Unmarked graves mark the end of the line for migrants at the US border
Sheriff Urbino Martinez has collected the remains of so many dead migrants who crossed the US southern border that he is known as “The Undertaker”.
“It’s deadly out there,” says Martinez, who patrols the small Texas county of Brooks, a few dozen kilometers (miles) from Mexico.
“We started tracking corpses from 2009,” he told AFP in his office, pointing to 20 large volumes, where his department has information on 913 cases.
But, he says, this is only a fraction of the true human toll of border crossings.
“I would multiply that by five, maybe even by 10 for those bodies that will never be found.”
The United States recorded a record 2.3 million migrant encounters at its southern border in the year to September – a key issue for some voters as they head to the polls for the elections in mid-term next month.
Many were sent back south; an unknown number entered the country undetected.
At least 700 people are known to have died in the attempt.
To avoid the checkpoint at Falfurrias, Brooks County’s main town, migrants are directed by human traffickers to sprawling farms where dense vegetation, treacherous sands and high temperatures can prove fatal.
Sometimes there isn’t much left to find.
Martinez’s files are labeled “human remains” – a chillingly accurate description of the photographs that sometimes show partial torsos or just a few bones.
“If it’s really hot, your body completely decomposes in 72 hours, and then the animals will tear up whatever’s left.
“Wild hogs, rats, anything that can tear off the limb, they’ll do it. We’ve already found human bones in a rat’s den.”
The numbers are down in Brooks County this year — Martinez has recorded 80 bodies so far in 2022, all of which have been processed through his mobile morgue.
“It’s less than last year but it’s 80 too many,” he said.
– No ID –
The death Martinez finds in Brooks is not unique to his county.
The same pattern of tragedy is repeated all along the Texas border: desperate people are dying fleeing the crushing poverty, violence and terror of their dysfunctional homelands.
In the border town of Eagle Pass, the municipal cemetery is dotted with crude crosses that mark the graves of dozens of unknown dead; the men and women whose American dreams ended in unmarked graves.
About 40 plaques, labeled John or Jane Doe, sit next to a small American flag.
Across town, migrants are still arriving, betting that the possibility of dying along the way is better than the alternative.
“It was an ordeal,” said Alejandra, a 35-year-old Colombian who crossed the Rio Grande to reach Texas, even though she can’t swim. “But it was scarier to go back.”
Cowering under a tree from the scorching sun, Alejandra said she needed asylum because of the danger she faced from organized crime in Colombia.
“If we go back, they’ll kill us,” she said, looking at her three teenage children.
– Leftovers –
Corinne Stern, chief coroner for South Texas, said most of the migrants whose remains she examined died of heatstroke or dehydration.
“Until about five years ago, (the border) took about 30 percent of my time…Now it takes about 75 percent,” says the doctor, who wears a necklace with the Hebrew word inscribed on it. “Life”.
In the reception area of the morgue, a board reads: “Let the dead teach the living”.
Inside, a table lists dozens of Jane and John Does.
The morgue is spotlessly clean, but the smell of bodily decay is pervasive, permeating the masks visitors are required to wear.
The vast majority of border cases she receives have no identification, Stern says, as she examines the skeletal remains of a still-clothed female body.
Attached to the corpse is a small olive green backpack.
When the doctor picks it up, two lollipops fall out, their colorful wrappers contrasting with the earthy ocher that envelops the clothes and bones.
DNA samples are being extracted in an attempt to identify her, but for now she will be labeled as another Jane Doe, one of 250 Stern has treated this year.
– ‘Where is my wife?’ –
For Eduardo Canales, the opening of anonymous death is too much to bear.
In 2013, Canales founded the South Texas Human Rights Center, setting up water stations around ranches to prevent migrants from drinking water from cattle troughs, which can be toxic to humans.
Canales, 74, provides blue plastic barrels that have location coordinates and a phone number to call for help.
But when he started getting calls from family members looking for loved ones who went missing after crossing the border, he decided to expand his work.
“For me, the most important thing is that families can find the solution,” he says.
“Families keep looking, they never give up. They keep asking where is my wife, my brother, my daughter?”
Many were buried anonymously at Falfurrias Cemetery, but a partnership with Texas State University helped exhume dozens of bodies and identify them by their fingerprints.
The effort has reduced the number of unmarked graves in Brooks: of the 119 people found in 2021, 107 have been identified.
“But many more die and disappear without us ever finding them,” Canales says, pointing to vast dusty plains.
“Here, the only constant is death.”