Preventing Migrant Deaths in Brooks County

Falfurrias, TX   –   Brooks County is situated in the center of the 13-county area identified by the South Texas Human Rights Organization as the hotspot for migrant deaths. Falfurrias, the largest town in the county is a headquarters for the Border Patrol and the County’s Sheriff’s Office, plus a privately operated detention center. Thus far, in 2013, 80 migrant deaths have been reported in Brooks County, in an area comprised of private ranch lands about 956 square miles. Within a 12-month period, 3,100 juvenile migrants were “captured” and apprehended as they trekked through the South Texas dry, harsh brush terrain from the Mexico/Texas border. About 63 “walkers” or individuals carrying backpacks, turned over 12, 000 pounds of marihuana to Border Patrol officials. In a 2-day period, 1,000 pounds of marihuana were confiscated. Their activity log also includes hundreds of “rescue” missions, although their primary purpose is to capture and apprehend migrants for illegal entry into the United States.

Deputy Sheriff Benny Martínez

But, the cooperation and the coordinated efforts between the Border Patrol and the Sheriff’s department have not been without immense challenges.  According to Chief Deputy Urbino (Benny) Martínez, the overwhelming issues or problems in working with undocumented migrants is particularly strenuous due to the lack of resources in their department. Thus, the need to work out a close partnership plan with the Border Patrol, much of which is navigated through uncharted areas of procedures, legal matters, and protocol. This is not an easy feat by any means, according to Martínez.

Brooks County Sheriff Department

Sheriff Rey Rodriguez heads the department with Benny Martinez as Chief Deputy. About 40 staff members have various roles and responsibilities within the department, including the county jail. Their tight budget is a source of frustration since they must address local or domestic problems as well as those associated with the migrant influx.  Although burdened with a proportionately large number of migrants, Brooks County is not a “border county,” thus, is not eligible for specific additional funding, like Cameron County, for instance, that reported seven deaths last year.

 911 Calls

Lionel Muñoz
Help Sign by Border Patrol

The Border Patrol has installed 4 Help Stations, one in each of the four major ranch properties. These include a five-gallon water jug and a “beacon” where the distressed migrant can call for help. However, the Sheriff’s department receives 90% of the emergency calls made from the migrant’s cell phones. Once the calls are registered, both the Border Patrol and the ranch owner are notified. Whereas the beacon signal is directly sent to the Border Patrol and readily identifiable, locating the source of an emergency phone call requires specific knowledge of the area. This task falls in the hands of Lionel Muñoz, a staff member with the Sheriff’s Department who uses the Google Earth app to pinpoint the coordinates and identify the most likely area where the distressed migrant may be found. Only two or three agents from each the border patrol and the sheriff’s county office are dispatched to the migrant’s location. Once the migrants are found, the Border Patrol assumes the responsibility in processing their deportation. Migrants who require medical treatment are transported to Kingsville’s medical facility about 35 miles north and then, brought back to the Border Patrol station in Falfurrias. Besides the one in Falfurrias, next to the Sheriff’s Office, other detention centers are available in nearby La Villa and Corpus Christi. (Read more about the “outdated immigration detention system” here.)

Migrant Deaths in Brooks County

Ruben Garza, Rick Estrada (Border agents, Community Liaisons), Eduardo Canales

Some reports of migrants that appear dead or ill are called in by Homeland Security agents aboard helicopters pursuing migrants on the run. But most of the migrant corpses are found by the ranch owners or their workers, usually precariously. Sometimes they’re drawn to particular sites such as the pathways often used by the migrants, or by a flock of scavenging birds circling above their target. Ranch owners are reluctant to allow just anyone in their property citing legal concerns in which they may be held liable for injuries or deaths. (Read about a related case, Rodriguez v. Boerjan.) Federal and county officials are obligated to inform ranch owners of their presence in their property before they’re allowed into the property. When migrant deaths are discovered both the Border Patrol and the Sheriff’s Department are summoned to the deceased person(s). However, the Sheriff has the major responsibility for processing the corpses or their remains.

Just recently, Brooks County established a policy whereby unclaimed remains of presumed migrants are sent to the Webb County Examiner’s Office in Laredo.  Dr. Stern, the medical examiner, conducts identification tests, including DNA assessments that may assist the Sheriff’s Department in locating the decease’ family members or friends. The remains are transported back to Brooks County where they are temporarily stored in a designated area in the Howard Williams Funeral Home.

The Sheriff relies on particular invaluable institutional resources to facilitate in the corpses’ identification process. For instance, Baylor University, a private institution in Waco, Texas, has offered to conduct forensic analysis on skeletal remains. Professor Baker, a forensic anthropologist, engages her students in conducting on-site analysis, and provides an exceptional service to Brooks County without adding to their financial burden. Another important resource is Texas State University in San Marcos, which provides a “body farm” facility to process and store unclaimed corpses that have been exhumed from the cemetery in Falfurrias. (See photo gallery this site.) Thus far, only half of the hundred or so corpses in the cemetery have been exhumed and processed for identification purposes.

Identifying the Corpses and Notifying the Next of Kin

Perhaps, the most challenging task for the Brooks County’s Sheriff is to identify the corpses and notify their loved ones. Of the 80 corpses collected this year, only half have been identified. The Sheriff’s office maintains the records of the deceased, however, since their resources are limited their efforts fall short in matching the identified corpses with the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. The identification process is hampered by the fact that many of the migrant victims are from Central America and Mexico and family or friends are unfamiliar with the system or process in order to locate their missing loved ones.

The South Texas Human Rights Center

Eduardo Canales in front of the STHRC office.

The Center’s main office in Falfurrias is across from the Courthouse. According to Eduardo Canales, the Center’s coordinator, an important goal is to coordinate services and activities with the county and local communities. Besides serving as a key source of information and as a communication hub, the Center will coordinate efforts with the County and Homeland Security to prevent migrant deaths and assist in the process of identifying corpses of the deceased and notifying the next of kin.

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