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Before leaving, Hector scratched a message for his cousin on a piece of plywood. “Diego,” he wrote, “when you wake up, use the cell phone and dial this number or call Tacho or someone from your family. Don’t be afraid. Nothing’s wrong. Good luck cousin.”
Diego Sandoval Vallederes, a 16-year-old boy from Michoacán, Mexico had crossed the Rio Grande near McAllen, Texas with a group of undocumented border crossers. Once on the other side of the border, the group had dispersed into the vast brush land of Brooks County in an attempt to evade U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints on nearby state highways.
Brooks County, which is mostly made up of private ranches, is not a place you would ever want to get lost. The dry mesquite-laden terrain seems to extend infinitely in every direction. Without the angle of the sun during the day or the stars at night to guide, you could easily loop in circles until you dropped. Besides disorientation and the exhausting distances from one ranch to the next, the dangers of the land are many. There are the snakes, the spiders, the insects, the thorny underbrush, the oppressive heat, the lack of water. And the human dangers can be worse. The coyotes, or human smugglers on which most border crossers rely, are usually connected to larger criminal organizations, and they often prey on women and children. Sometimes smugglers use children like Hector and Diego to carry drugs across the border for them. They frequently traffic women and young girls for sex work.
His cousin’s advice aside, Diego had a lot to be afraid of. But he never even read the note, having died -- most likely from a combination of exhaustion and dehydration -- sometime in the night.
Diego, at least, never likely faced the terror of rape or abuse. There are speculations that Marilu Noely Alas Santos, a 29-year-old mother of two young American-born children, was not so lucky. Marilu, an El Salvadoran national, disappeared in September 2012 after attempting to re-enter the United States through Texas to reunite with her family in New York. She made the journey with her sister, but the two got separated. The sister was taken to a motel and raped. She escaped alive. But no one has heard from Marilu since. Her husband, Luis, still passes out posters in Brooks County and throughout the Rio Grande Valley with her photograph and a message in Spanish and English: “Urgent! Missing Woman: Reward for information leading to the location of this missing wife and mother of two toddlers.”
“She was a beautiful woman,” Eddie Canales tells me, pointing to the photograph on the poster, in which Marilu is wearing a T-shirt with the word LOVE on it. Canales, who is a fourth-generation Texan and who worked as a union organizer for over 30 years, opened the South Texas Human Rights Center last year in response to the surge of migrant deaths and disappearances in south Texas. He was able to open the center, which is located in the economically downtrodden town of Falfurrias (the administrative seat of Brooks County, located approximately 70 miles from the actual border) with a small grant from Casa de Proyecto Libertad, a legal defense and advocacy organization that serves detained Central Americans seeking asylum in the United States. But that grant money is already running dry and Canales is not sure whether he can afford to keep the desperately needed center open.
His one-room operation is filled with pictures of the missing and the dead, an alter with religious icons dedicated to migrants, and pamphlets of other human rights organizations that are trying to end migrant suffering -- the discrimination, trafficking, extortion, sexual abuse, detention, kidnapping, and murder that hundreds of thousands have endured on their journey through Mexico and over the U.S.-Mexican borderlands.
“She might have been trafficked,” says Canales. “But they found out nothing, absolutely nothing.” He was talking about Marilu, but he could have just as easily been referring to the hundreds of other mothers who have disappeared into thin air -- like Exelina Hernandez, who was also from El Salvador and who was also trying to reunite with her two children and her mother, Elsy, in the United States. Since Exelina disappeared in November 2013, her mother has been reaching out to people like Canales for help in the search.
Tragically, in Brooks County, the stories of the missing and the dead are a dime a dozen. As are remains missing an identity. On a round card table in Canales’ center, there is a stack of case reports on skeletal remains found in the region recent months and years -- a slush pile of the dead. Brooks County officials, lacking any federal aid money to cope with the influx of bodies, the ever rising number of cold cases, and other emergency services for border crossers, have turned to Canales for help with simply entering the reports on the skeletal remains into larger missing persons databases.
BRINGING UP BODIES
Less than a mile away from the South Texas Human Rights Center, in the Sacred Heart cemetery, there is a network of open common graves where a team of forensic anthropology students, led by Lori Baker, a forensic anthropologist from Baylor University, and Krista Latham, an assistant professor of biology and anthropology at the University of Indianapolis, have come to spend two weeks exhuming the skeletal remains of countless border crossers found on nearby ranches. Due to a lack of resources and the sudden increase in deaths, the remains were buried without proper forensic analyses, dooming the deceased to perennial anonymity and leaving families of the missing in limbo. The exhumation effort is part of a humanitarian initiative overseen by the International Consortium of Forensic Identification, which aims to positively identify and repatriate these remains.
The scene at Sacred Heart is not for the faint-hearted. The dry grass is studded with body bags. In the graves, some remains are intermingled with others. Some are wrapped in plastic, some in shopping bags, and others aren’t wrapped in anything at all. “It looks like that one was just thrown in there,” says Lionel Muñoz, a staff member for the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office, as he gazes down at the sole of a sneaker, a belt buckle, and swaths of a pink shirt that are resting in the dirt.
Part of the reason for the slapdash burials is the sheer volume of deaths. 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.
