About an hour’s drive from the Mexican border, in cactus-covered ranch land, there’s a spot many undocumented immigrants walk through hell to avoid. It’s the Texas Border Patrol Station in Brooks County, Tex., one of the last layers of security and one of the busiest checkpoints in the state with more than 10,000 vehicles per day traveling through it.
The journey around this checkpoint can take several days on foot, through brush country where water is scarce and heat exceeds 100 degrees in the summertime. Migrants are led for miles through private ranches by guides who get paid thousands of dollars, and then shuttled to stash houses near Houston before arriving at their final destinations across the United States.
But many of them never make it, dying of dehydration, exposure and various illnesses somewhere along the unforgiving 30-mile route.
Over the years, hundreds of bodies have been recovered on ranches here — and it’s the condition in which they were found that some find criminal.
About two weeks ago in Falfurrias, a small town in the northeastern part of the county, a team of archaeologists uncovered a mass grave where many immigrants’ remains had been buried — in trash bags, shopping bags, body bags or no bags at all, researchers told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, which broke the story last week.
In one plot, the bones of three bodies were mixed inside of one body bag. In another, at least five bodies in bags were piled one on top of the other. Between the coffins, skulls were sealed in biohazard bags — the red ones used in receptacles at doctors’ offices.
“To me it’s just as shocking as the mass grave that you would picture in your head, and it’s just as disrespectful,” University of Indianapolis forensic anthropologist Krista Latham told the Caller-Times.
Latham and Baylor University anthropologist Lori Baker led a team that exhumed the bodies this month as part of a project aimed at identifying those who died, the Los Angeles Times reported. The number of unidentified corpses recovered in the past several years prompted civil rights activists to pressure county officials to begin DNA testing all bodies, the Wall Street Journal reported last year.
This month, the team exhumed 52 burial plots at Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias. More than 52 people were buried in them, though. Baker told the Associated Press that researchers will not know how many more bodies until the corpses are inventoried in a lab. Last year, the team uncovered the remains of 110 unidentified people from the same cemetery.
Baker estimated the bodies were buried between 2005 and 2009 — with no known names, no known families. For most, their only identification was a small, temporary grave marker bearing the name of a local funeral home.
The bodies are believed to have been buried there by Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams, a local funeral home contracted by the county to handle the bodies for $450 per corpse after sheriff’s officials recovered them from the brush country, according to reports. County Judge Raul Ramirez told the Caller-Times that this has been the practice for 16 years.
“No matter if this is one of our client families we serve on a traditional basis or a migrant family’s loved one we are serving and we do not have identification of the loved one, it is our policy to treat the decedent with care, to treat them just like we would treat anyone else,” a spokesman for Service Corporation International, which owns the funeral home, said in an e-mailed statement.
Still, after the Caller-Times story came out last week, a South Texas lawmaker, Rep. Terry Canales, asked the Department of Public Safety to secure the cemetery as a crime scene.
“There is no doubt that a crime has taken place, and we need to protect the site to prevent any evidence from being damaged, tampered with, or destroyed,” he said in a statement issued this weekend. “Just as important, we need to send the message to the world that in our state, we do not stain the honor of loved ones who have passed away.”
As part of an investigation, Texas Rangers are set to meet with local officials Monday, and Brooks County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Benny Martinez said he would meet with the county judge and commissioners Tuesday.
Martinez said he doesn’t foresee the funeral home facing criminal charges.
“We have always been under budget constraints,” he told the L.A. Times. “Maybe there was no money to facilitate burying the bodies.”
Because Brooks County is 70 miles from the border, it doesn’t receive federal funding to help with immigration issues, Martinez said.
“They’re so overworked,” Baker told the newspaper. “Trying to keep people alive who are in distress is the county’s No. 1 priority, so they haven’t been able to make the [immigrants’] remains one.”