South Texas county faces wave of migrant deaths

At the ­Sacred Heart Burial Park in Brooks County, the graves of dead migrants spread across three sections of the cemetery, topped with plastic carnations and simple aluminum markers staked into the dust.

Lacking names, they carry serial numbers and terse descriptions of the contents below. “Unknown Female,” reads a typical one, or “Bones.” Another, “Skull.”

The newest mounds of dirt are wedged between the road and a drainage ditch. “As you can see, we’re running out of space for them,” said Benny Martinez, chief deputy of the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office. “It is senseless, just senseless death.”

For years, the deserts of southern Arizona have been the deadliest place to attempt an illegal crossing into the United States. But the changing economics and geography of illegal immigration are taking a grim new toll in the flat, barren scrublands of South Texas, and especially Brooks County, where the bodies and scattered remains of 129 migrants were found last year.

The migrant deaths are on pace to more than double this year, and the blistering summer months — when temperatures blast beyond 100 degrees — are still ahead.

What is unusual about the crisis in Brooks County is that it is not on the border, but 70 miles north of it, where the U.S. Border Patrol has a highway checkpoint to search northbound traffic for hidden drugs and hidden people. The checkpoint, meant to enhance national security, has instead brought the border’s problems farther north.

There has been a surge in illegal migrants, mostly from Central America, trying to sneak around the checkpoint by cutting through the desolate ranches and labyrinths of mesquite brush that parallel the highway.

They arrive in South Texas by riding the freight trains up through southern Mexico and along the gulf coast. Smugglers float them across the Rio Grande to safe houses in border cities such as Brownsville and McAllen, then drive them north toward Houston and San Antonio along U.S. Route 281.

Several miles before the Falfurrias Border Patrol checkpoint, the smugglers pull over, and that’s where the migrants start walking.

They hike 20 or 30 miles through sand, thorns and withering heat, and when they get lost or their guides leave them, they collapse from thirst and exposure.

With lawmakers in Washington considering whether to create a path to legal status for the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally, there is broad consensus that such changes should be contingent on tighter security at the U.S.-Mexico border.

And along much of the 2,000-mile divide, the U.S. government can point to significant progress. It has doubled the number of Border Patrol agents since 2005 and tripled the amount of fencing. Apprehensions of illegal migrants are close to a 40-year low, while deportations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are at record highs. The flood of Mexican workers entering the United States illegally has essentially ceased.

Migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border

Yet, from the vantage of the ranchers and lawmen of Brooks County, the border is not secure. And the border is definitely not at the Rio Grande.

“We’ve got 400 or 500 people going through here every night,” said Lavoyger Durham, who manages a 13,000-acre ranch west of the highway checkpoint. “This border is wide open right now.”

Motion sensors placed by the Border Patrol on either side of the highway have pushed foot traffic to more remote corners of ranches such as Durham’s. Rumbling in his pickup along looping dirt roads littered with discarded water bottles, he estimated that only one of every four bodies is ever found.

“You’re lucky to spot the buzzards,” he said.

A desperate lot

The Border Patrol registered 463 migrant deaths along the Southwest border during fiscal 2012, the second highest after 2005, when 492 bodies were found. But the overall number of people trying to cross was more than three times as high then.

Illegal immigration from Mexico has dropped an estimated 75 percent since 2005, the result of a stronger Mexican economy, tougher U.S. enforcement and widespread fears of the criminal gangs that dominate border towns.

But those factors have not discouraged Central Americans, whose desperation appears to be undeterred.

South Texas is their nearest entry point to the United States. Last year, the number of people arrested in the Rio Grande Valley sector whom the Border Patrol classified as “Other Than Mexican” (OTM) jumped 139 percent, to nearly 50,000, accounting for half of all the OTMs caught nationwide. The vast majority were from Central America’s troubled Northern Triangle region: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

“There’s nothing in Honduras,” said Jairo Guevara, a scrappy, thin 18-year-old waiting at a church-run shelter in Matamoros, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville.

Guevara and a friend had set out six weeks earlier, traversing Guatemala and riding the rails clear across Mexico. They held on tightly to the tops of freight cars, some with curved roofs, along with hundreds of other Central Americans, and they saw legs and arms severed when fellow travelers drifted off to sleep and fell onto the tracks.

It is a route stalked by kidnapping gangs and extortion crews that demand payoffs at periodic intervals, like toll collectors, charging $100 per traveler or more. “The scariest part of the trip,” Guevara said.

In the past, migrants could arrive at shelters in Mexican border towns such as Matamoros to rest and get water and food before jumping the line.

Not anymore.

Not in “Mat-tat-tat-a-moros,” as Father Francisco Gallardo, the priest who runs the shelter there, dryly calls the city, echoing the sound of automatic gunfire. A few days earlier, armed men forced their way into his dormitory and abducted three men.