Many of these people were fleeing violence and in their home countries, especially El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. A November 2013 Report of the Committee on Migration, which is put out by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, explains that, although the absence of economic and educational opportunities in migrants’ home countries and the desire to reunify with family members in the United States all play a role, the delegation found that “one overriding factor has played a decisive and forceful role in recent years.” That is, “generalized violence at the state and local levels and a corresponding breakdown of the rule of law have threatened citizen security and created a culture of fear and hopelessness.” Transnational criminal organizations have expanded their influence throughout Central America by contracting with local gangs, primarily the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang. In particular, these organizations have been forcibly recruiting children into criminal activity and forcing women and girls into the sex trade.
As Muñoz talks to me about the crisis in Brooks County, a man pedals up on his bicycle and starts chatting with him. It is a cordial and brief discussion in which the man on the bike laments the deaths before pedaling away. “That guy is a drug smuggler,” says Muñoz matter-of-factly. “He’ll be off to prison soon.” Later that morning, I ask Benny Martinez, a chief deputy of the Brooks County Sheriff’s Department, about the exchange. “Everyone knows everyone here,” he says. “They [the smugglers] know us. We know them,” adds Martinez. “We can’t always get them right away. We just sit back and wait. We wait for them to go from being a mullet [fish] to a shark, if you know what I mean.”
The week I met with Martinez, he had recovered five bodies in six days in the Brooks Country scrubland, all victims of the summer heat that hovers daily between 90 and 100 degrees. Often, Martinez is trying to respond to a distress call from a migrant, but by the time he finds the victim, it is too late; a funeral home must be called. The county pays a nominal fee to local funeral homes to process and deal with these remains, but because there is no centralized forensic system in places like Brooks County -- and no aid money from the federal government to help set one up -- these funeral homes have been burying the remains in common graves at the Sacred Heart cemetery. “It’s not really the fault of the funeral homes either,” says Baker. The local mortuaries are struggling to stay in business, and they haven’t received the necessary training for proper forensic handling.
Only a few blocks away from the Sacred Heart cemetery is a detention center. Here, unaccompanied migrant children are packed in shoulder to shoulder, every inch of cement floor taken up by bodies. Some are so young that it is hard to imagine how they made the journey. According to a report by the Pew Research Center, the number of unaccompanied child migrants from Latin America has doubled in less than a year. Between the federal fiscal years 2004 and 2011, the number of apprehended children averaged 6,800. In 2012, that number jumped to 13,000 and, in 2013, to 24,000. Most of these children, Martinez says, are simply attempting to reunite with family members in the United States or fleeing the brutality of gang violence.
Maria Woltjen, the director of the Young Center for Immigrant Children’s Rights and a lawyer who has helped countless unaccompanied children navigate the complexities of the U.S. immigration system, says that the crisis highlights the need for immigration reform so that there are special courts and proceedings just for children and so that the government provides more lawyers and child advocates. In the shorter term, says Sister Zita Telkamp, the director of La Posada Providencia, a shelter for homeless immigrants and asylum seekers in Cameron County, 70 miles south of Brooks, “What we need is more humane shelters.”
Because local detention facilities like these are filled passed their capacity, the federal government has been sending children by plane and bus to various air force bases in other states, such as Arizona, California, and Oklahoma, where they are sheltered until they are deported or become eligible for release. Others are released with papers ordering them to appear in court at a later date, although it is common knowledge that most will not show up. That doesn’t mean they are off scot-free; when they are released from detention, many women have no money. They are in the same clothes that they have been wearing for days. Many are wounded or sick. If not for La Posada Providencia, which gives them a place to sleep, shower, seek medical attention, and eat three meals a day until they can get money wired to them, they would be out in the streets. (In another catch-22, they cannot seek refuge at the local homeless shelter since they need to show a valid U.S. social security number to do so.)
The federal government’s decision to release some mothers and children until their court dates has met with criticism. Many call it de facto amnesty and unwarranted asylum. Others criticize the federal government for being too caught up in partisan bickering to pay attention to the escalating humanitarian crisis or properly fix the immigration system. Then there are those who are calling for a renewed conversation about refugee and asylum protocol, saying that many of these border crossers, especially those from Central America, have been forced to flee their countries due to the extreme violence and warlike conditions, which would make them eligible for legal asylum.
BIG SKY COUNTRY
Martinez calls Brooks County, “the void in the donut.” It needs three things from the federal government, he tells me: emergency aid money, more collaboration, and more transparency. It needs disaster relief money to pay for the proper recovery and analysis of human remains; for investigations into the cold cases -- like those of Marilu and Exelina -- that are piling up; for the creation of more humane shelters like La Posada Providencia; and for medical attention for the hundreds of border crossers who require emergency care.
In one of her blog posts detailing this year’s round of exhumations at Sacred Heart cemetery, Latham discusses one of the unexpected recoveries she assisted in. Latham had come to exhume bodies from the cemetery, but with so many “fresh” bodies showing up, Martinez had asked for her help picking up remains discovered at nearby ranches. “I am a forensic anthropologist and have worked many crime scenes, some of them grisly homicides that show the dark side of what one person can do to another. But here it’s different,” says Latham. “These deaths aren’t the result of one bad person. They are the result of being born on the wrong side of an imaginary line drawn in the dirt. They are preventable. At the ranch recovery, I was in awe of how beautiful the landscape was. The blue sky and big white clouds. I thought about how nice it would be to lay out a blanket and look up at the big beautiful sky and relax. Then it hit me that this was the last thing [the individual I was collecting] saw in their lifetime. To this person, the blue sky represented oppressive heat and the green grass represented a thorny and dangerous path toward a new life. Something so beautiful to me is in fact killing people in staggering numbers.”