Bureaucratic obstacles are making it next to impossible for families to find their lost loved ones, or even learn where they died.
All photos by the author unless otherwise noted
We ran out of water. We are very tired. Please keep praying for us.
It was the last of six texts sent by Jerónimo Hernandez from the desert of Brooks County, Texas to his sister Luisa*. The series of increasingly desperate messages chronicle the 41-year-old's trek into the United States from Mexico with his best friend, three other migrants, and their "coyote"—a smuggler hired to help them evade border security. It was July 25, 2013.
It had been much easier the first time Hernandez crossed, back in the late 90s. The Mexican national had walked through an immigration checkpoint and spent the following years in Florida as a construction worker with his wife and two sons. In 2007, after a miscarriage plunged his spouse into depression, the family immigrated back to Mexico. Hernandez worked in a warehouse until the summer of 2013, when, for reasons Luisa still does not understand, her brother decided to return to the States.
It was not the same border he remembered. Extensive security enhancements have compelled migrants to risk multi-day hikes through the most remote and desolate stretches of desert where the temperature regularly hits triple digits. As a consequence, the mortality rate has surged. Dr. Kate Spradley, who analyzes migrant remains at Texas State University, equated it to "an airplane crash every month." That's a lot of corpses to deal with, and by many accounts the local authorities are overwhelmed.
In the year prior to Hernandez's crossing, the US Border Patrol reports having recovered the bodies of 463 suspected migrants coming from Mexico. That number however, does not include all those found by local law enforcement. "What's reported could be a gross underestimate," Spradley told me. "Here in Texas, we don't have a tracking system, so we really don't know.
"Of the state's 254 counties," the forensic anthropologist continued, "only 13 have medical examiners. The rest just have justices of the peace to decide what to do with the bodies. In Brooks County, where all the bodies in our lab are from, their operating budget probably wouldn't cover the cost of three people getting autopsied, much less the 129 [migrants] they found in 2012."
Each body costs Texas's poorest county an average of $2,250 to process. Despite its high volume of casualties, Brooks County's distance from the Mexican border makes it ineligible for federal funding. "Most of the bodies just got buried," Spradley concluded. "No examination. No DNA samples taken. No investigation toward identification."
Brooks County's current Chief Deputy Urbino Martinez has vowed to reverse the policy of his predecessor. In a phone interview, he described the kind of self-protective callousness that he sees many officers develop:
"I had an incident, where I was picking up a deceased 20-year-old from Mexico. He had a phone with a direct-connect number. So I plugged in the number, and I hit that button. I heard a female respond on the other side, and I described the young man. I was speaking to the mother. She broke down, but then she gathered herself up and thanked me for calling her. I never get used to things like that. I think once you do get callous to a human being, you lose the value yourself. You just have to do the best you can, and wait for the next call to come in."
While Martinez is now sending remains directly to labs, each county determines its own protocol. In an interview, forensic anthropologist Dr. Lori Baker of Baylor University described the challenges of navigating a fragmented system. She is constantly working to gain and maintain permission for teams of her students to perform excavations of mass migrant graves near the border. "Basically," she explained, "I just go county to county. I'm coming in, and these people don't know me. It's a slow process, and often I have to start all over again after a new election."
All the bodies currently in Spradley's lab at Texas State are from Baker's exhumations. "Most of the graves and the remains that we exhume are unmarked." Baker told me. "The funeral homes bury these remains in garbage bags and milk crates. If we're lucky, a bag will have a date written on it, or maybe the name of a ranch where the body was found."
When I visited the Texas State lab, Spradley's colleague, Dr. Daniel Wescott, was in the process of analyzing two disarticulated skeletons lying on steel examination tables.
"This one is fairly young, maybe early 20s," he remarked. "You can see that he's been chewed by carnivores—usually coyotes or dogs. They chew off the hands. This one is a female. Here are cavities that haven't been fixed. That would have been sensitive."
Beside the bodies lay the articles they were found with. There were pills, boots, a bottle of eyedrops, headphones, jeans, a toothbrush, a bar of soap, and a prayer card.
"I'm Catholic," Dr. Baker told me, "so the prayer cards always hit home. Us Catholics like our prayer cards. You realize that someone in their family gave them that card to help keep them safe during their journey. It's also interesting the clothes that people wear. There was this one female—she was wearing these bling-y jeans, and you think, 'You go, girl!' You imagine she's this 20-year-old coming across the border probably thinking she's going to have this great new life.
"We've really seen a change in the last ten years," Baker continued. "Most of the individuals before were crossing for economic reasons. In the last few years, we're seeing people cross because they're fleeing violence. They're essentially refugees. Looking at the remains, we see people with dental restorations, and pacemakers, and procedures that the poor wouldn't be able to afford."
There was no trace of Jerónimo Hernandez at Texas State. For Luisa, even a year and a half after her brother's disappearance, it was a reason for hope. He could still be alive. "I just don't want to put it in my head that he's not here," she insisted over the phone from her home in Iowa. "He has to be somewhere."
Eventually, the sister was able to reach her brother's best friend—the one who had accompanied him on his crossing. "He said that Jerónimo was doing really bad. He couldn't walk anymore, so they left him under a tree vomiting blood. They just weren't able to help him. He said he didn't have another choice."