Lying on his bunk, Guevara fingered a wooden crucifix necklace and quizzed the older men in the dorm for tips on how to swim across the Rio Grande and follow the highways north toward Houston. He had no map of South Texas, let alone Brooks County.

“Is there a shelter like this one on the other side?” he asked, looking disappointed on learning that there was not.

Volunteer, armed patrollers

From McAllen, Route 281 runs straight north like a rifle shot, past some of the largest tracts of private property in Texas. The land is pancake flat and drought-parched, dotted with mesquite and verdant stands of oak trees. Unlike Arizona’s deserts, there are no mountain ranges to orient migrants on foot, only unmarked ranch roads and cattle trails leading in circles.

Patrolling his 1,000-acre property and those of his neighbors in a new all-terrain vehicle, Michael Vickers placed his binoculars beneath the brim of his camouflage cap, which read “Texas Border Volunteers.” Drops of dried horse blood speckled his shirt. At his side: an M-4 rifle, a scaled-down version of the military-grade M-16.

Vickers, a veterinarian, is a founder of the Texas Border Volunteers, a group that grew out of the Minutemen vigilante movement. Several times a year, the group gets together to carry out “ops” that involve lying in wait for migrants, with night-vision equipment, radios and other ­military-surplus gear.

During one 10-day period in March, the Volunteers spotted 240 migrants, leading to 183 arrests, Vickers said. The group also produced a video, posted on YouTube and circulating among opponents of immigration reform, that shows the ghostly thermal images of dozens of people crouching in the brush mere yards from Route 281, awaiting their rendezvous with smuggling guides.

“That’s 110 people right there,” Vickers said.

Border Patrol officers acknowledge that they were initially worried that the well-armed Volunteers could end up in a firefight with smugglers or traffickers. But the agency now praises the group’s assistance, and Vickers said he has personally rescued dozens of stranded migrants.

“We need to stop it at the river,” said Vickers, referring to the Rio Grande. “We need to shut this border down before we start giving out green cards.”

Like other ranchers here, Vickers speaks Spanish and has traveled extensively in Mexico. He worked for Mexican ranchers as a veterinarian until the travel became too dangerous.

He and other exasperated landowners see it as a matter of lawlessness, with the creeping sense that Mexican criminal organizations are moving in and trying to muscle them out.

“I don’t want the bodies here anymore,” said Presnall Cage, whose family’s 43,000-acre property is directly west of the highway checkpoint. A more secure border would mean fewer deaths, he said.

The Central Americans who try crossing the Cage ranch today are not like the hearty rural folk who once ventured north for seasonal labor.

Many of today’s migrants and their families have paid smugglers $5,000 or more for the trip. Once they are dropped off to begin the trek around the highway checkpoint, the smugglers push them to move faster, knowing that Border Patrol agents will track their footprints and that the migrants will miss their pickup if they arrive late.

It is akin to a human cattle drive. Because the smugglers are paid based on how many migrants they deliver, they continue on even when someone falls behind or can’t walk.

Some of the migrants find their way to Cage’s ranch house, as three groups of people had done the week before. “I feel so sorry for them,” he said. “They have no idea what they’re getting into.”

Cage has placed dozens of water faucets around his property. But a sinking feeling sets in whenever he sees a pair of sneakers laid across a path or a shirt tied to a branch near the road, typical last-ditch distress signals.

When winter arrives, and quail hunters come to his ranch with dogs, more bodies turn up.

Last year, 16 were found on Cage’s ranch.

‘Never seen anything like this’

Brooks County spent $159,000 last year to recover the 129 bodies and bury the unclaimed dead. But it couldn’t afford forensic or DNA testing, and the federal government does not pay the county back.

The Sheriff’s Office catalogues the dead in white plastic binders, filing the deputies’ reports and photos of the corpses into plastic sleeves. When families call from abroad looking for missing loved ones, Martinez, the chief deputy, tries to console them in Spanish. Then he opens the binders.

Most years, one will suffice. Last year, Brooks County filled three.

They are a gallery of horrors. Bodies with missing heads and blackened, desiccated skin. Skeletons in jeans and sneakers. Corpses bloated in the sun, gnawed by animals, and still wearing a grimace from when the migrants sat down to lean against a tree in exhaustion and stripped off clothes as heatstroke set in.

The Border Patrol saves these images, too, showing them as video presentations to the migrants it arrests while they are in custody. The agency has created public service announcements for broadcast in Mexico and Central America. It has deployed eight mobile “rescue beacons” to help stranded migrants, among other measures.

Brooks County, too, is trying to mitigate the deaths, able now to triangulate 911 calls from the cellphones of hikers in distress. But as the smuggling routes move father away from the highway, cellular reception fades.

“I’ve been in law enforcement 34 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Martinez, tipping his cowboy hat lower as he walked among the jumbled graves at the burial park. “I don’t know how you stop it.”

Nick Miroff is a Latin America correspondent for The Post, roaming from the U.S.-Mexico borderlands to South America’s southern cone. He has been a staff writer since 2006.
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