MIGRANT DEATHS IN SOUTH TEXAS

-Revisiting the ten months (from August 30, 2013 to June 22, 2014) of website posts and other news during my volunteer work with the South Texas Human Rights Center…

Background

In the late 1990’s the escalating number of migrants crossing the US/Mexico border through California and Arizona marked a new level of concern, engaging the public in protesting the undignified manner of treatment toward the deaths of migrant border crossers and their loved ones. However, in due time the Department of Homeland Security stepped up their efforts and resources that forced the migrant crossers to create new routes toward more dangerous, inhospitable terrains. Thus, the influx of migrants through the South Texas’ semi-arid, prickly, dense brush land increased, and so did the number of deaths.

According to the South Texas Human Rights Center’s history noted in their website, the initial steps began in the summer of 2012 when Los Angeles del Desierto, a non-profit organization from Arizona, contacted the Houston United and the Prevention of Migrant Death Working Group and relayed the reports received from families that their loved ones had disappeared, particularly in the Brooks County area. However, the 2013 report, Searching for the Living, the Dead, and the New Disappeared on the Migrant Trail of Texas was pivotal in mobilizing activists to take action in deterring deaths among the migrant crossers in the South Texas areas.

In May 2013, a community forum was held in Houston, TX, specifically to address the tragic deaths of migrant crossers in Brooks County. Emanating from the discussions amongst various activists was a plan to install water stations in areas where the migrants have been sited. These water stations consisted of a large “steel barrels” filled with several gallons of water. Another important goal sanctioned by participants was the establishment of a South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, TX, in Brooks County. The Center would engage in the intake of calls from families or friends who had not heard from their loved ones. And, the most complex of all tasks became the most important: to locate and identify the dead migrants and notify their loved ones.

The selected posts listed below which I wrote and published in the Center’s website, include commentaries to aid the reader with background information.

  1. The South Texas Human Rights Center: goals and objectives (published in 8-30-13)
  2. The 2013 report, Searching for the Living, the Dead, and the New Disappeared and its findings and significance (published in 9-6-13)
  3. Humanitarian Organizations That Save Lives: No More Deaths and Los Angeles del Desierto: descriptions of the organizations and their contributions to the tragic circumstances of migrant deaths (published approximately in 10-8-13)
  4. Deaths in South Texas: Nameless Graves, Disappearances, and Lack of Humanitarian Aid: a summary of migrant deaths and locations of their remains as well efforts by various agencies and consulates to resolve the identification of corpses (published on 10-8-13)
  5. Preventing Migrant Deaths in Brooks County: how the 9-1-1 calls from migrants are processed, and the roles of the Border Patrol, the Sheriff’s office, and the ranch and landowners (published in 10-20-13)
  6. Participants Read the Names of the Dead and Missing Ceremony: a group of several supporters convened at the Rothko Chapel in Houston to bring about awareness and respect for the dead and missing migrants (published in 11-3-13)
  7. Webb County Medical Examiner Works to Identify Migrants: the article is based on an interview with Dr. Stern in Laredo, TX (published in 5-22-14)
  8. University Teams Exhume Unknown Migrants’ Remains in Falfurrias Cemetery: forensic science students from Baylor and Texas State University work with professors to exhume the remains of migrants who have never been identified (published in 6-14-14)
  9. University Professors Lead by Example: the article features the extraordinary work by the university professors (published in 6-14-14)
  10. University Students Learn Life-long Lessons: photo gallery of the students demonstrate their hard work and dedication (published in 6-14-2014
  11. Recovering Bodies, Unraveling Dark Secrets: About 50 Remains of Unknown Migrants Excavated From a Falfurrias Cemetery: this post was not published in the Center’s website because of its controversial comments aimed at the conflicts between the landowners/ranchers and the human rights of the migrants. However, it was published in another online news website. (Published in 6-22-14)
  12. Final Remarks: the concluding comments focus on the complexity of our work as activists and supporters and the struggles in our continuing work.

Posted on August 30, 2013

The South Texas Human Rights Center

The South Texas Human Rights Center is an humanitarian community-based center dedicated to the promotion, protection, defense and exercise of human rights and dignity in South Texas.

The MISSION of South Texas Human Rights Center (STHRC) is to end death and suffering among migrant border crossers along the United States/México border through community initiatives.

texas-county-map     The 13 counties serviced by the STHRC include:

Brooks, Cameron, Duval, Hidalgo, Jim Hogg,

JimWells, Kenedy, Kleberg, Nueces, Starr,

Webb, Willacy, and Zapata.

The South Texas Human Rights Center is seeking donations to create and install “water stations” in areas where migrants are likely to trek and get lost. The water stations consist of a barrel with several gallons of water that will be placed and maintained in private properties in collaboration with the land owners.

waterstation2
An example of the water station.

