Dead pigs offer clues to migrants’ fate
Researchers say deaths in desert undercounted
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.