The Mass Grave In Texas No One Talks About

Photo: John Moore/Getty Images.
Teams from Baylor University and the University of Indianapolis are exhuming the bodies of more than 50 immigrants who died, mostly from heat exhaustion, while crossing illegally from Mexico into the United States.
Maria Albertina Iraheta Guardado was desperate. Her home country of Honduras, the second-poorest nation in Central America, had recently experienced a military coup and become a violent hell. Honduras has one of the highest murder rates per capita in the world, and political and drug-related violence had torn apart Maria's community. So Maria made a heartbreaking choice — she left her family behind to make the approximately 2,000-mile journey north to the United States alone. But Maria never reached her destination. Like hundreds of other people who attempt to cross the border into the United States from Mexico each year, Maria died somewhere in the sweltering, 70-mile expanse that separates the Mexican border from Falfurrias, TX. Like many others making that risky journey, Maria had hoped to sneak past the Falfurrias checkpoint, a U.S. Customs and Border Protection-manned turnstile where signs boast year-to-date seizures of both drugs and human beings.

People are dying because of immigration policy.

Josiah Heyman, Center for Interamerican and Border Studies
Authorities in Brooks County, TX, found Maria's body and buried her in Falfurrias' Sacred Heart Cemetery, as they had been instructed to do. When undocumented immigrants die, Texas authorities are responsible for interring them. But before doing so, authorities are required to take DNA samples from the unidentified bodies, according to the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure. For two years, Maria's body lay in an unmarked grave. Her family had no way of knowing what had happened to her. And Maria wasn't alone — for several years, authorities in Brooks County had buried the corpses of unidentified immigrants in a communal grave. Instead of in coffins, bodies were placed into the ground in grocery-store bags and milk crates. With time, those containers decomposed, too. Then, in 2013, forensic scientists from Baylor University and the University of Indianapolis volunteered to exhume the bodies and send them to a lab at Texas State University, in San Marcos. There, a team of experts, along with undergraduate and graduate students led by Dr. Kate Spradley, would attempt to collect DNA from the remains. Maria's body was the first to arrive at Spradley's lab. The team undressed her and removed her shoes. But it didn't take much laboratory work to figure out who she was. Even two years later, her identification card was safely tucked under the insole of one of her shoes.

The amount of migrant [bodies] recovered from Brooks County in 2012 is equivalent to the passenger capacity of a Boeing 737.

kate spradley, forensic anthropologist
John Carlos Frey, an investigative journalist who helped produce a documentary on the migrant death crisis called The Real Death Valley, told Refinery29 that authorities in Brooks County had done nothing to help identify Maria. "[Maria] was buried as an unidentified person. They didn't even examine her, the mortuary did not take DNA samples," Frey says. "That's standard procedure. You're supposed to check all of the pockets and the shoes." The investigators then released Maria's identity to the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), a nonprofit established to help identify the tens of thousands of people who were "disappeared" during Argentina's oppressive military regime of the '70s and '80s. EAAF now shares its expertise with human-rights groups around the world, helping to identify missing people using archeological and forensic techniques. It was the Argentine Forensic team that found Maria's family in Honduras and told them she had died. Since then, the teams have identified four of the approximately 200 bodies exhumed from Sacred Heart Cemetery, including Maria's. Now, human-rights groups want to know why authorities didn't do more to figure out who these people were before they buried them.
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images.
Anthropology students collect bones from a suspected undocumented immigrant scattered on a ranch and found by the U.S. Border Patrol on May 22, 2013, in Brooks County, TX. In Brooks County alone, at least 129 immigrants perished in 2012, most of dehydration while making the long crossing from Mexico.
Frey says one of the main points of contention is how autopsies had been performed in Brooks County. As the county did not have its own medical examiner, Frey says he learned through investigative reporting that autopsies were being performed by a local physician. But Chief Deputy Sheriff Benny Martinez of Brooks County told Refinery29 that authorities no longer use those mortuary services. "We had deficiencies," Martinez admits when asked about the way bodies like Maria's were autopsied prior to their burials. Martinez told Refinery29 that Brooks County now sends the dead to be examined by the official medical examiner in nearby Webb County. Still, Frey and other human-rights investigators feel those kinds of mistakes, and what they say is state authorities' willingness to ignore them, are deeply troubling.

it didn't take much to span out who she was. Even two years later, Maria's identification card was safely tucked under the insole of one of her shoes.

