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Coroner Chronicles: A Skull and a Letter Show Plight of Immigrants

In Los Angeles County, skulls aren't always found in cemeteries, shallow graves or Native American Indian burial sites. Sometimes they are found in brown paper bags near bus stops. According to the LA County Coroner, a homeless man stumbled across a skull as he was rummaging through a trashcan near Montebello in early 2007. The bag also contained a map and a letter written by an immigrant named Enrique who discovered the skull as he was crossing the treacherous Mexican desert to Arizona.

The letter is in Spanish and was translated by the coroner’s office. It reads:

Dear Reporters and Media:

By this letter I want you to know the findings of a portion of a person who may have dreamed the American dream leaving his family behind crossing the border without success. This person died in the intent. I started a trip in the town called El Sasabe in the state of Sonora close to a city called Altar [a transit point near the U.S. border for those heading to Sasabe]. Two hours drive apart. It is a solitary road in the desert. I don't know if the deceased person started his journey in Altar or Sasabe. My companions and myself found the person. We only found the skull. We checked around the area and didn't find anything else. I met my companions in the US immigration detention facility in Yuma. Before meeting them I wanted to cross the border at Los Algodones [a little border town] near Mexicali to get into California but I failed. I have never failed before since I have lived in California for nine years. This is how I met my companions Juan and his brother Raoul. My name is Enrique. You can understand I can't give any more names because I don't want to be in trouble.

In handing over the remains our intention is to help you identify this person. I know there is a way to reconstruct the face to know who it was. The family doesn’t know anything. We also found the decomposed remains of a woman. We didn't touch or search her. The information was relayed to us by a coyote [smuggler] who we met along with several other people, who testified to us that it was true and they all saw her. I know there may be many dead people and the families don't know anything about it. The coyote said the demise of people happens frequently. It is not the first time he has seen the remains. He also told us the Migras [US Immigration and Customs Enforcement] have not picked her up despite surveying the terrain and using helicopters. We escaped from Migras because we want to be with our families and that fact gave us strength and endurance. On the second day of the journey we found the skull. We walked for four days to arrive at our destination.

The walk is dangerous and ugly. There are different types of animals and cliffs. The terrain is also loaded with thorny plants – similar to cactus with lots of thorns. Next to the skull there were backpacks from other people who had been through the area and had passed the border. They did see the remains but will not alert the press or police because they are afraid. If people would be willing to give information about this then families who die during the journey will know about them. Don't you think? Graves are also found in this area. I have had a terrible experience crossing the desert. We suffered a lot. Up to our limits but we made it. If you want more information you will find out. Be aware we don't want to be in trouble with the authorities. I will draw a small map on the opposite side of the paper. The Migras are SOB's and are racist. They know that people die but they don't give any information. I will tell you something else. My companion Juan placed a call to 911 in Los Angeles from Arizona close to a town called Three Points to inform them of the findings and he told them he didn't want to get into trouble. Sometime after the call the Migras were going on a house-to-house search looking for Juan and looking for a deceased. The gossip by Los Angeles Police Department made immigration authorities act quickly but they failed because they couldn't find anyone. We were in hiding around the mentioned town. We passed through the town and asked for water and people told us what happened. A helicopter and dogs from the Migras were going all over the place but we were heading in another direction. Well that is all. We started the trip on Tuesday, December 12, 2006 and arrived Saturday around midnight to the mentioned town. On Sunday it was when the 911 call was placed.

The coroner’s office determined that the skull belonged to a Hispanic male between the ages of 18 and 25. He probably died a few months before Enrique found him because the skull still contained decomposed flesh, said Assistant Chief Ed Winter. However, the cause of death remains a mystery. Did he die at the hands of another? Or did he succumb to the desert heat? We will likely never know. Hundreds of people die every year attempting to cross the brutal Mexican terrain into the United States. Most of them are never identified.

So far, the coroner's office hasn’t yet identified Enrique’s find.


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