Category Archives: Human Rights, Migrant Death

Talking about the project itself


Day 4 (field) – An Evening in Roma…

Sun rise at the cemetery
Sun rise at the cemetery

In the past three days, we have exhumed three individuals from Area 2.  This means that we only have two more days to exhume the remaining two individuals buried in this area before we head back to Indiana on Saturday.  With this being said, today’s goal was to find and exhume at least one of the two remaining burials.  While this may seem like a simple goal, we were racing against the sun.  The forecast today was 97 degrees with zero clouds in the sky, meaning that in order to stay safe, we needed to work quickly and efficiently.

Dr. Latham and Haley digging the trench
Dr. Latham and Haley digging the trench

To accomplish our goals, we started by digging a trench from the Northern end of the pit towards the location of burials we removed yesterday.  We decided to dig the trench down the middle of the pit to ensure we find the remaining burials if they exist there.  Because the morning started out relatively cool, our rotations were 15 minutes long.  After a few rotations, we found evidence of another burial so we began to investigate further.  As the day drew on and the temperature continued to rise, we decreased our rotations to four minutes long.  By lunch time, we had the burial completely exposed and ready to remove.  After we removed the burial, we continued the trench Southward to look for the last remaining burial in Area 2.

We ended up leaving the cemetery at around 2pm.  Even though today was shorter than our other days, we still worked really hard to meet our goal and find, uncover, and exhume another individual.  We made the decision to leave at 2pm because it was getting too hot to safely work outside.  Before we left, we strategized about finding and removing our last burial tomorrow morning over some ice-cold Cokes.

Rio Grande overlook in Roma, TX

After we returned to the hotel and cleaned up a little, we traveled to Roma – a city West of Rio Grande City in Starr County.  This city is located along the Rio Grande and has an amazing lookout deck with incredible views of the river and Ciudad Miguel Aleman, Mexico.  While we were at the lookout, we met a very nice border patrol agent who talked with us about his job and about the river border in general.  It was about 97 degrees while we were there, so we took some pictures but quickly returned to the car so as not to get anymore sun than we already had gotten today at the cemetery.  After this visit, we went to the Mezquite Grill in RGC for dinner and the food definitely did not disappoint! We left full and very, very satisfied.

Erica's nachos at Mezquite
Erica’s nachos at Mezquite

I am looking forward to what tomorrow holds for us.  It is bittersweet because tomorrow is our last day at the Rio Grande Cemetery, however, we will leave feeling accomplished and extremely humbled if we are able to exhume all five individuals in our area so they can begin their identification process.  As for now, we are all going to get a good night’s sleep so we are well-rested and ready to take on our last day.




An Anthropological Perspective


Forensic anthropologists not only have a specific set of scientific skills (forensic archeology grave-markerand expertise in the human skeleton) and experience navigating the medicolegal system that allow us to play a vital role in the investigation of migrant deaths along the border, but as broadly trained anthropologists we are also able to approach this work in a culturally sensitive and appropriate way. We utilize the controlled and systematic approach of traditional archeological technique to recover the individuals from the cemetery while preserving the context of the burial information. We are able to analyze the skeletons and assess the living characteristics of each person (like how old they were when they died, were they male or female, how tall were they, etc…). We know that each person represents an open forensic case and approach this work in a way that preserves the chain of custody and produces proper documentation to allow for an investigation into personal identity.

As anthropologists we understand that while we serve an important practical role in the identification of the migrants, we are also situated within a very large and complex set of realities occurring not only in the Texas borderlands but also globally. Locally we must consider the various stakeholders impacted by this process. This includes the families of the missing, law enforcement, as well as the local community members (among others). Since the beginning of this project we have considered the feelings of the families of the missing. We have worked to treat the dead with respect and dignity as we work towards their identification. We are transparent with our findings and provide families of the identified with copies of the field recovery reports that pertain to their loved one as well as copies of the scientific reports, along with an explanation of what they mean and how that lead to an identification.  Invitations for us to work on these identifications come from the local medicolegal community, so our interactions with these stakeholders has been extensive. What we have learned over the years is that the law enforcement community must find ways to balance their resources, focuses and efforts between the living and the dead. They have a community to serve and protect, lives to save when distress calls come from the dessert and bodies to recover. As the number of bodies has increased dramatically over the last few years they have struggled to continue that balance as resources have not similarly increased.  While we are mindful of how we are working within a broader system and we can begin to use this awareness to guide our work, we are aware that we are only beginning to recognize how we fit into this sociopolitical landscape and that we currently have more questions than answers.

