The Bones Speak

The Border Wars and South Texas’ Missing

A sign near the border in Calexico, California. (Lucy Nicholson / Courtesy Reuters)

“When I find a dead body on the land, I have to make a decision right then,” says Lavoyger Durham, a ranch administrator for King Ranch in South Texas, a region along the U.S.-Mexican border that many migrants do not survive. “By the time you discover a body, you usually find buzzards.” “Then,” he continues, ”you’ve got the hogs, the javelinas, the coyotes, the caracaras. Technically, I’m not supposed to do anything with the remains. I’m meant to call the sheriff’s office, Border Patrol, the mortuary, and the justice of the peace, who verifies that the human is dead, but by the time they arrive, the animals have only scattered more dang bones.”

Undocumented migration is lower today than at any other time in the last 40 years, but reported migrant deaths are on the rise. Since 1998, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, approximately 5,000 migrants have died crossing the border. Most human rights organizations estimate that number is closer to 8,000, since many remains are never recovered. According to Border Patrol statistics, while there were 268 southwest border deaths in 1998, there were 463 deaths reported for fiscal year 2012. 

The places where migrants die are changing, too. Last year, for the first time, more border crossers died in Texas than in any other border state, with 271 deaths out of a total 463 recorded deaths. Arizona once held that grisly distinction, but things have changed as Arizona has increased law enforcement personnel and added hundreds of miles of fencing along its southern reaches.

Most migrants who perish in the harsh Texas scrubland do so in Brooks County, which is located roughly 65 miles from the Mexican border where part of King Ranch lies. Benny Martinez, the Brooks County sheriff, says that after crossing the Rio Grande near Reynosa, Mexico, most border crossers are funneled through crowded stash houses run by local residents who have gotten mixed up in lucrative human smuggling operations; migrants are then crammed into vehicles and dropped off in Brooks County just south of one of Border Patrol’s busiest interior checkpoints, which sits on Interstate 281 and lays claim to some of the highest narcotic and illegal immigrant apprehension rates in the nation.

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