A team of archeologists has found more than 52 unidentified bodies inside a cemetery in Falfurrias, in the US state of Texas.
The discovery of the human remains, which were inside plastic bags or in direct contact with the earth, has caused an outcry among state and local authorities, as well as the public.
Brooks County has opened an investigation into the affair and is now debating how to respond to criticism from legislators who called the burial conditions “unacceptable.”
Falfurrias is known for being a high-volume transit area for undocumented migrants crossing from Mexico into the United States.
“If we hear that word [Falfurrias], it’s probably bad news,” says Rafael Larraenza, director of Los Ángeles del Desierto (The Desert Angels), a volunteer-run search and rescue group.
The reason for the town’s bad reputation is its rugged geography and social fabric, which translates into a high risk of death for illegal migrants — either through exposure or at the hands of criminal gangs.
If we hear the word Falfurrias, it’s probably bad news”
Rafael Larraenza, director of The Desert Angels
Benny Martínez, spokesman for the sheriff’s office in Brooks County, told EL PAÍS that police and state officials would be meeting on Tuesday in Austin to determine what steps to take in this case.
“We need to know exactly who was involved in the burial of these bodies and find out what happened,” he said. “Until then we cannot speculate [...].”
A group of anthropology students led by forensic anthropologist Lori Baker of Baylor University exhumed the bodies over the course of the last two weeks as part of a project called Reuniting Families, run jointly by Texas State University and Indianapolis University.
State authorities insist on the need for an investigation
Researchers conducted 52 exhumations, yet found many more bodies than they were expecting. The exact figure is still unclear.
Since 2013, Baker’s team has been conducting this effort in order to identify the hundreds of people who have lost their lives trying to cross the border. Until now, 110 bodies had been exhumed.
In 2012, Brooks County began running DNA tests on the victims for identification purposes, as required by state law. But the sheer volume of remains found in the area means that results depend on support from projects such as Reuniting Families.
Baker and her team were surprised by the way the bodies were buried. Some were inside plastic bags, while others had no containers of any kind. All were located inside the Sacred Heart Burial Park.
The local media are mentioning the Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams funeral home, which has been tasked by the police to take care of the unclaimed bodies of undocumented migrants. Its alleged involvement in the case is still unclear, however.
The San Antonio-based TV station KSAT recently reported Baker as denying that what she found was a mass grave, and calling that term “inaccurate.” Instead she talked about several plots with co-mingled remains inside them.
But state authorities, including the senator Juan Hinojosa de McAllen and representative Terry Canales, insisted on the need for an investigation.
“There is no doubt that a crime has occurred here, and we need to protect this spot to prevent evidence from being tampered with or destroyed,” said Canales.
The legislator insisted on sending the world the message that Texas does not disrespect the dead.