By Mark Reagan and Lorenzo Zazueta-Castro
Nearly 300 cardboard boxes sit on shelves inside Dr. Kate Spradley’s laboratory.
Each individually labeled box contains artifacts such as skulls, femurs, assorted bones, tattered clothing and personal items of immigrants who died in South Texas.
Working with a team of graduate students in San Marcos at Texas State University, Spradley is a forensic anthropologist who works with Operation Identification, a collaborative effort with governmental and non-governmental organizations, to discover the identities of these 297 migrants who perished in border counties in 2013 and 2014.
And every once in a while, the team is successful.
“Often times, it’s the NGOs that will talk with the families or the consulates and sometimes we talk to them,” Spradley said.
On occasion, some families come to the lab before the remains are sent back to Mexico and El Salvador.
“It’s intense,” Spradley said. “It’s difficult.”
Although skeletal remains are not what these families are hoping for, Spradley said the identification of a loved one concludes a seemingly endless series of phone calls from agency to agency searching for their relative, doing all they could to find them.
“They live in a real nightmare state of not knowing what happened so I think everybody is relieved they have an answer and they know what happened,” she said. “And, in some cases, too, they were able to provide them a timeline of what happened.”
Most of the remains Spradley and her partners with Operation Identification work to identify and repatriate were exhumed from the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Brooks County.
But not every immigrant who dies on the journey north makes it as far as Brooks County.
Consider the tragic case of 25-year-old Óscar Alberto Martínez and his 2-year-old daughter, Valeria, whose lifeless bodies were shown in a June 24 photo facedown in the Rio Grande in Matamoros, with Valeria’s arm tucked into Martínez’s shirt. The powerful photo illustrated the danger people face trying to cross the Rio Grande illegally, and the image spread quickly, shocking people across the United States and around the world.
However, that photo, as tragic as it is, overshadowed another tragedy just up river in Hidalgo County.
The day before Martínez and his daughter were found dead authorities discovered the bodies of a woman, a toddler and two infants near Anzulduas Park. The immigrants had likely succumbed to dehydration and exposure. FBI spokeswoman Michelle Lee said the woman was named Briceyda Lissett Chicas Perez, 20, of Guatemala.
The FBI does not release the names of minor victims, even those who have died, Lee said.
As sad as the loss of life is, death is routine for immigrants making the dangerous journey over the Rio Grande and through South Texas brush land, where they often face either deadly heat or freezing temperatures.
Since 2017, 240 people have died crossing or after crossing into Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr, Brooks, Kenedy and Willacy counties, according to data compiled by the International Organization for Migration Missing Migrants Project, a consortium of groups tracking migrant deaths around the world.
Of that total, 72 people have been found in Hidalgo County while 10 have been found in Cameron County over that time period, according to the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project.
That consortium compiled that number with law enforcement reports and media reports and has classified the deaths by location and cause of death, when possible.
Border Patrol statistics show that 1,540 people have died in the Rio Grande Valley Sector since 1998, with the first recorded year with more than 100 deaths beginning in 2012.
Since 2012, Border Patrol has responded on average to a death — or the discovery of migrant remains — once every three days, according to the agency’s Rio Grande Valley Sector records.
No Shared Process
Federal authorities will work with consulates and non-governmental organizations to identify and repatriate remains.
When immigrants die and authorities discover their remains quickly, identification is an easier process than compared to the cases of bodies found in states of advanced decomposition. In such cases, identification becomes troublesome.
And Spradley says there’s no uniform process on how counties handle the remains of unidentified migrants.
“Every county is a little bit different,” she said.
For instance, in Brooks County, before 2013, authorities just buried bodies in Sacred Heart Cemetery.
“Now, when either Border Patrol or the sheriff finds remains, they are sent to the medical examiner in Webb County,” Spradley said. “So now, Brooks County is a gold-star county.”
Hidalgo County utilizes a contract forensic pathologist to conduct autopsies.
“And they function fantastic,” she said.
Kenedy County, where the Javier Vega Jr. Border Patrol Sarita Checkpoint is located, a place migrants often take a dangerous chance at circumventing, is so remote that there are likely a lot of remains that have never been found.
“But they send remains out to autopsy, and they come back to the county where they have a cemetery where they only bury migrants,” Spradley said.
The process in Cameron County, however, is complicated.
A forensic pathologist conducts an autopsy and then unidentified people are buried in a private cemetery in Willacy County.
“And they have not been marked,” she said.
Spradley exhumed 38 people from that cemetery.
When contacted, the Cameron County Forensic Pathologist’s Office declined to comment, claiming the newspaper’s inquiry was a Texas Public Information Act request. The newspaper did not request documents and was asking generally about the handling of remains of unidentified migrants, which is not a public information request.
“In Cameron County, you got Brownsville, you have a forensic pathologist. So remains go to autopsy but at that point they are lost track of if they are not identified,” Spradley said.
The newspaper also called Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio, who did not answer the phone. His voicemail was full and the newspaper was unable to leave a message. An email sent to Lucio’s Chief Deputy, Gus Reyna, was not answered.
Officials with the Hidalgo County and Starr County sheriff offices directed a reporter to submit public information requests regarding the newspaper’s inquiry about the handling of migrant remains.
“They are all different, and it’s so confusing and there’s no centralization,” Spradley said. “Some counties like Hidalgo and Cameron have indigent burial services, which keep records and a lot of records have been destroyed or lost,” Spradley said. “And a lot of these individuals that have been found and buried and not tracked, they are just disappeared like they never existed.”