Posted on September 6, 2013

Report Finds Texas Has the Most Deaths of Border Crossers

ReportFoto       Living, the Dead, and the New Disappeared on the Migrant Trail in Texas, was written and published by Dr. Christine Kovic, a professor at the University of Houston-Clear Lake in collaboration with Houston United/Houston Unido. The summary findings lists a total of 271 deaths, which are recorded as migrant deaths for 2012, the highest number among the border states of California, Arizona, and Texas. According to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, most of the deaths, approximately 129, were concentrated in Brooks County, located in the center of the 13-county South Texas area, 70 miles north of the US/Mexico border. The Rio Grande Valley recorded the most deaths with 150, followed by the Laredo area with 90 deaths. This area consists of dry, harsh terrain known as South Texas plains and brush country with grasses, thorny brush, and cacti, and that has extremely hot and humid temperatures during the extended summer months.

“Migrant deaths have become the metrics of a failed border security policy.”

     The major goal of the report is to call attention to the crisis and the dire need to take action to prevent more deaths among migrants crossing the US/Mexico border.

A key recommendation includes the installation of “water stations,” which the South Texas Human Rights Center is undertaking.

Acknowledgements listed in the report include a “special thanks” to María Jiménez, Tom Powers, Pat Hartwell, Gloria Rubac, and Stephanie Caballero, Alejandro Zuñiga, and Mesias Pedroza.

Also, the Texas Civil Rights Project, Eduardo Canales, Board President with the National Network of Immigrant and Refugee Rights, and Rafael Hernández, Director of los Angeles del Desierto/ Desert Angels.

Each pushpin in the map below indicates where the remains of migrants were located.

pushpin_map

Posted on October 8, 2013

Humanitarian Organizations That Save Lives: No More Deaths and Los Angeles del Desierto

South Texas Human Rights Center is dedicated to saving the lives of migrants at risk of dying as they dangerously cross into the semi-arid, brush country of South Texas from México.

Other non-profit, humanitarian organizations involved in similar missions are No More Deaths/No Más Muertos and Los Angeles del Desierto, described in the following paragraphs.

No More Deaths/No Más Muertos

Funded in 2004 by a group of community and faith leaders in southern Arizona, No More Deaths has the mission of ending death and suffering along the state’s US/México border. Their goals and objectives specifically describe their humanitarian mission to provide direct aid as needed, to witness and respond to social injustices, engage in consciousness raising, and encourage in as many ways possible a humane and just immigration policy. Staffed by volunteers, the organization established camps called the Arks of Covenant in areas where migrants were most in need of humanitarian assistance. But, in 2008, following the arrests of 3 volunteers who were transporting migrants to hospitals, the organization was adopted as a ministry by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson, Arizona. The volunteers were eventually exonerated.

Investigative Reports

No More Deaths compiled and published a report that documented the abuses of migrants by Border Patrol Agents within a two-year period of 2006-2008. The report titled Crossing the Line: Human Rights Abuses of Migrants in Short-term Custody on the Arizona and Sonora Border, published in 2008, lists 345 complaints, described by the migrants, documented by staff members, and notarized, following a protocol supported by academic and legal processes. The complaints were numerous but were organized according to type and severity of the abuses. The worst ones were described as verbal, physical, and sexual abuses; failure to provide needed medical treatments; failure to provide and deny food substance; failure to respect basic dignity of the migrants; separation of family members, failure to return personal belongings to the migrants; and failure to inform migrants of their rights. The 112-page report describes the abuses in detail, which Border Patrol representatives rejected and/or denied these, claiming they were false or erroneous.

Three years later, No More Deaths published another report with new claims of abuses; this time 30,000 abuses are documented, however, many of the same kinds that had previously been reported. The 2011 report is titled, A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short-term U.S. Border Patrol Custody , and along with a numerous abuses, the authors also cited 1,063 incidents of migrant detainees not receiving due process. For example, their rights were violated; they were treated as criminals rather than charged for civil immigration violations; and were not given an opportunity to access a lawyer. This report underscores the need to advance the cause beyond identifying the issues to specifically articulating the steps to eliminate the abuses. Without taking action that resolves the problems, “the border will never be secure while human rights are being trod upon.”

Los Angeles del Desierto

Los Angeles del Desierto (Angels of the Desert), founded and directed by Rafael Larraenza Hernández and Monica Larraenza, is a “non-profit, humanitarian, search & rescue group made up of volunteers.” Although their headquarters is in San Diego, California, their search missions take them into the desert regions between the US and Mexican border. The organization coordinates their search and rescue efforts with the Border Patrol, The Department of Homeland Security, the Mexican consulate, Sheriff’s Department, and the Department of Forestry. They leave food and water that may provide essential relief to migrants, especially if they have become lost. Their goal is to save migrants whose lives are in danger. Their work also includes counseling and assisting repatriated migrants at the border entry gate in Tijuana, México to find their way back home.

