Last summer, researchers made a gruesome discovery in a rural outpost nearly 150 miles from the Texas-Mexico border.
The bodies of more than 100 immigrants who succumbed to the perils of the dangerous journey north had been haphazardly buried – some in large plastic bags, their corpses mingled with others – in mass graves.
The news drew national attention not only to the dangers immigrants face but to the challenges local governments experience in dealing with the aftermath of their aborted dreams. Officials in Brooks County had been financially overwhelmed by the mounting death toll and unable to identify the corpses they often found abandoned in dusty fields of mesquite.
State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, was appalled, and during the legislative session this year, he proposed a measure that would require the Texas Forensic Commission to set up procedures for collecting DNA from corpses found within 120 miles of the Rio Grande River and helping identify the bodies.
“People need to be treated with dignity in life and in death,” Canales said. “No matter where you stand on immigration, there’s nobody who deserves to be buried in a mass grave.”
Lawmakers approved the measure as part of a larger package outlining new authorities and responsibilities for the commission that oversees the use of forensic science in criminal cases statewide. Now, the commission is trying to figure out how to gather hundreds of unidentified bodies and collect DNA evidence that will provide their families, wherever they are in the world, some answers about how and where their loved ones died. Eventually, commissioners said at their meeting on Friday, accomplishing the grim task may require state funding.
The commission has decided to broaden the scope of its identification project to the entire state. But it’s the desolate territory in rural Brooks County where the concern is centered. Each year, thousands of immigrants guided north by coyotes trek through this rough, barren landscape to circumvent the final inland checkpoint on their journey. Many, however, don’t complete the difficult trip.
“It’s some of the roughest country on the face of this earth,” Canales said. “And the result is people die.”
One of the first challenges the commission will face is simply finding all of the bodies. Dozens have been located in mass graves. Some are found on road sides and gathered by local authorities. But the number of corpses that are left on vast private ranch land to decompose in the open or buried in shallow graves is unknown.
“We have no idea how many bodies are buried out there,” said Dr. Nizam Peerwani, a commission member and the chief medical examiner in Tarrant County. “How are we going to investigate all these cases? We are just scratching the surface right now.”
Once the bodies are collected, the next challenge is a obtaining complete, usable DNA sample. To do that, usually an autopsy must be conducted by a medical examiner, but that costs money, about $2,000 to $3,000 per corpse, commissioners estimated. Small, poor counties with limited taxes bases like Brooks County, simply can’t afford autopsies on each of the bodies they discover. Instead, the corpses are often sent to justices of the peace, which are not obligated to collect DNA, before being buried.
“I think, in the end, the is state going to have to provide some financial incentive to have people collect DNA samples if they’re not going to send the bodies to a medical examiner,” said Dr. Vincent DiMaio, chairman of the commission and former Dallas County medical examiner from 1972 to 1981.
The next challenge, once DNA is collected, is to get that information into a database that allows people from other countries to access the information and help identify the person who died.
Making databases from different countries talk to one another will be yet another obstacle, the commissioners said.
“It’s more complicated than what it appears,” Peerwani said of the task lawmakers gave the commission. Nonetheless, it’s one that deserves attention and resources, he said. “This is a human rights issue.”
Reveal, an investigative news product of the Center for Investigative Reporting, has this fascinating report on the Brooks County situation. It’s worth the 20-minute listen.