Lawmen and “angels” are among those focused on the 129 people found dead in Brooks County’s remote and rugged terrain last year.
Last month, a new unit formed to strengthen the prosecution of human smugglers who led illegal immigrants to their deaths through the area, Brooks County Chief Deputy Urbino “Benny” Martinez said Friday.
However, the California-based non-profit Angeles Del Desierto has raised additional concerns in regard to the often unidentified bodies. The group claims DNA samples, crucial in identifying the remains which are often skeletal, aren’t being collected as they should in the Deep South Texas counties that act as throughways for immigrants headed north.
“There is a crime being committed here,” Martinez said of the immigrants left behind to die as smugglers take groups of 20 to 25 past the Falfurrias checkpoint.
He said the new unit targeting human smugglers is headed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, with Border Patrol agents and state- and county-level officers participating.
The 129 bodies found in Brooks County last year is a high number, he said, and more than half remain unidentified after succumbing to the elements or dehydration.
“Sixty-eight unknowns, my God,” Martinez said. “There needs to be closure.”
Most who were identified came from Mexico; others were from El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica and Ecuador, he said.
Six bodies have been found already this year.
Recent reports from Border Patrol and a Washington D.C.-based non-profit point to a dramatic increase in immigrant deaths in the South Texas area. In December, Border Patrol said the number of dead in the Rio Grande Valley sector doubled compared to the past fiscal year.
Angeles Del Desierto director Rafael Hernandez said authorities only have photographs to rely on once the bodies are buried and the lack of a database proves problematic when trying to locate the remains. Additionally, he said some private ranch owners have expressed significant resistance when his organization has asked for permission to search for the dead on their land.
“This is our principle problem: first, we don’t have access to ranches to conduct searches. Second: we don’t have opportunities to know who the people buried are,” he said.
There are more than 200 missing on his own list and families continue to contact him, he said.
Joe Martin, a lawyer with the South Texas Civil Rights Project working with the Angeles Del Desierto, said there are concerns samples aren’t being collected every time an unidentified body is found.
“It’s absolutely possible that in most of these cases DNA samples could be taken,” he said.
Brooks County Judge Raul Ramirez said the procedures to process the bodies are governed by the Texas Health and Safety Code. He said while the county does not have its own licensed medical examiner to collect samples, an examiner works out of the Mission funeral home in an effort to help identify the bodies.
“All of them, we try to take a sample,” Ramirez said, adding later that they are prohibited from cremation.
However, the STCRP said the collection of samples from an unidentified body is required, rather than elective. The organization cites a portion of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure that states a physician must collect samples from unidentified bodies which are then sent for inclusion in a state database.
When bodies are identified, authorities work with consulates to return them home to their families and organizations like Angeles Del Desierto lend their help too. But, this leads to the funeral home being inundated with bodies as well, Hernandez said, explaining that if they remain unknown they are buried after two weeks.
The STCRP has requested a number of records from various South Texas counties, which often don’t have their own medical examiner, to understand how the unidentified bodies are processed, Martin said.
“It seems like it’s hit or miss,” he said of the different practices in different counties.
There are volunteers working with Angeles Del Desierto willing to scientifically test the samples without cost, but they must be released by the county’s justices of the peace, he said. Ramirez said forensic students at Baylor University have expressed interest in doing the same, but transporting the samples (and its associated costs) might be problematic.
Both Ramirez and Hernandez are able to cite a grim mathematical equation off the top of their heads.
For impoverished Brooks County it costs $750 per body — a total of $96,750 in 2012 — to pick them up, Ramirez said. There’s an additional $1,500 to $2,500 for an autopsy and even a body bag costs $150, he said. Other expenditures include a deputy’s time away from his post and the vehicle repairs sometimes needed after venturing into the brutal terrain, he said.
Meanwhile, Hernandez said families must pay $300 to collect a sample and the DNA test itself costs $3,000. Then, there’s the wait for the results — anywhere from two to three months — while the body is kept at the funeral home for $100 per day. That adds up to a bill of more than $9,000 at least. There’s also a price to pay to exhume the body and eventually send it home.
“What person from Central America or Mexico or someplace has the money just to know whether that’s their family or not?” he said.
Martin said he hopes a South Texas coalition focused solely on the push to collect samples for body identification might be formed. He said the militarization of the border has made immigrants who choose to risk their own lives to circumvent Border Patrol checkpoints “collateral damage.”
“This is not politics,” he said. “This is a humanitarian crisis and we’re hoping people see that and respond to that. We’re not going to let go of this. This is an unimaginable horror.”
Brooks County authorities have expressed the gravity of the situation as well.
“It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the law,” Ramirez said of gathering the bodies. “This is a story I’m very passionate about.”
The Sheriff’s Office is often second, usually after Border Patrol, to encounter the bodies. They gather any bit of information that could be used to identify, such as clothing or bits of paper with phone numbers.
Still, 43 unknown people buried in Falfurrias and more waiting to found by their loved ones, Martinez said.
Those who die in rural Brooks County are spouses, parents, siblings, children and grandchildren — making their identification all the more pressing, he said.
“They have dignity. They belong to someone.”