For several days last June, a team of students and professors from Baylor University and the University of Indianapolis rose at dawn and made their way to Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, Texas, to exhume human remains buried in mass graves. Migrants had been dying in small numbers in Brooks County for over a decade, but starting five years ago, the death toll spiked, overwhelming rural Brooks County, which doesn't even have a county coroner.
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So the team at Baylor, more than 300 miles away in Waco, Texas, has taken up the slack, recovering and trying to identify the migrants' remains. According to Lori Baker, a forensic anthropologist at Baylor, some of the bodies were buried in coffins, but others were haphazardly stacked, one top of the other, in biohazard bags or supermarket trash bags. “Nobody cares about dead immigrants,” Baker said. “They're invisible when they're alive, and they're even more invisible when they're dead.” In most cases, the remains were interred without markers or plot maps and the team had to comb through whole corners of the cemetery to find them.
Produced by Solly Granatstein and Shawn Efran for Weather Films; correspondent: John Carlos Frey.
Since 2009, the remains of over four hundred migrants have been recovered in the county. Baker believes there may be hundreds more bodies, hidden in the brush, that have yet to be found. I spent the last year investigating why so many migrants are dying here, and why so little is being done about it.
For two decades, increased border security has been the bedrock of US immigration policy. More than $2 billion has been spent to build imposing border fences cutting off the well-traveled corridors near San Diego, El Paso, and other urban areas along the US-Mexico border. The goal of the new border strategy, called “prevention through deterrence,” was to discourage migrants from crossing over — and force those who did into sparsely populated, inhospitable terrain.
If migrants were pushed out of dense urban areas, the thinking went, apprehensions would be easier. “We now have the tactical advantage,” said one 2009 Border Patrol video, “and we only need to exploit that advantage.” While the number of border crossings has since plummeted — dropping by nearly 80 percent from peak levels a decade ago — death rates have risen. At first, deaths spiked in Pima County, which runs along Arizona's border with Mexico. Then people started dying in large numbers in Brooks County, some 70 miles north of the border.
Since 2009, migrant bodies have been turning up on private ranches here by the dozens. “They started coming through here by the hundreds each day when they started putting pressure on the border,” recalls one local rancher. “The more people who come, the more who die.” I learned part of the story from Eddie Canales, a former labor organizer who now runs a tiny group in Falfurrias called the South Texas Human Rights Center. Canales and his small band of volunteers put out water stations along the migration routes, to help prevent dehydration and heat stroke. But volunteers from the Center and a local church are the only ones who do it, and they operate at the mercy of the local ranch owners.
I went to visit the county sheriff's office, housed in a tin-roofed warehouse set on a dirt lot filled with confiscated cars. The staff is beyond bare bones, with four deputies for the entire county, and only one or two on duty at any given time. There I met Chief Deputy Benny Martinez, a soft-spoken former Texas Ranger, and his head dispatcher, Diana DeLeon, a tough, no-nonsense veteran of law enforcement.
According to Martinez, the Border Patrol's Falfurrias checkpoint was the critical factor behind the lost lives. For decades, Border Patrol ran a small station in Falfurrias, but it was expanded in 2002 into a massive 23,000-square-foot facility. José R. Villarreal, Border Patrol division chief of operations for the Rio Grande Valley sector, called the checkpoint “key to the Rio Grande [Valley] as part of our strategy,” serving as backup for the agents patrolling the river farther south, along the border. “Brooks County just happens to be in one of the main corridors that involves this human smuggling,” Martinez said. “So what are they gonna do? They're gonna circumvent this checkpoint. So that creates a lot of unusual circumstances to those who are trying to cross over.”
Body recovered by Brooks County Sheriff
911 call: Border Patrol responded
911 call: No record of Border Patrol response
911 call: Known death
Source: Migrant 911 calls and death reports, July 1, 2013 - June 30, 2014, obtained from the Brooks County Sheriff's Office. Research: Cecilia d'Anastasio, John Carlos Frey, Esther Kaplan, Leticia Miranda for The Investigative Fund. Mapping: David M. Barreda for The Investigative Fund.