Los Angeles del Desierto refrain from enforcing immigration laws since their mission is primarily humanitarian.

Posted on October 8, 2013

Deaths in South Texas: Nameless Graves, Disappearances, and Lack of Humanitarian Aid

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.

Ranches

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.”

InteractiveMap

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

Mexican Consulate in Laredo:956-723-6369

Guatemalan Consulate in Houston:713-953-9531

Honduran Consulate in Houston:713-785-5625

Salvadoran Consulate in Houston:713-270-6239

National Missing and Unidentified Persons System:

http://www.namus.gov

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.

Posted on October 20, 2013

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.

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.

Benny
Chief Deputy 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.

HelpSign
Border Patrol Help Station

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.)

Leonel
Leonel Muñoz

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. 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.

Ed_center
Eduardo Canales in front of the Center

Posted on November 3, 2013

Participants Read The Names of the Dead and Missing Ceremony

Jose
José Fernando Torres

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.

Posted on May 22, 2014

Webb County Medical Examiner Works to Identify Migrants

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.

All information collected from various sources is entered into a national database, the United States Justice Department’s the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

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.

Posted on June 14, 2014

University Teams Exhume Unknown Migrants’ Remains in Falfurrias Cemetery

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, semi-arid,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.

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.

three
Sheriff Rey Rodríguez, Dr. Lori Baker, Eddie Canales

Posted June 14, 2014

University Professors Lead by Example

Sacred Heart Cemetery, Falfurrias:  Dr. Lori Baker and Dr. Krista Latham engage students in the exhumation of unknown migrants’ remains through demonstration and guidance.

June 3, 2014:  Dr. Lori Baker demonstrates the procedure from the point where the remains have been located to storing and preparing them for transport.

Dr. Krista Latham works indefatigably in exhuming corpses while working with the students.

Posted on June 14, 2014

University Students Learn Life-long Lessons

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.

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.

Recovering Bodies, Unraveling Dark Secrets: About 50 Remains of Unknown Migrants Excavated From a Falfurrias Cemetery

Note:  This is the final post published on the subject. Due to the controversial comments, particularly about the South Texas Property Rights Associations whose members are ranch and landowners in the area, I chose to publish the article in another online news site rather than the South Texas Human Rights Center’s blog.  

June 22, 2014, Falfurrias, TX: When students from Baylor University and the University of Indianapolis took on the task of exhuming bodies from Sacred Heart Cemetery for the purpose of lab-testing the remains and identifying and reuniting them with their loved ones, the lessons they learned were far beyond the science of forensic anthropology that they had expected. Actually, they expected the unexpected.

Baylor University’s Dr. Lori Baker and Sgt. Jim Huggins and their team of almost 30 students, and the University of Indianapolis’ Dr. Krista Latham and her team of 5 students spent 10 days digging out remains from a cemetery plot designated for the “unknowns,” presumably the remains of migrants found in various parts in Brooks County in South Texas. As part of a partnership with Brooks County Sheriff’s Office, the university teams would exhume the bodies as a service agreement and as a means by which to provide a “hands-on” learning experience for the students completing an undergraduate or graduate degree in forensic anthropology or a related field. The university teams had exhumed 62 bodies last summer and had anticipated exhuming as many or more this summer.

The teams worked diligently, consistently, and tirelessly from daybreak to noon, when the humidity and heat finally took a heavy toll on their wellbeing. In all, three students and a faculty member (Dr. Baker) had to be taken to the emergency hospital due to dehydration and in one case, a back injury.

After plotting off the work area, their digging and probing were at first instinctual. “There was no game plan,” one of the students commented. No one knew exactly where the bodies had been buried. The bodies, or remains thereof, had been literally dumped into the cemetery pit. Sometimes two bodies were buried together. Upon finding a “body,” the plastic coverings that held the remains were extremely degraded prompting Dr. Baker to scoff at the irresponsibility of those in charge of burial arrangements. The students quickly learned of the lack of any kind of rules as to the depth and breadth by which bodies were laid, thus they probed in every direction that might lead them to a body. In one case, they found a green “shopping bag,” that turned out to be a bag with the name of the funeral/burial service, literally a body “bag” holding the remains inside a plastic covering. They also found trash such as a beer bottle and can, and plastic gloves. Regardless of their condition, the bodies were pulled out carefully and in a dignified manner placed into a larger body bag. Every action was recorded via photographs; every important aspect was measured and analyzed and entered into a database; the careful, solemn manner by which each body was handled seemed to compensate for the callous and indignant burials that each had received.

