USA TODAY — CALEXICO, Calif. – The man lay face down in the desert, less than a mile north of the Mexican border. He had been crawling, dragging himself through the dirt, when he died.
A border patrol agent had been tracking a group of undocumented immigrants through the area when he stumbled upon the decomposing body. It had been lying there maybe a month, during which time temperatures had topped 108.
The dead man was short and thin, dressed in head-to-toe denim with a large white belt buckle, dark hiking shoes and Christmas socks. In his pocket, investigators found a few pesos, three phone cards and a receipt from the Don Juan Hotel, a cheap place to stay just across the border in Mexicali. The receipt listed a name – “Lucio Paulino” – but no one could be certain this was the dead man’s real name.
The next day, authorities found another body. This time, a man was floating in the All-American Canal, a man-made river that runs through Southeast California like a moat along the border fence. A day later, they found a third body: A man slumped in the open desert, carrying a bus ticket from Mexico.
All three bodies were discovered during a single week in June 2000. Today, the details of these deaths are kept in a beige filing cabinet at the Imperial County Coroner’s Office labeled with a sticker: “John/Jane Doe.”
More than 450 unidentified bodies have been found in Imperial County since 1990, and authorities estimate that at least 90 percent are undocumented immigrants who died while crossing the border. The vast majority of the bodies are Latino men, but their countries of origin are unknown. Deaths like these are frightfully common along the entire border, but Imperial County is uniquely unequipped to handle the caseload. No other border county faces such a problematic combination of border crossings, deceptively deadly terrain and limited resources in its coroner’s office, which is responsible for identifying the deceased. The coroner’s office is only four people.