Sacred Heart Cemetery, Falfurrias, TX: During the 10-day period (June 1-11), undergraduate and graduate students worked diligently to exhume as many human being remains as possible as part of the Forensic Project coordinated by the Forensic Scientists Team, their professors, Dr. Lori Baker, Sgt. Jim Huggins, and Dr. Krista Latham. The field work is part of their summer course in forensic anthropology that leads to their particular degree in a related field. Some students are Biology majors, others are interested in the criminal investigation aspects. But in this project, all students participated in every aspect of the scientific process. (See related story.)
The students were divided into four teams and rotated duties and responsibilities that included taking measurements, digging with hands, shovels, dustpans, etc, and recording and reporting. They were constantly reminded by their professors and peers to drink plenty of water.
What was their game plan? One student’s response was that there was no plan since they didn’t have any specific information in regard to the number of unknown migrants buried in the designated plot and where they were buried. So, they started digging, probing, exploring, until they recovered the remains, a total of 50. Once they located a bag of remains, they worked carefully to ensure that all of the remains were left intact.
The heat and exhaustion were barely tolerable, but some students became ill and were taken to the emergency hospital in Kingsville. In all there were a few students that required emergency assistance, and three trips to the hospital. One student had a back injury while others suffered from dehydration. Their work began each morning before daybreak and by noon the heat forced them to break for the day.
The exhumation attracted a steady flow of visitors and media personnel. The students were clearly in a fishbowl and everyone who witnessed their work were equally impressed by their diligence, hard work and dedication, not only for the project’s success but for their own development as scientist; and hopefully, gained an insight into the tragedy of how border crossers risk their lives trying to cross into the United States, and yes, die in the process.
Sacred Heart Cemetery, Falfurrias, Texas: For the second consecutive summer, a team of forensic scientists and their students from the Baylor University and the University of Indianapolis participated in exhuming the remains of unknown migrants from the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, from June 1 – 11. Dr. Lori Baker and Sgt. Jim Huggins, from Baylor University, and Dr. Krista Latham from the University of Indianapolis engaged about 30 graduate and undergraduate students in the process of searching and unearthing a total of 50 human being remains. The students signed up with Dr. Baker in a course that combines biology, anthropology, physical science and other related fields of study. With shovels of all sizes, gloves, small brooms and other tools, the students and professors worked persistently and methodologically to remove the soil, probe, locate the remains, and transfer each in a body bag, carefully catalogued and reported in notebooks and photographed accordingly. Very little is known about the migrants; only that they were border crossers and met their fate while trekking through the Brooks county’s rough, thorny brush terrain, and perhaps, coupled with the scorching summer heat took their lives one way or another. The teams’ main goal is to identify the corpses or their remains, and ultimately match them with their loved ones.
At the outset, the team members were aware of the lack of information on the number of “unknown” migrants and where exactly they were buried. According to the Sheriff’s Department staff member Leonel Muñoz, the burials date back to 2005, but there may be even older remains since the plot was also used for pauper burials and its initial construction dates back to the 50’s. Last summer, Dr. Baker and team members exhumed about 60 corpses in another section of the cemetery, so they were prepared for the unexpected. At the time the corpses were buried, funeral homes that provided burial preparations didn’t thoroughly and correctly examine the corpses, thus their identities were literally buried and forever forgotten. Until, Chief Deputy Benny Martínez recognized the problem.
Finding the Resources
Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Martínez runs his department on a very tight budget due to the allocation formula of State and County funds that favor counties closer to the Mexican-US border. (Brooks County is in the central area of South Texas’ 13 counties.) His strategy of searching and procuring resources paid off when he was introduced to Baylor’s Dr. Lori Baker by a San Antonio journalist, Jessie Degollado (with KSAT-TV). Ms. Degollado had met Dr. Baker about 10 years ago and was familiar with her work in exhuming corpses in Del Rio, TX. In the summer of 2013, Dr. Baker and the Forensic Team began the exhumation project, and their return this summer was largely due to its initial success.