The 30- to 40-mile journey around the checkpoint can take up to three days on foot. During that time, many migrants get lost, injured, suffer heat stroke or become separated from their group. Once that happens, they risk death. The temperature often climbs above 100 degrees; in the summer months, the humidity hovers near 100 percent. Once, summer rains would fill streams and cool the air. For the past few years, extreme drought has meant fresh water is scarce. The migrants have typically sacrificed their families' life savings to make the journey, paying a smuggler up to $10,000 a piece. Yet, last year, hundreds were so afraid of dying that they gave up their dream to call 911, choosing deportation over death.
The Deadly Checkpoint
Read more from our award-winning series “The Deadly Checkpoint,” which captured the intense desperation experienced by dying migrants and produced a life-saving influx of search-and-rescue agents to the region.
When I asked DeLeon to let me listen to some of these 911 recordings, I found a litany of misery. In one call, a man who is breathing heavily is heard saying, in an exhausted voice, “I'm shaking him and shaking him and he's not responding. Are they arriving yet?” “They left us thrown out here,” a male caller with a faint voice says of his group. “We have been left behind for three days and have no water and no food.” A caller who identifies himself as Roberto says he's with a group of twelve that have been lost for four days and can no longer walk. He says they have a 3-year-old toddler with them, who is very ill. Another day, a woman caller says, sounding as if she is on the verge of tears, “We haven't had water and we're not going to make it.” DeLeon recalls one woman whose husband died while she was on the phone. “At the time they call they think that they're not gonna be found,” DeLeon says. “I mean their stomachs, their systems are already shutting down, their stomach is cramping. They just think they can't go anymore, so they're at their wit's end already, so they start to cry and plead, and it is just heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking. It's hard on the girls [who answer the calls]. It's hard on everybody.” It's hard on Martinez, too. He estimates that he's personally recovered at least a hundred bodies, and he is often the one to sit down with distraught family members as they look through gruesome photos that may be a daughter's or a son's remains.
Because Brooks County is not a border county, the sheriff's office is ineligible for federal immigration funds. The department's entire budget is only $687,000 a year, and Martinez estimates that he spends more than a quarter of that recovering migrant bodies, fielding calls from the public about migrant sightings and investigating the organized crime elements associated with human trafficking and the drug trade. He's only able to pay his four deputies $11.50 an hour, and recently had to eliminate their health coverage due to budget cuts. With only one deputy out in the field at any given time, his department has no capacity to serve as first responders for this flood of migrant 911 calls. By mutual agreement, that duty falls to the Falfurrias Border Patrol station.
The Weather Channel and The Investigative Fund submitted Freedom of Information requests to the Border Patrol and the sheriff's office for their radio logs for the last year related to 911 calls from migrants in distress; only the sheriff complied. From July 2013 through June 2014, the sheriff's office received a total of 600 911 calls from approximately 333 groups of migrants. As The Investigative Fund analyzed the data, troubling patterns emerged. For each call, we could see that county dispatchers had recorded the caller's GPS coordinates and landmarks and passed the information on to the Border Patrol, but in more than half of the cases, there was no record of whether a Border Patrol agent ever responded.
Without access to the Border Patrol's radio logs, it's difficult to determine the outcome of these calls. Did the Border Patrol send emergency responders and neglect to notify Brooks County dispatchers? Or did the Border Patrol fail to respond at all? We correlated GPS information from 53 of the bodies recovered from the same period, July 2013 to June 2014, and found several cases where within weeks of a migrant 911 call, with no record of a Border Patrol response, a migrant body was recovered within a mile and a half of the spot where the call originated — a distance short enough that migrants might have walked it in their final hours, or that their remains might have been dragged by coyotes or bobcats, a common occurrence. One instance occurred on July 28, 2013, when a migrant called 911 reporting that his wife was unresponsive, possibly dead, and GPS coordinates were relayed to Border Patrol. Border agents never provided emergency response, but two Brooks County deputies arrived at the scene later that night and found the migrant, Amilcar, and his dead wife, Blanca, a quarter of a mile from the call coordinates. Another occurred on August 7, 2013, when a migrant identifying himself as José called 911, saying he'd been lost for one or two days and was without food or water. His coordinates were relayed by a Brooks County dispatcher to Border Patrol. The logs contain no record of a search or a rescue. Two and a half weeks later, the skeletal remains of an unidentified migrant were recovered three quarters of a mile away from where his distress call originated. Only the Border Patrol's own logs, which the agency has so far refused to make public, would provide definitive answers to what transpired in these cases.
