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Martinez, 39, was born and raised in a farming village in the central Mexican state of San Luis Potosi. After paying a smuggler some $200 to get him across the border, he settled in the San Diego area in the early 1990s and worked whatever odd jobs he could find.

Then last March, he agreed to watch the cash register at a friend’s convenience store. A sheriff’s deputy who required a signature on a regulatory notice turned suspicious when Martinez produced a Mexican consular identification card. The deputy called the Border Patrol, and Martinez was deported.

Left behind in California were his wife, Juana Garcia, and five children and stepchildren. Desperate to return to them, Martinez tried crossing three times in the mountains east of San Diego but was caught.

Then he decided to try his luck in Arizona.

“It will be one night and one day, and we’ll be there,” Martinez told another crosser, Isaac Jimenez, whom he persuaded to come with him.

Mr. Jimenez later would share with The Associated Press what happened during the two men’s journey north.

At 7 p.m. on Friday, April 20, he said, they crossed into the U.S. with 19 others at Lukeville, a border town 150 miles south of Phoenix. For 10 hours the group traipsed through the desert before resting in a cave. They had resumed their trek under a blazing sun for four more hours when Martinez collapsed.

“‘I’m too young to die,’” Mr. Jimenez remembered him saying.

“Then he said he didn’t know who I was. He began to go crazy, to lose his memory,” Mr. Jimenez told the AP.

The smuggler insisted the group abandon Martinez, but Mr. Jimenez said he stayed, rubbing alcohol on his friend’s hot, swollen body and starting a small fire to draw attention. About two hours later, when Mr. Jimenez left in search of cellphone coverage, Martinez’s eyeballs were rolling and he had stopped talking.

What happened next is unclear. Mr. Jimenez said he dialed 911 after about three hours of walking and insists the Border Patrol agents who drove him back to Mexico assured him they would find his friend. The Border Patrol said in a statement that agents arrested Mr. Jimenez but that it had no record of him pleading on behalf of Martinez.

Five days later, after frantic phone calls from Martinez’s stepdaughter to U.S. and Mexican officials, Border Patrol agents met Mr. Jimenez at the Lukeville border crossing and he quickly led them to the body. Birds circled above.

At the Pima County Forensic Science Center, the cause of death was listed as probable hyperthermia. Typically, investigators measure bones and examine teeth to determine gender, date of death, age and other characteristics. If the skin is dried up, they may soak a hand in fluid called sodium hydroxide, rehydrating it to get fingerprints.

Relatives searching for missing loved ones are pressed for details. Any chipped or gold teeth? Tattoos or scars? Broken bones?

“It’s like a puzzle,” said Robin Reineke, a cultural anthropology graduate student at the University of Arizona who interviews families and feels comforted when her work helps ease their anguish. “I’ve talked with some of these families for five years. They’ve been waiting for that long for an answer.”

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