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Federal funds will help Arizona medical examiners identify human remains

Arizona’s medical examiners are getting federal funds to help identify human remains found in the state.

The Department of Justice is awarding almost $850,000 to the Arizona Department of Public Safety. The money comes from the Bureau of Justice Assistance's Missing and Unidentified Human Remains program, focused on improving reporting, transportation and forensics testing on unidentified remains.

Missing persons and unidentified remains cases are listed on a national database called the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, or NamUs.

In Arizona, that includes migrants and asylum seekers trekking through rugged and remote stretches of the state's desert borderland. The Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office takes in dozens of human remains along the U.S.-Mexico border every year. Many remain unidentified for years after being found. 

More than half of the 2,054 unidentified persons cases  listed in Arizona are from Pima County, followed by Maricopa County. DNA samples can help medical examiners identify people, but the cost of collecting them can be prohibitive.

Bart Graves, media relations specialist with the Arizona Department of Safety, said the new federal money will help cover equipment costs and allow offices to hire additional personnel for DNA analysis. The state agency's crime laboratory will receive the funding and work with every county in the state.

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Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.