DeLeon says migrants often call back repeatedly to ask why they have not been rescued. “They say, 'They haven't found me yet, please call them again,'” she says. “And they'll keep calling: 'They haven't found me yet, they haven't found me yet.'” This reflected what we found in the logs, that 18 percent of migrant groups called 911 three or more times. Some called up to 7 or 8 times, or, in one case, 13 times.
Where there was a recorded response, the response times were strikingly long. In the year we analyzed, the average response time was 2 hours and 18 minutes. In one in seven cases, the delay was longer than five hours. These are risky delays for someone experiencing heat stroke. According to the Mayo Clinic, heatstroke “can quickly damage your brain, heart, kidneys and muscles. The damage worsens the longer treatment is delayed, increasing your risk of serious complications or death.” One agent I interviewed from BORSTAR, or Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue, the agency's search and rescue team, told me, “Some people, you would look and you would say this person's not doing that bad, and within 30 minutes they are crashing on you and on the verge of dying.”
A 2002 government report compiled by the Rural Task Force of Texas's EMS & Trauma Advisory Council found that for the area of Southeast Texas that includes Brooks County, rural emergency response times were 20 minutes or less 90 percent of the time. And the Falfurrias Border Patrol Station has issued press releases celebrating emergency response times as fast as 10 minutes. Yet our analysis showed that Border Patrol agents responded to migrant calls in 20 minutes or less only 4 percent of the time.
In some cases, the delays might have been related to poor GPS coordinates. Since Brooks County is rural and sparsely populated, most cell phone towers are located along Highway 281, the main north-south route through the county. The further you are from that road, the harder it may be to find a strong cell signal — and the harder it may be for Brooks County dispatchers to collect accurate GPS data. According to a list provided by Kelli Merriweather of the Texas Commission on State Emergency Communications, the Federal Communications Commission has in fact exempted certain wireless carriers in Brooks County from the FCC's wireless 911 location accuracy requirements. That said, unlike Sheriff Martinez with his small fleet of trucks, the Border Patrol has at its disposal a wide range of search-and-rescue capabilities including infrared technology, specially trained canine units, helicopters and, according to Villarreal, an elite group of more than a hundred specially trained search-and-rescue agents.
In many cases, Brooks County Sheriff dispatchers transmit not only GPS data but highly specific landmarks as well.
We pulled incidents from the Brooks County 911 logs where there were specific landmarks or intersections to guide the Border Patrol's response, and found that even then, response times were far slower than the Rural Task Force said were typical for the area. On May 2, 2014, for example, there was a call from three migrants on Road 755 by Longoria Cemetery; Border Patrol agents took 41 minutes to respond. On July 12, 2013, a woman called from the intersection of Road 430 and Road 755, but Border agents didn't respond for 1 hour and 27 minutes. And on July 29, 2013, a caller with a group of nine migrants called from the corner of Highway 281 and County Road 304; Border agents didn't respond for 3 hours and 21 minutes. When that group called for the fourth time, the Brooks County dispatcher noted, “Unit hasn't been sent out they [Border Patrol] are swamped have five pending cases.”
Entries in the logs include several other instances where Border Patrol agents indicated a lack of urgency to the Brooks County dispatchers who called to relay emergency calls. For example, on April 24 and May 26, 2014, entries note that Border Patrol told the Brooks County dispatcher that a shift change was coming up and that rather than responding to the 911 emergency call, the information would be relayed to the following shift. Multiple entries indicate that Border Patrol agents said a 911 response would be delayed because the agency was “short-handed” or “swamped.” One such incident took place last April, when DeLeon called the Border Patrol to check in on the status of a 911 caller, Luis, who was stranded next to a highway sign less than 10 miles from the checkpoint. “We just wanted to clarify on the call a few minutes ago,” DeLeon is heard saying in the audio recording. “You are all too busy so you're not gonna go out?” “No, I never said we're not gonna send anybody, but I can't afford to cut all my guys from the checkpoint for every single call,” says a Border Patrol supervisor identified as Valdez. “I cannot deplete my manpower from the checkpoint — that's what I'm telling you.”
Last June, the Border Patrol finally agreed to let me sit down with Division Chief Villarreal. He made it clear that search and rescue are central to the agency's mission here and said the agency had performed about 280 rescues over the previous year. “Everyone has basic CPR certification, First Aid certification,” he said, adding that his force also included certified EMTs who “carry all the necessary medical equipment, IVs and so on, that you would need to initially triage someone and get them out of that brushy area and get them onto a road where they can be transported by an ambulance.”
