In June 2014, in a small city in southern Texas, forensic anthropologists disinterred human remains from 52 burial plots. Alarmingly, the researchers seemed to have discovered what the Los Angeles Times would later describe as “mass graves.” And underneath the earth, they found dozens of unidentified bodies.
The city of Falfurrias, where the graves were found, is a poor, shrinking settlement, known for its sprawling ranches. Home to fewer than 5,000 inhabitants as of 2010, Falfurrias is the administrative seat of Brooks County – a sparsely populated constituency covering 944 square miles.
And while Brooks County is not located immediately on the Mexican border – in fact, it is dozens of miles away – it has nevertheless become a busy corridor for undocumented migrants. In order to avoid detection by the Highway 281 Border Patrol checkpoint, many take their chances traversing the county’s ranchland; while doing so, however, individuals often perish.
In fact, the U.S.-Mexico border region has seen thousands of deaths since 1994. The situation is so grave that some have called the area the site of a humanitarian crisis. And notwithstanding the complex socio-economic causes of migration, it has been claimed that the United States Border Patrol’s policy of “Prevention Through Deterrence” leaves migrants with few options but to take life-threatening risks.
In effect, “Prevention Through Deterrence” has militarized the U.S.-Mexico border and has driven migrants into more remote and dangerous terrain. However, those determined to cross over into the U.S. have not been put off by the potential dangers they face. “The problem still remains that migration and death continue,” Kate Spradley, an associate professor at Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center, has written.
In fact, the terrain in and around Brooks County is so inhospitable and hot that no one should try to navigate it without training and supplies. Between 2011 and 2013, this remote corner of Texas saw more than 300 deaths – many of them attributable to dehydration and heat exhaustion.
Furthermore, Brooks County has the highest number of migrant deaths of any county in Texas. The County Sheriff’s Office usually recovers dozens of unidentified bodies from the ranchlands every year – and they all end up in the county-owned Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias. It was here that a team of researchers made a series of shocking discoveries in 2013 and 2014.
The team consisted of students, volunteers and scientists from the University of Indianapolis and Baylor University, all working together on a non-profit project called “Reuniting Families.” Funded by donations, the scheme aims to identify and analyze the remains of deceased migrants and connect them with their families and loved ones.
But while digging in the cemetery, the researchers soon made some disturbing discoveries. Lori Baker, an associate professor of forensic anthropology at Baylor, found that the funerary home had extremely limited documentation about the people buried there – or even a clear idea of where bodies had been buried.
Remains had in fact been buried inside shopping bags, trash bags and body bags; sometimes, though, they were simply left loose. One body bag was even found to contain the bones of three different people. Another grave, meanwhile, held the remains of five individuals, stacked up with an array of smaller plastic bags. The researchers also found skulls in biohazard bags nestled between coffins.
“I was pretty upset at the end, because this isn’t the way to be interred,” Baker told the Los Angeles Times in 2014. “The idea that, all along the border, there are these people buried anonymously is horrible. This isn’t even the worst we’ve seen, and it has to stop.”
The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure demands that when the circumstances of an individual’s death are unknown, specific actions must take place. In each case, there must be a forensic examination and DNA collection; any relevant information must also be passed on to the national missing persons database. Apparently, no such processes had been followed here.
For its part, the County Sheriff’s Office had been overstretched for years. Since it is some distance from the border, it does not receive state funding to help with immigration-related issues. The Sheriff’s Office has been simply overwhelmed by the volume of bodies, in fact; as a consequence, it has been forced to bury them without carrying out the proper procedures.
Since approximately 1998, the county had also paid the Funeraria Del Angel Howard-Williams funeral home to handle the deceased. According to Brooks County Chief Deputy Benny Martinez, the facility has charged $450 for the disposal of each body.
“We believe that all human remains should be handled with dignity, care and respect,” a spokesperson for the company told Vice in 2014. “We applaud the efforts to identify next of kin and repatriate remains where possible. However, it is an unfortunate reality that some percentage of these remains will simply be unidentifiable, despite the best efforts of the Medical Examiner’s Office and others.”
But did the funeral home and the county behave criminally? And are there grounds for an investigation? At least two state lawmakers seem to think so. “There’s no question in one way or another that this is illegal, whether it violates the actual penal code or if it constitutes fraud,” State Representative Terry Canales told the Associated Press in 2014.
However, after calls for action from the Texas Civil Rights Project, the county has finally begun to address its practices. It now sends unidentified bodies to a medical examiner for an autopsy, for example. Using data such as DNA samples, fingerprints and identifying characteristics, the county is then sometimes able to match the remains to living relatives.
Meanwhile, the moral case for this work continues to be made by Spradley. She has written, “The amount of migrant deaths recovered from Brooks County, Texas, in 2012 is equivalent to the passenger capacity of a Boeing 737. If a 737 crashes, it is considered a mass disaster… [But] because these migrant deaths accumulate slowly – albeit in the same geographic location – they are not considered a mass disaster.”
In the same paper, Spradley quoted University of South Dakota psychology professor Gerard Jacobs on the subject of mourning. The professor, who specializes in the study of disaster psychology, wrote, “It is when the remains of their loved ones are returned to the family that the more personal experience of the death tends to begin.”
Without addressing migration’s root causes, however, little can be done to stop the flow of individuals coming over – or, indeed, to prevent their deaths. And in 2015 the Texas Observer gave its take on the matter, saying, “We’ve come to call the ever expanding border operation a ‘war’ – though most of the casualties will be counted many miles north of the border in Brooks County.”