Spradley did credit Hidalgo County for doing a good job in handling and tracking remains.
“Part of the issue is a lack of education and training about unidentified death,” Spradley said.
For instance, in some border counties, a justice of the peace is in charge of cause of death and the handling of unidentified remains.
“Right now, the JP’s training does not include anything about unidentified deaths,” she said.
There’s also not a lot of record keeping or tracking in these instances.
“You are supposed to fill out a death certificate for every unidentified person, and that’s not even happening in all counties,” Spradley said.
The newspaper also attempted to interview someone with Customs and Border Protection’s Missing Migrant Program.
A CBP spokesperson said the agency receives a lot of media requests and did not provide the newspaper with anyone to interview. The CBP spokesperson did not respond to a follow-up email asking about the status of the request.
Navigating the disconnect between how border counties handle unidentified remains is not easy and once Spradley thinks she’s seen it all, she realizes she hasn’t.
“We have spent a lot of time figuring out what the laws are, how things are supposed to happen and what doesn’t happen and I’m continually baffled and surprised around ever corner,” Spradley said.
One Life is Enough
On an undisclosed ranchland in central Brooks County, Don White prepares for what is expected to be a long, hot weekend searching for the remains of a man’s adult brother.
White, 66, and four people certified in search and rescues prepared Friday to embark on a two-day mission this weekend on a large, private ranchland in hopes of finding the remains of the undocumented man who died in the area last fall.
Such preparations were made as the man and a group of undocumented migrants attempted to make their way north of the county.
Armed with nearly 30 years of search and rescue and law enforcement experience, White has been conducting these kinds of searches since 2015, performing a task for family members of loved ones who make the perilous journey across the border and through some of the most vast and deadly ranchlands in South Texas.
He does this because no one else will.
A volunteer deputy for the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, White began patrolling the area in 2014 and was then asked by the deputy chief at the time to exclusively focus on searches for human remains.
“… I just felt like I could have more of an impact by coming to one of the southern counties, and that’s how I wound up in Brooks,” White said Friday morning.
But he isn’t part of a state or even federal agency tasked with searching for the hundreds, and maybe thousands of human remains that are strewn about the large areas between the U.S.-Mexico border and north of Brooks County. He’s out there alone, armed to protect himself from cartel associates and other nefarious elements he may come across.
When White, who will often work as a subcontractor for construction companies, runs out of money to perform a search, he’ll pack up, go home and work some more in order to have enough money to go out again.
He sheepishly revealed he’s spent more than $100,000 out of his own pocket over the past four years in his effort to perform these searches. Since February 2015, White and those who volunteer with him have covered roughly a third of the county’s more than 940 square miles, he said, adding he’s too old for this kind of work.
“All the expenses, all the extra work hours to get money together to come down to do the search, all the time out, twisting ankles, twisting knees in the soft sand, all the pain and everything else — anytime we make a live save, that kinda makes all of it worth it. … That’s stuff you can write home about,” he further noted.
White says he spent about 40 days out in the brush in 2015, when he started the searches. That grew to more than 100 days in 2016, 90 days in 2017, and roughly 100 days in the brush in 2018.
This year, White has thus far spent about 30 days in various areas of brush searching for remains, locating about four to date.
On this particular weekend, the task will consist of two days where they’ll likely cover about 14 miles each day, working from sunup to sundown while looking for signs of life.
He said the plan is to criss-cross several miles of brush in hopes of finding travel paths left by others.
The dead man’s brother, who contacted White in hopes of finding his sibling, said he crossed the same rough terrain himself nearly two years ago, and recalls cautioning his brother to avoid the journey.
He said the dangers are not limited to the elements inherent in the ranchlands, but being out alone in areas known to be used by human smuggling guides, and other drug-related organizations, remains a dangerous proposition for anyone. This is also the case for White, who struggled to recall the number of times he heard bullets fly by him during a search.
“Probably my biggest concern is the drug mules. When the drug mules are seen, they’re armed. They’re always armed, sometimes with AK-47s, sometimes with just side arms. So that’s one of the reasons I arm myself the way I do,” White, who carries a sidearm and an AR-15 rifle, said.
“Yeah, I’ve been shot at. But without a target, why return fire? So, I’m sure the people that threw lead at me were trying to scare me, which isn’t going to work.”
Despite this danger, White is resolute that most people he encounters in the remote brush want to traverse through as quietly as possible.
His recovery rate remains low, and the prospect of finding someone who is still alive is even less likely nearly five years after he started searching for remains. Combining the days he’s conducted these searches over the last several years, he’s spent more than a full year walking on foot around the remote ranchlands of Brooks County.
During the first year, however, White and a handful of people in his search group found a woman who was near death. He recalled finding her unconscious, but with the help of medical personnel who were along for the search, she was airlifted out of the brush and to a hospital where she regained consciousness.
That one life saved is enough justification to White.
“It’s compassion for the families that are left behind. They know their loved one went north, and at some point they don’t know anything beyond that. To not know anything about your loved one, that really sucks. It’s heartbreaking every day,” White said. “At least if you know they died, and you know you’ve got some of the remains back that you can actually bury, you can go visit, then you get a little bit of closure.”
Like Spradley with Operation Identification hundreds of miles to the north, White also knows about the pain that remains for those who learn their family member died in the brush.
“You don’t get full closure. That’s crap … it’s always this big gaping hole in your heart. But (at least) you know where they’re at, and it’s the un-knowing that really, really sucks.”