Posted on May 4, 2017

A Path to America, Marked by More and More Bodies

Manny Fernandez, NY Times, May 3, 2017

Case 0435 died more than a mile from the nearest road, with an unscuffed MacGregor baseball in his backpack. Case 0469 was found with a bracelet, a simple green ribbon tied in a knot. Case 0519 carried Psalms and Revelations, torn from a Spanish Bible. Case 0377 kept a single grain of rice inside a hollow cross. One side of the grain read Sara, and the other read Rigo.

The belongings are part of a border-crossers’ morgue at a Texas State University lab here — an inventoried collection of more than 2,000 objects and 212 bodies, the vast majority unidentified.

All 212 were undocumented immigrants who died in Texas trying to evade Border Patrol checkpoints by walking across the rugged terrain. Most died from dehydration, heatstroke or hypothermia. Even as the number of people caught trying to illegally enter the United States from Mexico has dropped in recent months, the bodies remain a constant, grim backdrop to the national debate over immigration.

“When we get them, we assign them a case number because we have to have a way of tracking cases, but no one deserves to be just a number,” said Timothy P. Gocha, a forensic anthropologist with Operation Identification, a project at Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center that analyzes the remains and personal items of the immigrants to help identify them. “The idea is to figure out who they are, and give them their name back.”

The collection in San Marcos represents only a fraction of the total deaths. Hundreds of immigrants have died crossing the border in Texas in recent years, and hundreds of others have died in the three other states that share a border with Mexico — Arizona, California and New Mexico.

In South Texas, the number of deaths has overwhelmed some local officials and made the grisly discovery of decomposing bodies a commonplace occurrence. The body count since 2014 stands at nine at one ranch, 17 at another and 31 at a third. A former governor of Texas, Mark W. White Jr., called the authorities in 2014 after he found part of a human skull on a quail-hunting trip near a Border Patrol checkpoint.

“It was an awful thing,” said Mr. White, 77. “The first question that was asked of us was, ‘Is the body fresh?’ The lady who was answering the call said, ‘We can’t pick him up today because we have three fresh ones we have to pick up today.’”


The sheriff and his deputies here call it a Code 500: a report of a deceased person. There have been so many in rural Brooks County that the case files fill more than a dozen thick binders.

The bodies and remains of more than 550 undocumented migrants have been discovered in Brooks County since January 2009. Those bodies were only those reported to the authorities.

“I would say for every one we find, we’re probably missing five,” said Sheriff Urbino Martinez, adding that the scale of the problem often gets overlooked “because it doesn’t happen all in one bulk. It’s spread out through months, years.”

More people have died illegally crossing the southwestern border of the United States in the last 16 years than were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Hurricane Katrina combined. From October 2000 through September 2016, the Border Patrol documented 6,023 deaths in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas, while more than 4,800 people died in the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina.

Local officials and immigrant advocates said the frequency of the deaths amounts to a humanitarian crisis. No other Texas county has discovered more migrant bodies than Brooks County. One day in February 2015, deputies found the bodies of four migrants near a lake called Laguna Salada, their skeletal remains spread across a one-mile area. The four people died separately over the span of months. They just happened to be discovered on the same day. But there are other counties where bodies turn up with stunning regularity, in both Texas and Arizona, the two states with the most deaths.


The remains of more than 75 bodies have been recovered and cataloged by the Brooks County sheriff’s department from 2016 to the present.