WASHINGTON – Lorenia Ton visits the morgues of southern Arizona searching for clues among the unclaimed bodies and belongings of people who tried to cross the desert.
Sometimes it's a phone number written inside pantlegs, or a piece of paper sewn into a backpack. Other times there are family photos, images of saints, or love letters.
"Sometimes we cannot find anything," says Ton, whose job at the Mexican consulate in Tucson involves helping identify the remains and return them to Mexico.
To confirm the IDs, the consulate sends DNA samples to Bode Technology Group Inc., a private lab in Lorton, Va., outside Washington, as part of a project that has brought closure to dozens of families and countless relatives on both sides of the dangerous border.
During one trip in April, Ton (pronounced TOHN') came across a body recently discovered by a hunter. Found with the dead man were his tennis shoes, a belt, a couple of dollars and pesos, a wallet, a baseball cap and voter identification card. Ton had a name: Agustin Gutierrez Ortiz, 34.
Jesus Gutierrez Ortiz, 37, who lives in Bradley Beach, N.J., described his brother as a hardworking father of two who left their hardscrabble town of La Natividad in the state of Oaxaca to help his family. He reported the younger Gutierrez Ortiz missing to Mexican authorities in June 2009, and Bode confirmed the worst a year later.
"I always asked God that he be alive, but in my heart I felt that he was dead because he was in the desert," Gutierrez Ortiz says in Spanish. "If I could have flown into the desert ... to look for him I would have."
The lab has made at least 47 positive identifications since the program began a couple of years ago. Many other cases are pending as the number of people who try to cross the border illegally has grown.
The number of deaths along the border hit a peak of 492 in 2005 and had been declining, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. But last year, the agency recorded 422 deaths, up from 390 the previous year. Most deaths are attributed to the heat.
As of Aug. 31, the most recent figures available, there had been 332 deaths this year.
But those numbers only tally the deaths that border patrol officers come across. That doesn't include countless other bodies found by local law enforcement agencies, immigrant rights organizations, ranchers and other passers-by.
The bodies that Bode receives mainly come from Arizona. In that state, deaths of illegal immigrants rose over the summer, despite many who thought the state's new law cracking down on immigration would send people elsewhere along the border.
The remains are found along known routes used by migrants. Some remains have been in the desert a year or more, leaving the bodies mummified or mere bones. Others are more recent.
Back in Mexico, families enter their loved ones into a vast missing persons database, which includes details such as people's clothes, dental records and whether they had tattoos.
If officials find a name with the bodies, they run it through the database. If the body is still recognizable, Ton sends a photo to the family. If the body is not too decomposed, officials can run the fingerprints with U.S. border authorities and see whether that person had been deported before.
Based on those leads, the consulate makes presumptive identifications. It's Ton's job to contact the relatives.
"The first thing is they start crying, sometimes they scream, sometimes they hang up on me," she says. "I have to try again."
Ton says the relatives often tell her the deceased left home seeking better opportunities, looking to make money or raise a family. Some call her daily asking for updates on their cases.
But DNA testing is needed for final confirmation. Bode, whose experts have helped identify victims from wars in Bosnia and Argentina and from Hurricane Katrina, receives bone fragments and compares them with samples sent from living relatives.
Sarah Bettinger, a senior DNA analyst at Bode, wears goggles, gloves and a mask when she sands the outside of the bone samples to clean the surface. From there, she pulverizes the bone into a powder and then extracts genetic material to create a profile.
Bettinger, who studied forensic science in Tucson at the University of Arizona, says this project hits closer to home than others.
"We're lending a hand to people across the border," she says. "It is very rewarding when we do find out that somebody has been identified."
In some cases, a mother and daughter or other relatives who died together also have been identified together.
The DNA matching process can cost between $900 and $1,200 per ID. Families then have the option of having the remains cremated, which costs another $800, or sent to them intact, which can cost from $1,500 to $2,800. The Mexican government foots the bill.
"The dead should not go unacknowledged," says Julian Etienne, a Tucson consulate spokesman. "If you don't identify them, they're just going to be numbers."
Etienne says culturally, it's extremely important for Mexicans to have the actual remains and for them to perform a proper burial.
In cases where there's no indication of the person's identity, the lab creates DNA profiles, which are sent back to Mexican authorities. The lab has received about 260 such samples since the beginning of this year. The Mexican government is looking to partner with a lab within its country to complete the identification process for the nameless.
Isabel Garcia, co-chair of Coalicion de Derechos Humanos, an Arizona human rights group, says she was among those who long demanded that Mexico fund the project. Garcia, whose organization tracks border deaths in her state and works with coroner's offices, says at least a third of bodies that are recovered remain unidentified.
Jesus Gutierrez Ortiz says he called the consulate constantly and lost sleep thinking about what had happened to his brother. Where was he? Was he dead or alive?
Months passed, and then in early April, he got a phone call from officials telling him they had news, but not good news. His brother had been found in the desert in Marana, Ariz., some 1,200 miles from his Oaxaca home. Their father submitted a saliva sample and they eventually got the DNA confirmation.
"It was difficult in the moment but at the same time I had to accept it," Gutierrez Ortiz says. "At least now we know, it was a nightmare to not know what was happening."
Agustin Gutierrez Ortiz, who never told his family he planned to cross the border, has since been buried in the cemetery near their town.
"I imagine he didn't understand all the dangers there are," his brother says, listing the heat, dehydration and ruthless smugglers among the perils.
Surviving all of that requires choosing the right travel companions, and something more, the elder brother says.
"Sometimes it might be luck, or destiny," he says. "Maybe God intervenes."
Jesus Gutierrez Ortiz says if his brother had stayed at home, he'd be poor, but alive.
"He wanted to come here to do something for his family, because in Mexico you work just to eat. He wanted to have a better life, but sadly didn't succeed."
Associated Press photographer Jacquelyn Martin and Associated Press writer Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.
Bode Technology Group Inc.: http://www.bodetech.com/
Mexican Consulate, Tucson: http://portal.sre.gob.mx/tucson/