In June 2014, the Texas Rangers asked one of their investigators to carry out "a preliminary inquiry into the possibility of criminal violations associated with the...burial of human remains in Brooks County." But the Rangers' final report found that "evidence does not exist to support the initiation of a formal criminal investigation." The Texas Rangers did not respond to Refinery29's request for comment on their report. Still, Frey and his team of journalists from the Investigative Fund maintain that they have evidence showing that two funeral-service companies broke state law in neglecting to properly investigate the identities of dead immigrants, in burying the bodies too close to the surface of the earth, and in not mapping the location of the interred properly.
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images.
A woman's discarded bra is found by law-enforcement officials in Brooks County, TX. Groups of immigrants walk as many as 30 miles north through the brush to circumvent a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint located in Falfurrias
Brooks County authorities have said it's also a budget issue. Forensic investigations are expensive, and Brooks County is endemically underfunded. In March, Deputy Sheriff Martinez told members of Congress that his team had recovered the bodies of 443 migrants since 2008. "We estimate that we recover less than half of all those who perish. From 2008 to 2014, Brooks County has spent almost $700,000 for body recoveries," Martinez said. Martinez said Brooks would receive more funding if it were considered to be a "border county." Technically, Brooks County is some 70 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, whicht means it doesn't receive the kind of state funds counties that share a border with Mexico do. In 2014, Texas Department of Safety's expenditures on Brooks County were just $734,431. In contrast, the state granted some $30 million to Hidalgo County, the border county directly south of Brooks. Texas State Authorities did not return Refinery29's request for comment. "I believe that it’s all a work in progress. The federal government is working very, very slow," Martinez told Refinery29. Martinez says that Texas has already doled out two $150,000 grants to Brooks County. These have been helpful, he says. Brooks County authorities have found 31 unidentified bodies this year, compared to a high of 129 bodies in 2012.

We have a mass grave in the United States. A mass grave, which we usually equate to countries with war and huge human-rights violations.

John Carlos Frey, investigative journalist
But Frey and other human rights groups are not satisfied. "We have a mass grave in the United States. A mass grave, which we usually equate to countries with war and huge human-rights violations," Frey says. Martinez told Refinery29, "We no longer bury any [migrant] bodies here in Brooks County since August 2013." Instead, the bodies are sent directly to Texas State University forensic teams to be identified. Once they arrive at Texas State, the bodies are tested and DNA is entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System database, as is required by law. The investigators also continue to work with the Argentine team to make more identifications and notify more families.
Photo: John Moore/Getty Images.
A forensic anthropology team from Baylor University exhumes the remains of unidentified immigrants from a cemetery on May 21, 2013, in Falfurrias, TX.
"I think everybody wants to help, but everything that's happening right now is on a volunteer basis. The county officials want to do the right thing, but they don't have the money to do it," Spradley, the Texas State forensic anthropologist leading the effort, told Refinery29. One way Brooks County could find the funds to exhume and identify all the bodies is to get Gov. Greg Abbott to recognize the situation as a mass disaster. According to Texas' Emergency Management Plan, mass disasters include "extraordinary levels of mass casualties" as well as "disruptions that severely affect the population." "It's not a mass disaster in the sense that an airplane has crashed, but it kind of is," Spradley said. "It's a slowly accumulating mass disaster that's geographically confined, but nobody will recognize it as a mass disaster." On a webpage requesting grant money for Texas State's identification project, Spradley wrote: "The amount of migrant deaths recovered from Brooks County, Texas in 2012 is equivalent to the passenger capacity of a Boeing 737."

Instead of in coffins, bodies were placed into the ground in grocery-store bags and milk crates. With time, those containers decomposed, too.

The analogy suggests that burying hundreds of unidentified migrants in Brooks County, which is home to just 7,000 people, fits the definition of a mass disaster. There, a severely underfunded local government is overwhelmed by its responsibility: to identify the people dying on its grounds at a rate of more than six per month, if it cannot rescue them first. "When I started working in Falfurrias, I thought it was the fault of the county, and then I learned it was really just that they didn't know and they didn't have enough funding," Hailey Duecker, a forensic anthropology fellow at the Texas Human Rights Center, told Refinery29. Yet Duecker is hesitant to call the burials at the Sacred Heart Cemetery a mass grave. "What was happening in Falfurrias was not mass graves. Mass graves are what happens in Rwanda. A mass grave is what happened after World War II," Duecker says. Duecker explains that "underfunding and understaffing" in Brooks County forced local authorities to bury the dead in a sad, albeit legal, grave. Under Texas law, it is not illegal in and of itself to bury multiple bodies in the same grave. Still, outrage is growing over what many see as a symptom of America's broken immigration system. On August 1, a group of about 20 demonstrators gathered in Houston to protest the funeral practices they called "deplorable." "We need [people] to break the silence and get militant in defense of their loved ones," Henry Cooper, an activist of Mexican-American descent who participated in the demonstration, told Refinery29. "People have to start...mobilizing and creating networks of solidarity and force the authorities to [make] these changes." Cooper adds, "We are asking them to enforce the law." And many feel that until the United States fixes its immigration system, what has happened in Falfurrias could happen again. "People are dying because of immigration policy," says Dr. Josiah Heyman, director of the Center for Interamerican and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. "They are very, very motivated people. They have tremendous aspirations in terms of working in the United States, in terms of joining their families."

More from Global News

R29 Original Series