As I wrote about earlier this week, the border death tally is down slightly this year compared to past years. But, considering the precipitous drop in illegal entries from Mexico into the U.S. through Arizona, the argument can be made that the crossing is more dangerous than ever.
I've examined this theory in a pair of 2009 stories (links here and here). Essentially, border county law enforcement, Mexican Consulate officials, Tohono O'odham tribal officials and humanitarian groups say the unprecedented buildup of Border Patrol agents, fences, roads and technology has caused illegal border crossers to walk longer distances in more treacherous terrain, increasing the likelihood that people will get hurt or fatigued and left behind to die.
The rate of death — the number of bodies found per 100,000 Border Patrol apprehensions — backs up that assertion. The rate has been on the rise for the last decade, and is higher again this year through the first 10 months of fiscal year 2011 despite a numerical drop in bodies recovered.
Here's the year-by-year figures for the rate of death, based on the Arizona Daily Star's border death database:
Known deaths per 100,000 apprehensions in Border Patrol’s Tucson Sector, by fiscal year:
* From Oct. 1 through July 31
Basically, the rate continues to rise because the deaths continue at similar levels while Border Patrol apprehensions continue to decline significantly.
The 109,040 apprehensions made in the Tucson Sector from Oct. 1 through July 31 mark a 44-percent decrease from the same time in fiscal 2010 and a a 47-percent decrease from 2009, Border Patrol figures show.
More skeletal remains
The Pima County Medical Examiner's Office 2010 annual report — the first time the office has produced such a document — shows that just less than half of the undocumented border crossers the office handled in 2010 were skeletal remains.
The exact number was 45 percent — 103 of 230 cases.
There's no past year numbers to compare that to since the office just started producing these detailed reports but my observations — being the one that enters each new border death in our border death database — is that the proportion of skeletal remains has been on the rise in recent years.
An unofficial count of the 98 bodies handled by the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office this calendar year through July shows that 40 have been skeletal remains, partial skeletal remains or decomposed remains.
This is based on the what the pathologists write in the "cause of death" column of the report. We won't know the official "skeletal remain" count until the 2011 annual report comes out.
Here are some other interesting statistics from the annual report about the 230 bodies of suspected illegal border crossers that Pima County handled in 2010:
• 49 percent — of cases where the cause of death was undetermined, primarily due to the high volume of skeletal remains or decomposed bodies.
• 43 percent – of cases where the cause of death were attributed to "exposure to elements," which includes heat, cold and dehydration deaths.
• 6 — deaths from falls or motor vehicle accidents
• 3 — deaths from drowning
• 3 — deaths from gunshot wounds
• 1 — death from bee stings
(Note: I've posted a PDF of the 2010 annual report in the "other documents" box to the left. The section about border deaths can be found on pages 20-22.)