Reuniting Families Project (RFP)
Dr. Lori Baker founded the consortium, Reuniting Families Project in 2003 with the purpose of recovering the remains of unidentified individuals, many of who were border crossers or migrants, from cemeteries along the México/US border. The RFP scientists (Dr. Lori Baker, Sgt. Jim Huggins, Dr. Krista Latham, and Dr. Kate Spradley from Texas State University conduct forensic anthropological analysis on the remains, including DNA samples, and enter this information into national databases that can ultimately lead to the identification of the deceased and the notification of this finding to the closest relative. Whereas the analyses of the remains are eventually available, especially the DNA, there is a lack of sufficient databases by which to compare and match the DNA. Even though some cooperation with Mexico’s Secretaría de Relaciones Exteriores, Ministry of Foreign Affairs has produced a database system (System for the Identification, Reunification, and Localization of Individuals or SIRLI), a frustration persists in producing sufficient matches between the missing and their loved ones. (See 2005 Press Conference with Marco Antonio Fraire.) The number of calls by family members looking for their loved ones is overwhelming for an ill-equipped and understaffed agency. Additionally, an increasing amount of Central Americans are amongst the deceased and a consistent cooperative strategy between the countries and the US agencies has yet to fully materialize. (Other resource link: “Exhuming Immigrant Remains: Reuniting Families Program”)
Working in the Right Direction
Despite the information gaps and the paucity of resources, the process undertaken by the University Teams for identifying the human being remains of migrants is a significant step in the right direction. After the exhumation phase of the project, Dr. Baker and team members and students return to their prospective universities to analyze the recovered remains and proceed with the identification and reunification processes. With their help and expertise, the “unkowns” buried in the Falfurrias cemetery may at last be reunited with their loved ones.
Dr. Corinne Stern’s lab and office overlooks a scenic view of a scaled down brush country typical of the topography of South Texas on the outskirts of Laredo in Webb County. The building is about a mile from the main road, next to the volunteer Fire Department on a dirt road. The drab, neat building in the style of old Mexico serves as the destination of migrants’ corpses found in Brooks County (see South Texas map). They had traveled by foot for miles, having crossed the Mexico-Texas border from various starting points including Mexico and Central America.
Dr. Stern’s “patients” met their fate from “natural” causes, for example, dehydration, heat stroke, and snake bites. In the case of many migrants whose bodies were recovered from the Rio Grande River in Webb County, the cause of death was drowning. In this part of the river, the water is deep and its currents strong, making the crossings more perilous than further south.
Dr. Stern’s job is to examine the corpses’ identifiable markings and any other pieces of artifacts (clothing, for example) in their possessions that would help in the identification process. Sometimes, valuable information is hidden underneath the soles of the shoes, or in secret cavity in leather belts. She meticulously examines every inch of the subject, holding true to her professional standards as evident in a Latin phrase written on an old piece of paper, framed, hanging in her office: Mortui Vivis Praecipant (“Let the Dead Teach the Living”). She brought the sign from New Orleans, while working there as an Examiner in the Reserves, right after Katrina hurricane plagued the city.
The information is entered in the “Missing Migrants” binder, which is used to corroborate data from other sources, mainly family members searching for their loved ones. If there is a probable match between the corpse and the family member, DNA samples are collected thus facilitating the identification process. Even so, all corpses’ DNA samples are collected eventually. Unclaimed bodies are held in the Lab’s morgue for 60 days before transferred to a funeral service for burial.
Dr. Stern’s office receives numerous calls from family members asking for any information that would lead to the whereabouts of their loved ones. The Mexican Consulate in Laredo also receives inquiry calls. In Brooks County, the Sheriff’s office assists in the identification of missing migrants, but their scope of assistance is extremely limited due to lack of resources.
Before contracting with Dr. Stern’s Office in August, 2013, Brooks County officials transported the corpses found within their boundaries to Elizondo Mortuary in Mission, TX. Unclaimed corpses were buried in the Falfurria’s cemetery (see photo gallery). Both Texas State University in San Marcos and Baylor University in Waco have lent their assistance and resources: the Baylor team has thus far exhumed 62 of the approximately 130 unknown or unclaimed corpses from the Falfurias cemetery, and transported these to Texas State where they are stored and processed for identification purposes.
Corpses that are decomposed down to their skeletal remains are transported to Forensic Anthropologist, Dr. Harrell Gil-King at the University of North Texas in Denton. Dr. Gil-King’s analysis serves to further identify the remains.
