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As border arrests drop, is number of deaths rising?

The bodies of people believed to have died crossing the border into the U.S. stack up in a cooler in Pima County. (Source: CBS 5 News) The bodies of people believed to have died crossing the border into the U.S. stack up in a cooler in Pima County. (Source: CBS 5 News)
A suspected border-crosser is treated by a paramedic after he's found in southern Arizona. (Source: CBS 5 News) A suspected border-crosser is treated by a paramedic after he's found in southern Arizona. (Source: CBS 5 News)
PIMA COUNTY, AZ (CBS5) -

For the past several years, the number of arrests of people coming in to the United States illegally from Mexico has been dropping dramatically.

One might think that means fewer people are dying while trying to make it to the U.S., but at least one organization said that's not the case. And it has the bodies to prove it.

Inside a giant cooler in Pima County are rows and rows of body bags stacked almost to the ceiling.

For nearly half of them, who they are and how they died are mysteries.

"The number one cause of death that we had last year was undetermined," said Dr. Gregory Hess, the Pima County medical examiner.

Hess said nearly all of the bodies and remains found along Arizona's border with Mexico end up in his office, where his staff does its best to make an identification from the bones, DNA and from a few personal effects found with the bodies.

Hess said that this year he's seen the number of dead increase significantly.

"From Jan. 1 of this year until today, we've had 144 deaths of people we believe are border crossers, and last year over the same time frame, it was 124," Hess said.

CBS 5 Investigates wanted to know why the number of dead is going up, and found that might be explained by the massive presence of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

"To say the border is more secure now than it ever has been here in Arizona is absolutely correct," said U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Andy Adame.

Adame said the number of agents on the border has more than doubled in the past seven years, from 2,100 in 2006 to more than 5,100 today.

A tighter border means illegal crossers are funneled into dangerous drug-smuggling corridors and more treacherous terrain. In both cases, the results are often deadly. 

But the Border Patrol has another perspective about the number of people who are dying.

In relation to the number of people arrested for illegally crossing the border, their number of deaths is actually going down. Adame calls it "a possible trend" not seen in years.

"We've actually seen two years in a row where they're starting to drop," Adame said.

Adame attributed that to a couple factors.

The first is technology. Greater access to cell phones to call 911 and better reception in the desert has sent the number of rescues by specially trained Border Patrol Search, Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) agents soaring. 

"Our BORSTAR specifically is going out there, and they're grabbing these guys out of the desert before they've had a chance to die," Adame said.

The spokesman also credits a recent media blitz in Mexico by the Border Patrol.

Graphic images highlighting the extreme risks of crossing the desert were circulated on TV, in the paper and described over the radio in five states south of the border.

"We can't stop them from coming. Those issues are bigger than the Border Patrol. What we can do is inform them about the dangers," Adame said.

Humanitarian organizations have attempted to do just that for years.

CBS 5 Investigates followed a couple of Tucson Samaritans in their mission to mitigate those dangers by replenishing gallons of water every week.

"If I can do my small part to help save somebody's life, then I will do it," said Consuelo Crow of the Tucson Samaritans.

Humanitarian groups and the U.S. Border Patrol share a common goal: reducing the number of those who die crossing the desert.

"We all know that it's a crime to enter illegally. We all know that. But it's not a crime where you should pay with your life," Adame said.

The true numbers from the Border Patrol this year won't be available until after Sept. 30, when their fiscal year comes to an end.

Their focus now turns to violence along the border, which they say has skyrocketed since drug smugglers have taken over human smuggling operations.

Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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