In the days after Hernandez's final text, Luisa had become increasingly distraught. "I contacted hospitals and shelters," she lamented. "I called funeral homes. I called the Border Patrol and the sheriff. My mother went to the Mexican consul. They said they didn't know nothing. We even tried a [psychic]. I called Spanish TV stations to try to get on television, but they wouldn't help me. They said if they start reporting that kind of news, they'd have thousands of calls from other families."
"We tried to locate the area on a map," Luisa continued. "He was left close to a wishing well—close to wishing well number nine. There was a house with a metal fence. There was a lady watering plants outside the house. There was a windmill. We tried to locate that place. My step-dad drove down from Iowa and showed the owner of the ranch a picture of my brother. The man said, 'Yes, that person was here two days ago. He was in really bad shape. He had really bad burns because of the sun. He was unable to eat or drink, so we called 9-1-1. The Border Patrol came and took him away.' But, when my step-dad went [to Border Patrol headquarters], they said they never picked up a person in that area."
Desperate for answers, the Hernandez family placed advertisements in several Spanish-language newspapers. The phone rang almost immediately. "The first person they called was my mom," Luisa whimpered. "They said, 'We got your son, and we need $20,000.' She couldn't even talk because she was crying all the time. The only money that she had was $1,500 and she sent it. He said he never got it. I asked him several times to let me talk to my brother, to show me a picture of my brother, to somehow let me know that he has my brother. He told me that he wasn't able to do that. He said, 'I know where you live! I know how many kids you have! And, I know how to find you!' After that, we changed our number."
In her ongoing search, Luisa now relies mainly on the Colibrí organization. The one-year-old nonprofit compiles and cross-references missing migrant reports with the unidentified persons cases of local law enforcement, forensic labs, and government databases. There is no definitive missing persons index, though the most comprehensive is NamUS, run by the Department of Justice. Colibrí had entered over 1,300 of their reports into the system until a change in NamUS policy restricted the nonprofit from publishing future submissions.
"Now," Spradley noted, referring to Colibrí, "we have to call each other on a case-by-case basis. It feels like we're working in the 1950s."
The delays have consequences. As Colibrí's Chelsea Halstead informed me, "A law was passed here in Arizona that unidentified remains have to be cremated because they were running out of room. Oftentimes, the identification happens after the cremation, but at least in those cases we can give the families ashes. In California, there have been similar laws passed where they actually scatter the ashes at sea. So there's nothing left to give the family, which is re-traumatizing for them."
"Until we know where Jerónimo is, we cannot move on. We are stuck. There is no Christmas. There is nothing to celebrate." –Luisa
Currently, NamUS only publishes missing persons reports sponsored by law enforcement agencies. The policy is intended to prevent erroneous reports, NamUS spokesman Todd Matthews explained. "How upset would you be if you saw your name in NamUS and you weren't missing?" he asked. Matthews believes that nonprofits should work to persuade law enforcement agencies to sponsor cases under their jurisdictions. Although, as the spokesman later acknowledged, "When you don't know the last place that [someone was] known alive, it's very difficult to get an agency to step up and say, 'I'll take [the case].' They're on the hook." Even when a family member claims that a relative went missing within a certain jurisdiction, the agency can still refuse the case. Law enforcement responses, he acknowledged, are inconsistent.
"We're working on NamUS 2.0," the spokesman added. "We've talked to lots of different people about how to handle some of these anomalies that come up. We're looking at building in new ways to connect to other agencies."
Meanwhile, Colibrí is pursuing other options. "Unfortunately, we're dealing with a very vulnerable population that is often undocumented," Halstead explained. "Laws like Arizona's SB 1070 allow law enforcement to ask about immigration status during any interaction. They can ask about status even when someone is seeking their help. That really isolates people, and makes it impossible for someone to file a report." In response, Colibrí has begun planning their own independent database. Unlike NamUS, it will offer anonymity.
Back at Texas State, Spradley faces bureaucratic obstacles of her own. "By Texas law," she explained, "I'm required to send a DNA sample from all skeletal remains to a lab at the University of North Texas (UNT). They upload the DNA to CODIS, the FBI's DNA database. If a family is missing somebody, they can submit a DNA sample and look for a match. But, according to CODIS, the sample has to be collected by US law enforcement. I've been working with the [nonprofit] Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, who has taken a lot of DNA samples from families of the missing. If UNT and the federal system would allow it, we could [cross-reference] the data and have hundreds of identifications. For the past couple years, we've been sitting in meetings with them trying to figure out how we can do this, and it's a moving target. Every time, they tell us no."
One of the DNA samples waiting in Spradley's lab is Luisa's. "Until we know where Jerónimo is," she told me, voice cracking, "we cannot move on. We are stuck. There is no Christmas. There is nothing to celebrate."
She reminisced about her older brother—about the way he could make friends with anyone. The way he always asked for her advice. The way he worked overtime to pay for a nephew's cancer treatment. She talked about how, in the desert, towards the end, he had become confused. He sent a text to Luisa, thinking that she was his mother. "I told him, 'You were right. I am your second mother.'"
It brought to mind something Dr. Baker said. I asked why the mother of two young sons chose to volunteer so much of her time searching for the names of the dead.
"Whenever we make a positive identification," Baker replied, "moms always say the same thing: 'Now I have a place to go pray. Now I have a place to lay flowers. I walked around aimlessly, and didn't know where to go. Now I have a place to go be with my child.'"
*Names have been changed.
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