June 23, 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. In all, about 50 remains were recovered although the exact amount will be finalized after they are fully examined.
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 “trail” 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 US 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 premises. 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 who 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 (STPRA), 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 a wrongful death lawsuit (Rodriguez v. Boerjan) 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 undiscovered, the problem will prevail and worsen.
Perhaps, the dead have finally raised their long forgotten voices, and their memories are gradually becoming the stories that must be told and heard.
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Author: Irma Guadarrama