by Ricky Jervis
Each year dozens of illegal immigrants are found dead along the U.S.-Mexican border, usually from sweltering heat or from bullets fired by human smugglers
FALFURRIAS, Texas – Deputy Rolando Gutierrez knew he’d be breaking up domestic disputes and handing out speeding tickets as part of his duties when he joined the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office two years ago.
He didn’t expect all the bodies. Several times a week, Gutierrez is called out on a “Code 500” – the department’s call sign for a dead body found in the county. The bodies are believed to be immigrants crossing into the USA illegally from the nearby border with Mexico who are either killed and left behind by smugglers or die in the withering heat.
Their numbers are rising at a startling rate. Deputies picked up 129 bodies last year, a nearly 100% jump from 2011 and the most ever recorded in the county, according to sheriff’s office statistics.Brooks County contributed to nearly one-third of all the bodies recovered across the entire 2,000-mile U.S. border with Mexico last year. This year, deputies have found 39 bodies and are on pace to surpass last year’s tally, given that most of the cadavers show up in the hot months of July, August and September. There are more immigrants dying in Brooks County than in any other place in Texas.
“We’ve been busier than ever this year,” Gutierrez said. “A lot of people don’t know what’s happening out here. There doesn’t seem to be an end to it.”
The bodies of Brooks County point to a disturbing trend: more people dying as they try to enter the USA illegally even as the overall number of illegal immigrants declines. Last year, U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended 365,000 people trying to cross illegally into the USA, significantly down from a peak of 1.7 million in 2000, according to the Border Patrol.
Last fiscal year, border agents counted 476 bodies of undocumented immigrants, up from 380 in 2000. Since October, agents have tallied 380 bodies.
The immigration bill recently passed by the Senate calls for an influx of 20,000 agents at the border, along with more drones, helicopters and technology to try to staunch the flow of illegal crossings even further. The Border Patrol has already doubled the number of agents on staff, from 10,000 in 2004 to 20,700 today. The House is reviewing the Senate bill.
An influx of agents and technology could potentially push immigrants into more treacherous terrain, leading to more deaths, said Guadalupe Correa-Cabrera, chair of the government department at the University of Texas-Brownsville, who has researched border issues. Increasingly, human smuggling has been taken over by Mexican drug syndicates, most notably the Zetas and Gulf cartels, which force smugglers through the most arid, dangerous stretches of South Texas, she said.
The rise in the death count even as more agents were added to the border shows that increased manpower is not the answer, Correa-Cabrera said.
“They’re arresting the people who cross but not the people who are allowing them to cross,” she said. “Falfurrias right now is a like a giant cemetery.”
Immigrants illegally cross into southern Texas around the McAllen area, then smugglers drive them up SR 281 until they near a highway checkpoint about 17 miles south of Falfurrias, Gutierrez said. From there, they fan out on foot and cross through vast private ranches full of oak trees, shrubs, sand dunes and thorn-covered mesquite trees – treacherous terrain for even the fittest individuals, he said.
The immigrants often wear several layers of black clothing – warm-up pants under jeans and sweaters under long-sleeved shirts – so they don’t get sliced up while fleeing agents through the thorn-filled brush, Gutierrez said. Those extra layers of clothing often lead to bodies overheating and dehydrating in temperatures that climb into the 100s by 11 a.m., he said. Authorities often find bodies stripped down to their underwear because the victims tried desperately to peel off the extra layers before succumbing to the heat. Some bodies are neatly buried under shade trees, to keep the remains away from turkey vultures and javelina, Gutierrez said. Others are dragged into the middle of dirt roads to be more easily found by passersby.
On a recent morning, Gutierrez got a call for a Code 500 in the Las Dos Palomas Ranch, a 15,000-acre ranch west of town where visitors pay to hunt white-tailed deer and wild turkey. En route, he picked up Roel Villarreal, one of four Brooks County justices of the peace charged with leading the inquest and declaring time and cause of death.
The body was about 4 miles from the main highway, sprawled in a clearing surrounded by oak trees and dried shrubs. The victim was dressed in jeans and a black sweater. The skull was visible and intact except for a missing bottom jawbone. Gutierrez guessed it was a female from the size-5½ hiking boots, but he couldn’t be sure. The person had been dead for about a week and a half.
Gutierrez took pictures and searched the surrounding area for clues. In the victim’s pockets were a comb, roll of toilet paper and a handkerchief. No ID. The body was carefully placed in a black body bag and transported to a funeral home. It then went 80 miles south to a funeral home in Mission, Texas, where officials and anthropologists tried to identify the remains by matching them to missing person lists or running DNA samples.
Under a tree about 75 feet away from the body, Gutierrez found the bottom jawbone, along with a lock of black hair. Both were carefully placed with the remains for DNA testing. Time of death was noted: “1:45 p.m.” Cause of death: “Exposure to the elements.”
Gutierrez said he’s become accustomed to the bodies, but some stick with him longer than others. Such as a young man, maybe 19, found last year on another ranch. He had stripped down to his underwear, folded his clothes neatly next to him and curled up to die under a mesquite tree 15 yards from a freshwater pond. Or the brother and sister from El Salvador left behind by a band of smugglers. When the sister collapsed, the brother stayed with her, urging her to keep going. She died, and he jogged to a main highway to flag down a deputy.
“Sometimes they have lists of names with them, and we could contact a relative,” Gutierrez said. “Sometimes they don’t have anything.”
Chief Deputy Benny Martinez said his deputies don’t talk much about the bodies, but he sees on their faces how they take their toll. The sheer number of them – some deputies process two or three in a day – wreaks havoc on his department, Martinez said.
More agents on the border would help, but they wouldn’t stop immigrants from enduring harder and tougher terrain to get into the USA, he said. He’d much rather see them simply drive up SR 281.
“For them to die, just to try to better themselves, that’s not the way to go,” Martinez said. “Not in this country.”