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The struggle to handle migrants’ remains in South Texas.
by Ananda Rose
The story of what happens to migrant remains discovered in the rambling expanse of the south Texan scrubland is often stranger than fiction. They are the bones of mothers, fathers, children; the old, the young; the sick, the healthy; those who tried to come to America in chase of dreams, to reunite with loved ones, or to escape violence, poverty, and social dead-ends. Sometimes it is only one part of a body that is found—a skull or femur unearthed by rains and discovered on some remote corner of ranch land. Or the remains are mummified, intact but wholly unrecognizable; or it is a body with its soft tissue still attached to the bones. Some remains are found alone; others in groups, or scattered near each other. They are los desaparecidos, the missing or disappeared migrants of South Texas.
On a recent trip to Elizondo Mortuary in Mission, Texas, forensic anthropologist Dr. Lori Baker of Baylor University received four more sets of unidentified remains to bring back to her lab for DNA analysis. “The funeral director told me they were skeletal remains, but they are still bloated, covered in maggots, bodies with bodies,” says Baker, founder of Reuniting Families, an organization that works to positively identify remains so that they may be repatriated. “I would’ve rented a trailer if I had known,” she adds, “But instead, I’ve got to make the long drive with the bodies in the back of the car.” She will rely on a can of Febreze and some fresh lemons she picked from a tree behind the funeral home. “Lemons soak up the stench,” she explains. The lemons and Febreze speak to the sort of desperate circumstances and devil-may-care attitude Baker is up against.
Baker took matters into her own hands, setting up temporary morgues in local pauper’s cemeteries and exhuming the skeletal remains that were strewn about, many in unmarked graves.
When migrant remains started appearing in large-scale numbers in south Texas some years back, people pretty much threw them in the ground, says Robin Reineke, co-founder of the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, which houses the most comprehensive data set of missing migrants. Unlike in Texas, she explains, “When migrants started perishing [in Arizona], there was already a functioning medical examiner’s office in place. There was good centralization, a big facility to deal with the bodies, extraordinary scientists and law enforcement personnel working together with top notch professional ethics.” Reineke says the sociopolitical economy of south Texas—the rampant unemployment, the poverty, the entrenched racism—led to “a massive service gap,” leaving south Texan counties unprepared to deal with the crisis.
As a result, Baker—a sort of one woman show and something of a cause célèbre in the south Texan valley—took matters into her own hands, setting up temporary morgues in local pauper’s cemeteries and exhuming the skeletal remains that were strewn about, many in unmarked graves. Her mission is threefold: to reunite remains with family members, to educate local officials and funeral home providers about proper DNA collection and storage, and to bring some modicum of regulation to the current harum-scarum state of affairs.
“It feels like a twilight zone down there,” says Baker, who does the work on her own time and without remuneration, describing the time in March 2013 when she transported 19 bodies from Brooks County, Texas to a “body farm” at Texas State University for DNA analysis. “That time the bodies were piled up under a sheet inside a rented trailer. It reeked to high heaven. Why the agent at the [Border Patrol] checkpoint didn’t ask about it beats me,” recounts Baker who has exhumed hundreds of migrant remains over the past decade—130 last year alone—and positively identified 70. “There was another time I was transporting remains,” recounts Baker. “I was asked [by an agent] at the checkpoint what was in the trailer, and I said, ‘We have a bunch of illegal immigrants. Don’t worry. They can’t run. They’re dead.’”
In a grim and ironic twist of fate, most migrants that have been dying in Texas perish approximately 70 miles north of the actual border in a botched attempt to circumvent the very Border Patrol checkpoint that Baker later drives their remains through. These migrants are usually smuggled across the border and brought to a stash house near McAllen. From there, they are sometimes transported by vehicle (others walk the whole way) to Brooks County where, to get around the I281 checkpoint, they disperse into the brush and things can take a tragic turn.
It looks like hurricane Katrina passed through with all the body bags and bones.
Such checkpoints are one of many border enforcement strategies adopted over the past two decades—including increased personnel, cutting-edge technology, and hundreds of miles of fencing—that have forced migrants into remote and treacherous regions where they often get lost or fall sick and ultimately perish. While successful by certain measures- apprehension numbers have dropped massively in recent years- the federal government’s strategy of “Prevention through Deterrence” has resulted in dire unintended consequences: the ever rising body count. According to conservative estimates, approximately 5,000 migrants have perished along the U.S.-Mexico border since the late 1990s, most in Arizona and Texas, a number that doesn’t account for the thousands that have vanished in the borderlands without a trace.
The fraught journey these bones take before they even reach Baker results from the grim socioeconomic conditions gripping places like Brooks County, one of the most underemployed and impoverished counties in the nation. Such financially strapped counties are entirely unequipped to handle the surfeit of bodies. Not only is there no profit to be made by already struggling funeral homes; but without federal financial help, these already cash-strapped counties have no resources to properly deal with the situation.
As a result of this perfect storm, says Baker, remains are mishandled. Slapdash autopsies are performed, if they are performed at all. Proper DNA samples are rarely taken. Often the investigator doesn’t write a report, or if he does, it goes missing. Funeral homes, seeing no financial benefits from unclaimed remains, end up tossing them into unmarked graves in local cemeteries. Frequently the remains of several human beings are commingled in the same grave, sometimes in the same body bag or milk crate. By the time Baker and her team of volunteers finish up with another exhumation, “It looks like hurricane Katrina passed through with all the body bags and bones,” Baker says. Many officials, she adds, “Are unaware of the laws. Some choose to ignore them…No one is intentionally malicious…There is just no oversight, no consequences, no standardization.”
