that point, it’s “just your best guess,” Ex said. “You’re ex­tremely lim­ited if you just find a bone.”

De Leon’s ex­per­i­ments with pigs, and es­pe­cially what hap­pened to Pig No. 4, prove that the num­ber of mi­grants who per­ish in the desert has been vastly un­der­counted, he said.

Many are iden­ti­fied through per­sonal ef­fects found with bod­ies. But if bones can be pulled apart and dragged 100 feet af­ter six days, De Leon won­dered, what hap­pens af­ter six months or a year?

The U.S. Bor­der Pa­trol did not re­turn calls and emails for com­ment.

“The desert will kill you. Vul­tures will rip you to shreds,” he said. “This hap­pens to hu­man bod­ies out here all the time . ... I don’t know what it’s go­ing to take to make peo­ple con­cerned about this.”


Jason De Leon ad­justs a field cam­era June 15 as he and oth­ers work to de­ter­mine what hap­pens to mi­grants who die in the desert.

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