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“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.
Anything can happen when migrants try to get around the checkpoint. They can fall behind their group, lose their way, get abandoned by their guides, or be dispersed during a Border Patrol raid. In the hot months, dehydration and hyperthermia are common; wounds like twisted ankles or infected blisters can quickly turn deadly; and acute gastroenteritis can follow a desperate decision to drink dirty cattle water. Or migrants can simply succumb to the fatigue of walking days, sometimes weeks, through the rough and hostile scrubland.
DON’T DIE IN TEXAS
This already grim tale has a macabre twist that speaks volumes about the United States’ gross mishandling of migrant human remains over the course of the last decade. This is where Lori Baker, a forensic anthropologist at Baylor University, enters the picture. Her story is the stuff of fiction, including a cast of eccentric local characters (ranchers, grave keepers, justices of the peace, pediatric pathologists) and a hodgepodge of federal and state law-enforcement officials.
Baker is the founder of Reuniting Families, an organization dedicated to identifying and repatriating the remains of undocumented migrants who die crossing the U.S.-Mexican border. She has spent the last decade exhuming remains in several South Texan counties, the majority of which were simply thrown into unmarked graves in pauper cemeteries after improper forensic analyses. Baker has been appalled to find people buried in trash bags, biohazard bags used for waste, and once even a milk crate, calling such treatment “an aberration of human dignity.” A Texas native herself, Baker was planning to focus her postdoctoral research on ancient DNA. But then undocumented migrants started dying in unprecedented numbers along the U.S.-Mexican border, and Baker, who had just started teaching at Baylor, changed course and opened a lab dedicated to analyzing and identifying migrant remains.
By law, Texas requires proper forensic procedures to be conducted for all deaths. In Texas, identifying the dead is usually left to local justices of the peace, most of whom are understaffed and underfunded. “Many states operate with coroner and JP systems,” Baker says. “Texas is just unique in that there is a huge number of foreign nationals dying there. It is a federal problem without the federal government assisting.” To make matters worse, she adds, “Almost anyone can be a justice of the peace in Texas. All you have to do is be 18 and complete some superficial training.” As a result, she says, most remains have been handled unprofessionally at best. “This county is basically just throwing bodies in the damn dirt,” Durham echoes.
Leaving aside the professionalism of the examiners, carrying out forensics at the local level puts a crippling financial strain on some of the nation’s poorest counties. There is federal financial help for some of them, but not for Brooks County. “The government doesn’t want to declare us a border county, since technically we are 65 miles from the border,” Martinez says. “But because of that, we aren’t getting the federal help we need. We have more dead bodies than any other county and still no help. Our budget is limited, and we are between a rock and a hard place. If the migrants are alive, the government will take them; if they’re dead, we have to handle them.” Martinez, who served 29 years with the State Police before becoming sheriff (and who says he only gets paid $29,000 a year for his service), has a staff of four deputies and one investigator. “We have no resources to deal with what’s going on here.”
To save money, he says, “proper DNA testing was never being done on these human beings.” And so human remains have been tossed into the dirt, mostly unidentified but sometimes misidentified, which is worse. “There was this one time, for example,” Martinez says, “when there was this mother who was burying the remains of her son -- or what she was told was her son. While she was burying him -- literally while she was burying him -- he called her up from Houston. Unfortunately, that kind of thing has happened too much.”
For several summers, Baker has been conducting mass exhumations of these virtually unmarked graves. She relies on some students from Baylor and a few willing forensic specialists from nearby universities and institutions, with everyone participating on his or her own dime. Baker was stunned by what they discovered last summer alone. “We [found bones for] 120 individuals from efforts this summer. Most are from Brooks County, but we have a few cases from Jim Hogg and Starr counties now.”
When I first talked with Baker a few years ago, she was mostly relying on an elderly cemetery caretaker for information about all the unmarked graves in San Felipe Cemetery in Del Rio, Texas. “His memory is kind of going,” she said back then. “He used to be able to tell me exactly when and where bodies had been thrown, but not so much anymore.” Last summer when Baker went back for exhumations, she says, “He aged so much that he could not remember where any of the graves were. The unidentified were buried randomly throughout the cemetery. Texas law requires privately owned cemeteries to keep maps and records, but they didn’t at this cemetery. The graves were in washout areas, along the road in the cemetery or any other place they could find.”
