“They didn’t even respect the immigrants after they died”

Texas officials open investigation after discovering bodies buried in unidentified graves

Flowers for the unidentified dead.
Flowers for the unidentified dead.A.C.

The Sagrado Corazón cemetery in Falfurrias, Texas is the final resting place of the nameless individuals who put their last ounce of hope into crossing the United States border. Now their bodies, found in 52 unmarked and poorly arranged graves, are at the center of a police investigation.

The gates of the cemetery are open to whomever dares defy the oppressive afternoon heat in Falfurrias. Its alleys are adorned with flowers and wreaths. Names, dates and epitaphs testify the affection of those who keep their memories alive. But the nameless, labeled as “unidentified remains,” only receive flowers because of the generosity of strangers.

The remains were not found in one location. At first, it seemed like there were only a few unmarked tombs but there are in fact many. How many? No one knows. How were the bodies buried and who brought them here? No one knows that either.

In June, a group of anthropologists and students led by Baylor University Professor Lori Backer exhumed 52 bodies as part of the Reuniting Families project. The program identifies the corpses of dead immigrants using DNA testing. What they discovered in those graves, however, went beyond their scope. Sometimes, there were three bodies in one grave. It was clear that they had been buried carelessly, using plastic bags.

How many? No one knows. How were the bodies buried and who brought them here? No one knows that either

“They didn’t even have respect for the immigrants after they died,” says Eddie Canales, director of Southern Texas Human Rights Center. The Center assists those who have decided to cross the border and those who are looking for family members who have disappeared. “They did not act by ethical standards here and that frustrated the exhumation team. The funeral homes the government hires to bury the immigrants who die on their way to cross the border do not have any maps indicating the location of the graves.”

County Judge Raúl Ramírez said this first round of exhumations may be “the tip of the iceberg,” given what they might find if they open more graves.

Some of the plastic bags located had “Jim Hogg County” printed on them. Jim Hogg is next to Brooks County, where the bodies were found. According to the judge, this discovery constitutes one of the most severe problems of the case. “How did the bodies get there?” he asks. “Who is responsible for this? The law calls for a proper funeral with a wooden coffin. Plastic bags and different bodies piled up in one grave is not proper. What they found here is wrong and perhaps illegal.”

Twenty-eight of the exhumed bodies found in Falfurrias are awaiting transfer to the University of Texas in San Marcos.

Plastic bags and different bodies piled up in one grave is not proper”

On Wednesday, the Brooks County Commissioners Court will meet to decide how to move forward on the case. Most of the local officials involved in the investigation will be present, including public safety officers from the unit, Texas Rangers.

The court may ask the Rangers to open an inquiry - a subtle term local authorities use to avoid the criminal implications of the word “investigation.”

Brooks County Sheriff's Office Chief Deputy Benny Martínez said they had to wait for the results of the inquiry before assigning blame. Still, he said his own opinion was that the funeral homes in charge of handling the bodies were partly responsible.

“We’ll have to take it step by step and see how many times they were paid and connect the bodies with that. We pay them for a service but even if it were a favor, it’s not right to treat the dead that way,” Martínez said.

The local inquiry could kick up more dust than expected considering that Brooks has had several crises because of the number of bodies of immigrants found within county limits in the last five years.

Service Corporation International, the company in charge of some of the funeral homes in the area, tells EL PAÍS that “we have been working closely with local authorities for years to handle the situation. The remains should be treated with dignity and respect.” But the company did not respond to questions about its burial procedures.

In 2012, 129 bodies of dead immigrants were found in Falfurrias. The county found 87 last year and 33 this year. The worst is yet to come because summer is the most difficult period for crossing the border in this rough, arid region.

Judge Ramírez said burying the bodies cost the county $2,200 per person, including autopsy and interment. Local officials have tried to acquire these funds from the federal government but so far they have not been successful.

While political debates over immigration continue, each week the local government discovers new bodies in Falfurrias. Sometimes the sight of birds flying in circles over some ranch is an omen for those who come here with water, hoping to help the immigrants who have made it to the other side of the border.

This wild land does not have any pity for them. It buries them without name and leaves no memory of them behind.

Translation: Dyane Jean François

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