The search and identification process is particularly complicated by the fact that many of the loved ones’ families live outside of the United States. The consulate offices are helpful to a certain extent. However, the migration factors have changed in the last decade or two. There are as many border crossers or more from Central America as there are from Mexico. Texas is now the leading border state with the most migrant deaths (see related article), yet the resources are unequally distributed, leaving offices such as the Brooks County Sheriff with very limited means by which to assist in the identification process.
The South Texas Human Rights Center has as one of its main goals to facilitate County officials in their work with migrant deaths.
In addition STHRC has worked with the Border Patrol and ranch owners in installing 21 water stations in an effort to prevent deaths among border crossers due to dehydration.
The STHRC headquarters in Falfurrias, coordinated by Mr. Eduardo Canales, works with the local community as well as the national and international agencies to provide assistance in assuring that the rights of migrants are respected and protected.
Rothko Chapel, Houston, TX – José Fernando Torres led the reading of the names of the dead or missing migrants during a solemn ceremony at the non-denominational Rothko Chapel on Saturday, November 2nd. But Torres didn’t read the name of his wife who has been missing for 20 months. Instead he offered a plea of hope that she would return home to their two young children. She was last heard from when trekking through the harsh South Texas area, near one of the ranch houses. But, she suddenly disappeared as if the earth swallowed her.
A total of 29 participants read the 200 names; five at a time. After the reading, the group assembled in the outdoor patio, eating and drinking the traditional Día de los Muertos hot chocolate and sweet bread. A small basket served to collect a donation of $120, which will aid in the efforts of the South Texas Human Rights Center to prevent migrant deaths.
The South Texas Human Rights Center gratefully acknowledges the staff members of the Rothko Chapel who made the special ceremony possible. We are very appreciative of their kind and generous assistance.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
The public is invited to attend a ceremony that includes reading the names of the fallen and remembering the unidentified. The ceremony appreciates those engaged in the ongoing struggles to promote human rights on both sides of the border.
In light of recent reports on the escalating deaths of migrants in South Texas’ brush country, efforts have begun to address the myriad of issues regarding the tragic circumstances. Investigative reporter Mark Collette addressed some of the most pressing problems in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times in a special section on Immigration. Some of the newspaper article’s important information is described below.
The Need for a Central Record Keeping System
Very recently, Brooks County, which has the most reported migrant deaths, implemented a new policy of sending the body remains to the Webb County Medical Examiner in Laredo in charge of performing autopsies. However, other surrounding counties have different ways of handling and processing unidentified corpses. The Border Patrol has been an important source of information for compiling the number of confirmed deaths and approximate locations of where the remains were found. However, since the remains are found in private lands, Border Patrol officials are unlikely to divulge the exact locations. The following map shows the four ranches in Brooks County where the most deaths occurred within the last couple of years (2011-2013): Laborcitas, Mariposa, Cage, and King.
Interactive Map of Migrant Deaths
The Corpus Christi Caller-Times collected information on migrant deaths from 2011-2013 and used an interactive map to show the approximate locations of where the remains were found. The map displays all of the identifiable information, however, many of the remains are simply unknown. In an effort to identify the missing migrants a Baylor University forensic anthropology team has exhumed 55 remains from the cemetery in Brooks county where the corpses were buried. Their efforts will help identify some of the remains, especially the ones that have been reported “missing.” The interactive map can be accessed by clicking on this link or the map below:
The Missing or Disappeared
The families or friends of the “missing” or “disappeared” are often unfamiliar with the process for reporting missing persons. The Corpus Christi Caller-times lists the following contacts where the identifiable information on the missing persons can be registered.
Brooks County Sheriff’s Office: 361-325-3696
Webb County Medical Examiner’s Office: 956-722-7054
NamUS provides free DNA testing and other forensic services, such as anthropology and odontology assistance. NamUs’ Missing Persons Database and Unidentified Persons Database are now available in Spanish.
The South Texas Human Rights Center has its mission to end death and suffering in South Texas, along the Texas/México border. The Center is staffed by volunteers and operated with charitable donations. The Center accepts charitable donation through this website.