Baker never knows what she will find when she starts digging. “We’ve found babies. Children. Old women. In one case this summer, we went in thinking we’d dig up one set of remains. Instead, there were five different human remains in the same hole in the ground.” When asked how one would know if a set of remains had belonged to a border crosser or simply someone who had met a bad ending, Baker said there was no way of knowing. She punctuated the thought with one of her common refrains: “Just don’t die in Texas.”
Baker brings back whatever she finds to the lab at Baylor to conduct DNA testing. She hopes to be able to identify the remains and reunite them with family members. At the very least, she says, “their loved ones may have a place to put flowers.” Over the past decade, Baker and her team have analyzed DNA from 278 remains. Of those, they’ve identified 70, with approximately 51 percent from Central America ‐ primarily Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala ‐ and the other 49 percent from Mexico. “These are people’s children, people’s parents, people’s sisters and brothers,” she says. “Every identification counts.”
Baker has many stories that haunt her -- stories like that of Eloy Francisco (13 years old) and his cousin Rosario Hernandez (16 years old), who left Tehuacán, Mexico, to travel to North Carolina, where Rosario’s father, Maximino, worked in the hope of making money and being part of the American dream. Eloy’s father, Faustino, who is diabetic, decided to go with them because of the danger, but after four days of hiking through the Sonoran Desert (where Baker has also worked), his blood sugar spiked and he could go no further. He urged the boys to continue and was later rescued by Border Patrol. Eloy and Rosario ran out of water, and their bodies were eventually found not far apart. It was Baker who made the positive identifications. She says, “Now Faustino has to live with his regret that he did not force his son to stay home and that he did not tell the rescuers about the others, as he thought they would make it. Maximino has to live with encouraging the boys to cross and work with him.” She continues, “It is such a tragic story, like all the others, but particularly difficult because they were children.”
Baker has been trying to expand her group, often by recruiting colleagues at other universities and labs. “‘Hey, can you take a dozen remains?’ I recently asked a friend,” Baker says. “The friend agreed to take the dozen. Well, I ended up sending her like 30. That’s how it goes -- 12 for 30. I’m desperate for the help.” She has been making similar pleas to other labs outside Texas and works with officials from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs) on their efforts to expand DNA databases and properly train medical examiners, law enforcement, and victims’ families on proper DNA testing. That includes handing out basic sample-collection kits.
Meanwhile, she has attempted to help FBI officials find ways around the limitations of the CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) ‐ the national missing persons database, which currently excludes information concerning foreign nationals -- and has lobbied for federal funding to support her exhumations. But a grant that would have funded the exhumations of 200 unidentified individuals and their forensic analysis was turned down. Her biggest issue, she says, is paying for shipping: “I spent almost $2,000 on shipping just this summer. That's one of the reasons I was really hoping for the grant funding.”
Her efforts to get help have not stopped at the water’s edge. These days, she is trying to cut through the legal red tape to send remains for analysis to the International Commission on Missing Persons, headquartered in Sarajevo. The ICMP had been astonished to hear about what was happening in Texas and were receptive to her case.
THEY KILL FOR FUN
When lost or sick migrants stumble onto King Ranch, Durham offers them food and water and assesses their physical state. “If they’re strong, I might give them a ride to Falfurrias, about 15 miles as the crow flies.” He says he knows that doing so is technically against the law. (In Arizona, there have been high-profile lawsuits brought against humanitarian aid workers giving injured migrants a ride.) “But I tell the Border Patrol. I know all those guys. It’s not like a secret or anything.”
Most border crossers, he says, have spent days out in the harsh desert scrub, “trudging through the God dang heavy sand,” and are too weak and disoriented to continue. “I tell them if they keep going, they’ll just die out there, and then I call Border Patrol.” Too tired or sick to continue, and heeding Durham’s advice, these migrants wait for Border Patrol agents to arrive and take them into custody. Lately, he has begun asking migrants if he can film a conversation with them as they wait together for the patrol’s truck to come. “I want to understand how exactly they wind up on my doorstep,” he says, “and why they are taking such dangerous journeys ‐ risking rape, robbery, abduction, life-threatening injury, and even death ‐ to come to the U.S.” Although most are too afraid to speak, he says, those who do have hair‐raising stories to tell.
In one film, Durham, who is bilingual and half Mexican, talks with a woman named Karin, who fled from Honduras after sicarios (hired killers) murdered her brother, husband, and father, left her mother unable to walk, and threatened to come after her and her children. Karin says she spent about 20 days on the run (the last ten days on foot from the Rio Grande) before winding up at Durham’s house. She had been left behind by her guide when she grew too tired to continue walking.