I asked him to explain the delays, mentioning that Deputy Chief Martinez had told me no rescue in the area should take longer than 45 minutes. “Well, 45 minutes, depending on the workflow that particular day, we could, we could do that, generally speaking,” Villarreal responded. “It all depends on how much workflow that day is.” I asked him about evidence in the logs that some migrants waited as long as nine hours. “Yeah, if somebody's in dire need, a nine-hour wait could be very difficult,” he said. “There may have not been enough units available. It is an expansive area.”
He went on to say that inaccurate GPS data is sometimes a problem, citing occasions when agents are deployed to the area and can't find anyone. Yet staffing was the main constraint he raised. “We'd like to respond as quick as possible,” he said. “I mean we are humans and we care about our fellow humans.” But he explained that his agents are busy with apprehensions, processing or transporting migrants to the detention center, and manning the checkpoint, “and so we may not have enough folks to effectively work out there.”
“I don't have any patience,” DeLeon, the dispatcher had told me. “On any given day how many vehicles do you see out there? Is one officer going to hurt the operations that much? They're telling me they don't have enough people when we only have one officer doing the whole county, and they have a little bit less than 200 agents in the area?”
I asked Villarreal about the case of Sigfredo and José Fernando Palomo, two brothers who crossed into the United States, and traveled into Brooks County, hoping to escape violence in El Salvador. On March 31, Fernando fell ill and the two were abandoned by their guide; Sigfredo had called 911 repeatedly as his brother Fernando lay dying. Records show that initially the GPS coordinates generated by Sigfredo's cell phone were inaccurate, but DeLeon says that in such cases, she and her dispatchers tell migrants to call back again, as each successive call helps to improve accuracy. Sigfredo called a total of five times, over more than eight hours, according to the Brooks County call logs, and for the final three hours, the GPS coordinates were accurate — in fact, they were the same coordinates used by Brooks County Sheriff's Deputy Elias Pompa nine hours later to recover Fernando's body. Yet Border agents never showed up at the scene.
“We'd have to look into — to see what happened that day, who was on duty, who was called, who took the call, was anybody dispatched,” Villarreal told me. “One death is too many out here.” He said he'd look into the incident if we filed a formal request, which we did in June. But no response has been forthcoming. Customs and Border Protection, which oversees the Border Patrol, issued only a general statement in response to detailed queries about the delays:
The Border Patrol has an elite specialty unit known as BORSTAR (Search, Trauma and Rescue) whose primary function is to find people in distress and provide medical care.
In Fiscal Year to Date 2014, which began Oct. 1, 2013, Border Patrol agents within U.S. Border Patrol's Rio Grande Valley Sector have rescued more than 300 people whose lives were at risk due to a variety of circumstances. Illegally entering the United States is extremely dangerous. Extreme weather conditions, combined with rugged terrain, can rapidly cause an individual to become distressed and die from dehydration, exertion or weather-related illnesses.
A few weeks after my interview with Villarreal, CBP issued a press release announcing that they would be adding more agents to the Brooks County area, with the goal of increasing their capacity to target criminal organizations — and save lives. Chief Martinez estimates that 150 additional agents were added; since then, migrant deaths, by his count, are down by roughly 20 percent.
“That should have been done some time ago,” Martinez said. “That should have been done back in 2012 when we had 129 die in the county. They should've come in and taken care of that.”
Through October of this year, 59 migrant bodies have been recovered in Brooks County. The factors driving migration through Brooks County remain: violence and economic destitution in Central America and Mexico, border fences that make safer routes impossible, and deportation policies that separate migrants from their American children, compelling them to cross back over into the United States. According to Martinez, the only factor within the control of law enforcement is the effectiveness of emergency response for migrants in distress. “Shame on us for allowing that to happen,” he says, referring to the hundreds of lost lives. “And I'll say us because we're part of this. You, myself and everyone else, we're part of the U.S. and we shouldn't let this happen.”
This article was reported for The Investigative Fund, in partnership with The Weather Channel. Additional reporting: Esther Kaplan. Researchers: Cecilia D'Anastasio and Leticia Miranda.