Once in her possession, Baker must transport the remains to labs where forensic science can take over. The forensic information is funneled into missing persons’ databases and the work of comparing samples begins. As Robin Reineke explains, “Either there is something [clear] like a tattoo and the family has a photo of that tattoo or, in rare circumstances, the face is still recognizable…and we can make an identification hypothesis.” Otherwise, and much more commonly, the attempt to make positive identifications is painstaking and often fruitless. Amongst the many setbacks is the difficulty families of the missing encounter at consulates where they seek information about their loved ones. Often these consular offices, says Reineke, suffer from “institutional racism and built-in marginalization,” especially concerning indigenous populations. “I can’t tell you how many families have told me, ‘They [consular officials] wouldn’t let me file [a missing persons report] because I didn’t have a map of where they went missing.’ Or [officials] will say something crass, like ‘They’ve probably just gone out and found another woman.” In the rare circumstance that a positive identification is made, it can be hard to repatriate the remains since most families don’t have the means to do so. Says Baker, “I once heard of a kid who was forced to do some drug running across the [U.S.-Mexico] border to pay to get the remains of a relative home.”
When I speak with Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, he is driving back from the valley where he spent the day working with investigators there to piece together the disappearance of an El Salvadoran woman, and mother of two U.S. born citizens, who went missing in September of 2012. A New York resident, she had returned to her native country to take care of her ailing father whose leg had been amputated, but due to her undocumented status, she was forced to take the perilous journey across the Rio Grande and through south Texas, relying on human smugglers who are often connected to organized crime. She did it in the company of her sister. The two were separated somewhere in the valley, says Canales, and the sister was taken to a hotel where she was raped and abused for several days before escaping. Canales has been trying to help the missing woman’s husband piece together information concerning his wife. But like so many cases here, it has gone cold, leaving yet another family in anguished limbo.
The violence and poverty that are causing people to migrate despite the dangers, and the mishandling of the remains of the most unfortunate of these, are consequences of the same socioeconomic forces that have created such stark and inhumane wealth gaps worldwide
For these families, the grief process cannot start. “If you call to tell them a certain set of remains wasn’t that of their sister or father,” says Baker, “They may rejoice, but only for a moment. Then reality sinks in: Their loved one is still missing.” Robin Reineke tells the chilling story of a group of 15 men from the same region of Guatemala who went missing. They all knew each other and chose to put their trust in a member of the group who had made the journey once before and who felt confident he could do it again. The last anyone heard of them was from one of the men named Rumaldo. Says Reineke, “He called his wife to say, ‘We’re not gonna make it. Some of the men are vomiting blood. I love you.’” Most of the bodies were eventually recovered and repatriated, says Reineke who went to meet some of the family members near Xela, Guatemala. She describes the mixture of joy and grief on the faces of the parents of a teenage boy who perished with the group. And she tells the story of how one of the fifteen men met his ending: “He hung himself with his own shoelaces,” says Reineke. “He watched the others die one by one and probably couldn’t take it…It’s something I really don’t like to speak of.”
Sometimes, says Baker, people will say, “Oh, you’re only talking about 130 dead people.” Compared to other places in the world that are dealing with genocides and mass disappearances, says Baker who recently spoke at a conference in the Hague hosted by the International Commission on Missing Persons, “Perhaps it doesn’t seem like such a big deal.” But the fact that this is what is happening to human remains in the United States is shocking to the international community, she says. It also speaks volumes to the overlapping set of broken socioeconomic systems at the local, state, national and international levels that have led to the crisis.
Still, says Baker, “There are solutions.” They lie in education, in training officials about proper DNA collection and case file reporting, and in raising awareness about the need for federal aid to help overburdened counties like Brooks. These are only short-term solutions though. The root causes of migration must also be addressed; so to the need for immigration reform. Most will concede that, in the end, the issues at stake—the violence and poverty that are causing people to migrate despite the dangers, and the mishandling of the remains of the most unfortunate of these—are both consequences of the same socioeconomic forces that have created such stark and inhumane wealth gaps worldwide, in places like Xela, Guatemala and Brooks County, Texas. To see our way out of this dark reality will require some as yet undreamed of form of reverse Orwellian vision. For now, people like Baker, Reineke, Canales, and dozens of other unsung humanitarians will quietly do their part: digging up bones, scouring the scrub, entering data, reaching out to families of the missing.
Meanwhile, the deaths go on. Two days after Baker brought the four sets of remains to her lab, she received a call from investigators in Del Rio, Texas. “They found a whole lot of skeletons out there,” she says. “They asked me if I thought they could be archaeological. The question…is ridiculous. I told them it was a big group [of migrants] that died out there. Or they were murdered.” It’s just another story on another day in south Texas. No doubt, one way or another, the skeletons will be in Baker’s hands soon enough.
Ananda Rose is author of Showdown in the Sonoran Desert: Religion, Law and the Immigration Controversy published by Oxford University Press.