In the 30-minute film, Karin is too weak to lift her head. Her voice is barely audible. “Why did they kill your family?” Durham asks. “Por dinero, por gusto” (For money, for the fun of it), she says. “No tenemos paz” (We don’t have peace). She weeps as she speaks of her murdered loved ones and her three children in hiding back in Honduras. She describes scrambling home at dusk on paydays. As soon as one gets a paycheck, she says, the sicarios come after you. If you don’t give them your money, “they kill your family, they burn your house.” Karin, who paid a “coyote,” a human smuggler, $3,000 in Honduras and was meant to pay another $3,000 upon arrival in Houston, says it is her first time trying to come to the United States and that she fears for her life if she is deported.
In another video, Durham speaks to Luz, a 34-year-old woman from Guatemala who is also fleeing violence. She says she sold her small home to pay a coyote 45,000 quetzales (roughly $6,000) in the hope of finding work in San Antonio and sending money back to her two daughters to help them get an education. Luz describes staying in a bodega, or stash house, somewhere near McAllen, Texas, with at least 80 other migrants; of cramming into vehicles with 20 other people before being dumped in the desert near the checkpoint; of heading out on foot into the scrub with the group on a Saturday night; of walking all of Sunday and into Monday morning when they were “raided” by Border Patrol, which sent them running in all directions, causing Luz to get lost in the brush and stumble onto Durham’s land.
“And those are the lucky ones,” Durham says. “Many others just die out there.” Following the example of aid workers from California and Arizona, Durham recently put the first “water station” out in Texas. “It was a simple station,” he says, “just a flag and a barrel with ten one-gallon water jugs. I put it on a hot trail. Just a few days later, a woman was found dead not far away from it.”
For now, Durham is not sure what he will do with all these stories. He can only collect them as a record of human suffering and tragedy.
“We’ve had a parade of newspapers here. Washington Post. L.A. Times. CNN. Wall Street Journal. You name it,” Martinez says. “They come here; they leave with their story. Still, nothing gets done. I’ve gone to Washington. I’ve met with senators and congressmen. But they are totally disconnected from the reality down here.” Martinez says that politicians turn a blind eye because there are only about 7,500 residents in Brooks County. “No one is focusing here. Our problem doesn’t translate into votes. And there is no relief in sight.” Durham expresses the same frustration: “These people sweep in from big-name media. They write their God dang story. Then nothing changes.”
Hundreds of human rights groups, think tanks, and legal aid organizations have thrown out recommendations for change ‐ at the local, state, and national levels. Their suggestions have run the gamut: installing water stations and rescue beacons, standardizing the handling of human remains, unifying missing persons databases, allotting more federal funds to South Texan counties such as Brooks, reconsidering current border enforcement strategies, enacting humane immigration reform, and addressing the root causes of migration.
As for root causes, many human rights organizations point to the ways in which the forces of globalization have driven wedges between the haves and have-nots, displacing millions each year, destroying traditional livelihoods, and fueling black markets (the drug wars, the arms trade, human smuggling, the sex trade), which allow participants to gain some semblance of “upward mobility.” The resulting violence is gruesome, especially in the Central American nations whose citizens end up as bones on Baker’s gurneys.
Saddest of all, migrant deaths are perhaps mostly the consequence of increased U.S. border security in the absence of federal immigration reform. Harsh security measures have succeeded in deterring many border crossers, but they have also made the journey far more perilous for those who are determined to cross. Although apprehensions are at historic lows, the ratio of attempted illegal entries to migrant fatalities is at a record high. Migrants are forced into some of the most remote and inhospitable terrain along the U.S.-Mexican border and often rely on unscrupulous human smugglers who are often connected to larger criminal organizations. Many of those who risk their lives in this way are individuals who lived in the United States, were deported through federal programs such as Secure Communities, and are desperate to return to their children, spouses, and extended family back in the United States. For them, risking life and limb is worth it.
Baker was recently invited to speak about her work at the International Commission of Missing Persons conference in The Hague. The meeting’s aim was to draw international attention to the global scale of the problem of missing persons due to armed conflict, human rights violations, disasters, organized violence, refugee flows, and migration. “The situation in South Texas really alarmed the conference organizers. It’s like if the [United States] can’t set an example for human rights and missing persons, who can?” Baker says.
The answer is depressing: No one except for a handful of unsung Samaritans in South Texas such as Baker, Durham, and Martinez are even trying to fill in the gaping holes. “Personally,” Baker says, “I have considered trying to take DNA samples from migrants who visit shelters during migration in case they go missing. It seems morbid but would greatly increase our chances of [identifying] those who do.”