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They Die in South Texas

New America Media, Investigative Report, Mary Jo McConahay Posted: Jun 21, 2007

Editors Note: There is a human toll to illegal immigration. The corpses of men, women, and children who perished trying to enter the country are routinely found in Brooks County, Texas. NAM contributing editor Mary Jo McConhay has been a reporter for many years in Latin America and covers the border for The Texas Observer where a longer version of this story, and gallery of photos, may be found.

FALFURRIAS, Tex. At the Side Door Caf in Falfurrias, Texas, body counts enter conversations as naturally as the price of feed, or the cost of repairing torn fences. I removed 11 bodies last year from my ranch, 12 the year before, said prominent local landowner Presnall Cage. I found four so far this year. Sometimes, Cage said, he has taken survivors to a hospital; mostly, however, time and the sun have done their jobs, and it is too late.

As increased U.S. border security closes certain routes, undocumented migrants squeeze onto fewer, more dangerous and isolated pathways to Americas interior. One of these is the network of trails that bypasses the last Border Patrol checkpoint traveling north on Hwy. 281 in rural Brooks County, a full 70 miles from the border itself. The local Minuteman-type group calls one clandestine path west of 281 the Ho Chi Minh Trail because its so heavily traveled. The new circumstances is having a dramatic ripple effect on the county (total pop: 7685), and people who have lived here for generations.

For one thing, the dead are breaking the budget. County officials earmarked $16,000 in fiscal 2007 for handling deceased indigents, which includes remains of undocumented Mexicans and other would-be migrants. But by May, they had already spent $34,195 on autopsies and burials, and were just heading into the hot months now, said County Judge Raul Ramirez. Its also rattlesnake mating season, noted the judge, when serpents bite the unwary.

Dont get me wrong. Im glad to do this, Ramirez said in Falfurrias (pop: 5020), the county seat. But we could be helping more of our own. About a third of Brooks residents live below the poverty line; average household income is $21,000; jobs are scarce.

Pictures of the dead are kept discreetly in certain places in this town, a collective album that tells an important part of what Brooks County once known better for oil, watermelon, and a Halliburton facility has become in the last couple of years: a grave for the weak or unlucky. Lawmen use the pictures for forensic purposes; consulates to track down families; local citizens to lobby representatives for help.

Some photos are artful, such as a skull amid crawling vines, a kind of meditation; or a young mans figure with legs softly bent, his head thrown back against a bush with the arc of a ballet dancers neck only a close-up of the face, mouth open and vacant eyes, speaks death. Some remains are partially clothed. There is a condition that comes with too much sun: judgment wanes, and the affected person mistakenly believes stripping will assuage the heat inside. Many found dead from dehydration have jugs of water lying nearby; the inexperienced trekker especially when lost will save water instead of sipping it periodically, until a line is crossed in the brain and the person no longer feels thirst even as he is expiring from it. Among the pictures are corpses bloated so grievously they look ready to pop. The body of one young woman is not badly swollen, lying with face and torso intact, but her legs have been gnawed down to the long bones by a feral pig.

Luis M. Lopez Moreno, Mexicos consul in McAllen, said since the border has become so difficult to cross, working men who moved back and forth annually are now stuck in the north, and family members unaccustomed to the trek are trying to reunite by traveling to the States. More women travel, sometimes with children. Young migrants are likely to be better educated and more urban now, less aware of how to manage themselves under extreme conditions.

Hank, a guide for high-end hunters who doesnt want his real name used, thinks he saves lives. Unobtrusively, he turns hunters blinds away from nearby trails so the illegals dont get shot by accident. This is also an attempt to protect the psychological state of the hunters. They may be men fearless in high finance and politics Washington figures including both Bush presidents have hunted here, with Air Force One parked incongruously on the county airstrip but surprised in the wild by local human traffic, they can quake. Especially if its something like a group of 30 coming through, Hank explained. Guides have begun giving hunters two-way radios to use if they feel endangered.

Hank once discovered a man lying on his back, one hand on his forehead, knee up, as if he were resting. He had been cooked in place. Another body fallen in the middle of a trail had a path worn around it, where migrants stepped to avoid the corpse.

Policy makers have no idea of the local situation, said Sheriff Balde Lozano. Worst is the deaths. We get there and sometimes theyve been dead minutes, sometimes months. Some Im sure are never found. There is more money in aliens than drugs now, said the sheriff.

Lourdes Trevio-Cantu still calls them travelers. When passing migrants asked for food, Trevios mother once distributed a stack of tortillas. If it was the immigrants of old thered be no fear; youd live and let live. Before, they were humble, polite. Now they come in packs. Theyre desperate, bold. A lot of them are pretty well dressed, and everyone seems to want to go to Houston. Its a completely different element.