Certainly, the conditions of the bodies and the manner of their burials were sufficient to cause outrage and consternation. However, just beyond the city limits of the Sacred Heart Cemetery, a brief two miles outside of the small town of Falfurrias, to the east, west, and south, is a vast area of sparsely populated, brush and mesquite tree terrain that unwittingly serves as the County’s morgue. The bodies that the university teams pulled out of the cemetery were found within the 990 square mile parameter of Brooks County. These were the remains of the migrants who had perished as they trekked through the rugged fields, dodging danger at every turn. They died from dehydration or from a rattlesnake bite. They became lost because they were left behind or trying to hide from the Border Patrol. No one knows exactly how each one died. The corpses were accidently found by ranch owners or their staff while working in their ranch detail. Unlike the bodies that were recovered from the cemetery, the remains of many unknown migrants have yet to be recovered. To date, no efforts have been undertaken to deliberately look for remains throughout the walking areas used by migrants in Brooks County or another county in South Texas.

The exact total number of migrants who have lost their lives while crossing the migrant trail in Brooks County varies depending on the source. A U.S. Border Patrol source has an amount recorded of 511 deaths in the Texas-Mexico area just for the fiscal year 2012-2013, a number exceeding all other totals from the border states (Arizona, California, New Mexico). In Brooks County alone, 129 bodies (Prevention of Migrant Deaths Working Group of Houston United) were recovered during the same fiscal year. However, these figures represent the number of corpses that have been recovered, excluding the current numbers that are reported on a regular basis. The question of how many corpses have not been recovered from the spoils of the migrant trails in South Texas looms as large as the vast South Texas wilderness.

The Colibrí Center in Pima County, Arizona, in conjunction with the Medical Examiner’s Office has recorded 800 cases of unidentified migrants recovered from the Arizona-Mexico border. The Colibrí Center, whose sole mission is to help in identifying the human remains in a comprehensive reliable manner, has a databank of 1,500 missing persons that have been reported by their family or loved ones as “last seen crossing the border.” The Brooks County Sheriff’s Office as well as the Webb County Medical Examiner’s Office (in Laredo, TX), each report that they receive numerous calls each day from people looking for their loved ones that went missing somewhere in South Texas. Although the exact number is unknown, from various anecdotal accounts, there exist hundreds of bodies of unknown migrants that have yet to be recovered.

The question persists: Why isn’t there a concerted effort to look for missing migrants whose remains are purportedly along the South Texas migrant trails?

Since the migrant trails are situated in private lands, everyone, including the Border Patrol is strictly prohibited from trespassing. Thus, when the Border Patrol or Sheriff responds to a call, they must first obtain authorized permission to enter the private premise. In some cases the landowners are eager to cooperate and have pre-authorized the agents to enter their property at any time. However, there’s a strong anti-immigrant sentiment among the landowners, some of whom are more concerned over the litter left behind by the border crossers, such as empty water bottles and food wrappers, than about any unrecovered corpses.

The South Texas Property Rights Association, headquartered in Falfurrias, is one of the dominant non-profit organizations that “protect the rights of property owners in South Texas.” Their mission is to “educate the public of the rights of property owners,” and their message in regards to immigration issue is that they are concerned about a “disturbing trend of massive illegal immigration” in their properties and that “these types of trespassers, along with the potential for terrorists, … were seen as a threat to the safety and security of South Texas properties.” It is not surprising that many landowners, who in large part reflect the ultra conservative stance of the STPRA, disregard the lives of the migrants, dead or in periled conditions, and have little interest in participating in any kind of rescue or search activity that may lead to saving lives, let alone recovering bodies. Additionally, many landowners defend their “right” to enforce trespassing laws by using the example of an ongoing case that involved accidental deaths of border crossers in a car chase.

At the local and regional front, lawmakers who have recently learned about the efforts of the Sheriff’s office in collaboration with two universities have chosen to concentrate on the irregularities and negligence on the part of the funeral companies. According to the Houston Chronicle article (by Christopher Sherman), State Representative Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) contacted the Department of Public Safety for assistance on the matter, while the State Senator from Corpus Christi, Chuy Hinojosa has called for a “criminal investigation.” However, the true nature of the problem is far beyond what was discovered in the Sacred Heart Cemetery. South Texas Human Rights Center, a non-profit organization attempts to address the issue of migrant deaths by installing “water stations” throughout the migrant trails. But the resources are limited. Federal and related agencies that are better equipped to focus on the problem of migrant deaths and these and other related problems can channel their work toward resolving the issues. The availability of resources is often hinged on how resources are allocated. Without a focus on saving lives or recovering hundreds of migrants who have lost their lives and whose scattered remains are left undiscovered, the problem will prevail and worsen.

Perhaps, the dead have finally raised their long forgotten voice, and their memories are slowly becoming the stories that must be told and heard.

Photo Gallery of the Unknown Remains at the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, TX.

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