Analysts and townspeople agree the vast majority of migrants are Mexicans who are very poor, or slightly less than poor and looking for a better job, or attempting to reach family. According to Sheriff Lozano, however, the first identified MS-13 gang member among the migrants was caught in Brooks County. Coyotes often have criminal records. One woman described the call of a man standing with a Bible, asking for food. When I turned around, 20 people with him came out of the woods, she said. My lifes changed. I dont want to get raped. Im afraid. Some ranchers report spending $50,000 a year to repair destroyed fences and clean up litter from the migrants.

Ninety-two percent of the population of Brooks County is Hispanic, and even most blue-eyed Anglos are bilingual from childhood. Its a culture that used to feel more connected to those coming through, documented or not, or at least not feel alien to them. As Police Chief Eden Garcia put it, A lot of our families came the same route. But the greater number, and a suspected criminal element that has slipped in among them, is straining that culture.

The four-year old Texas Border Volunteers, a local Minuteman-type group that sees itself as aiding the Border Patrol, fan out armed at night in camouflage ATVs to track migrants and coyotes. Theyre better equipped than local lawmen, with the latest thermal imaging and night vision equipment, partly funded by ranchers, they say. Their founder, Mike Vickers, is a well-regarded local veterinarian with some national fame: he isolated the Ames strain of Bacillus anthracis used in the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001. He says the Volunteers disrupt coyotes deliveries of human beings, save lives by finding the lost and straggling, and are on the spot to receive anyone who wants to surrender because they cant go any farther.

Falfurrias Justice of the Peace Loretta G. Cabrera arrives at the site of remains in high boots to methodically note time and location. Clothing. To oversee collection of parts if the body is not intact. The Lord gives you strength, said Cabrera, a small woman. Someone has to do it.

This routine of logging the dead was repeated 56 times in Brooks County last year. In total, the Border Patrol recorded 453 border deaths. A General Accounting Office report said recorded border deaths have doubled since 1995. It also said the Border Patrol may be producing an undercount. No one knows, of course, how many die without leaving recoverable remains.

At the Mexican consulate, a computer is connected to an international public access system that anyone can check for details of found remains. We try to be sensitive to the people, said Vice-consul Sandra Mendoza. When she calls a village telephone to inform relatives about confirming a picture of the dead, she cautions, Dont send a father or mother.

The mortuarys field director, Angel Rangel, said he usually kept just two disaster bags in stock, used when remains must be carried to the coroner in pieces; today he orders cases of six to 12 bags at a time. Rangel uses the term loved one for migrants, not aliens, illegals, or even, when theyre dead, deceased.

Well, theyre someones loved ones, he said. Like other locals, Rangel opines that as long as Mexicans need work and families want to be together, people will continue to risk the journey. Meanwhile there is a logistics problem emerging with regard to the unidentified dead, he said. The section allotted for them in the local cemetery is running out of room.


The Accidental Coyote

The seduction of easy money -- $1500 for a quick trip to Houston with an undocumented passenger, and no checkpoints to cross has been too tempting for some residents of Falfurrias, Texas. Bill, 43, a heavy equipment operator with a wife and daughter, became a criminal two years ago, an accidental coyote. Someone offered him big money to take an illegal immigrant who had just made it through the desert for a no-risk ride hed start from north of the last Border Patrol checkpoint here, a full 70 miles from the border itself. The extra cash became a habit.

Recently Bill started working with a more serious, deliberate coyote, now running him down to the border town of Mission twice a week for $700 each time again no risk, since Border Patrol isnt likely to stop a car traveling south. There are probably fewer than a dozen such local coyotes in town, lawmen and Bill say, and probably half of them would be doing something illegal anyway, running small amounts of dope, for instance. Others like Bill have been criminalized partly by choice, but also by how immigration policy operates, and an accident of geography that puts Falfurrias, with just some 5000 residents, in the middle of the migrant stream.

Bill had never been in jail in his life, except for a few hours in high school for speeding. Hes not one of the despicable coyotes who lie and would just as soon leave someone to die rather than be squeezed off schedule. I was trying to start a septic tank business. If I do it seven more months I think I can start.

But the extra cash has helped Bill revive an old cocaine habit. And when a cop stopped him for an out-of-date tag and found an undocumented person in the car, Bill was warned and released but it went on his record, so he lost his good regular job and has settled for one that pays less. Starting the septic tank business may take more time than he thought.

He should quit or be extra careful; if hes caught again he goes to jail. But now hes a little afraid, just as some townspeople are cautious about local coyotes, lest they be connected to mean ones. They should be afraid, suggests Bill. Not of him, he insists, of others. We each work with a chain and if you steal someone off another ones chain or do something else they dont like they say, The mafia will take care of you. Thats the Mexican mafia.

Bill doesnt think hed make it in prison. Im not the prison type, he said.

Mary Jo McConahay covers the border for the Texas Observer. Click here to see a longer version of this story and gallery of photos.

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