Rio Grande City Cemetery
Rio Grande City Cemetery

As we move into a new community it is especially important to consider how we are directly and indirectly impacting the community of Rio Grande City with this work. We must understand that the community, as a border town, has been entangled historically in migration issues that are shaped by larger forces of economic globalization, racial division, and various forms of privilege and disadvantage. At each step of the planning and excavation process we must continue to ask ourselves how we are influencing the community from the larger and more long lasting impacts to the daily interactions and encounters at the cemetery and in the town along the way.



Day 3 Group Picture

Day 3 (field)- Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Today was our third day in the field.  Our mission today was to uncover two more burials.  We started bright and early at 6:30am, the coolest part of any day in Starr County, Texas.  We had a slight cloud covering and a cool breeze to start our workday, which was incredibly motivating and refreshing, not to mention the gorgeous sunrise that occurred this morning.

Starr County rising sun

We began our work by removing the tarp we used to shade the 1st burial from the sun and any passersby.  The tarp worked nicely to protect the burial from the rain last night.  After removing the tarp, we began our exhumation process.  Because it was cool this morning, we each took 10 minute turns working in the pit.  We decreased our turn time to 5 minutes as the day wore on, due to the hot sun.

Removing the tarp


We removed 2 burials from the pit today.  In the morning, the dirt was softened from the rain making it much softer in consistency and easier to remove.  As we dug deeper into the pit, the soil was much drier and more difficult to get through than the top muck layer.  As we got closer to the burial, the stratigraphy took on a clay layer, which was most difficult to get through.  A mattock has proven to be completely essential in this process due to the clay layer.  It is also very fun to use.

The burials we removed today were much easier to remove than the one from yesterday.  Yesterday’s burial (the 1st) went deep into the eastern wall of our pit, making it extremely difficult to remove.  Today’s burials did not extend deep into either the eastern or western walls, making them much easier to exhume.

Shoveling down

After removing the 3rd burial from the pit, we decided that we needed to move further toward the north end of our area.  We asked Silvestre to come back with his backhoe to fill in the pit most of the way while digging the northern most wall back several inches allowing us to continue our exhumations.  As he filled in the pit with the dirt that had been removed previously, we asked him to create a ramp for us so that we could safely enter and exit the pit since our stairs were destroyed when he took down a portion of the northern-most wall.  After Silvestre finished with our pit, we cleaned up our area and cracked open our bottles of Coke.  We decided yesterday when we were at H-E-B to get one Coke for each of us for each of the next three days.  It has become our tradition to crack open a cold bottle of Coke when we finish our work for the day.  There is something truly wonderful about a glass bottle of Coke at the end of a long day.  We did a quick toast and then our group picture for the day.  Today we decided to do our group picture in the van in the A/C.

Silvestre filling in the pit

Today was an extremely successful day.  We worked efficiently and very well as a team.  This allowed us to uncover two burials and work safely.  We implemented a 5-minute work time followed by a 5-minute break.  On each break, we would drink a lot of water and reapply sunscreen.  We implemented these rules to avoid anyone having heat stroke.  These rules will be essential in the coming days as the temperature increases steadily.

I am truly amazed by my teammates.  I appreciate so much the communication they have with each other and me.  When something needs to be done, we are not offended by instruction from another person.  When we are in each other’s way, we are not offended by a “move.”  It is amazing what can be accomplished by teamwork.  I am very much looking forward to the next two days of field work.  We have experienced both trials and tribulations, but we continue to move forward, finding new and improved ways to do things along the way.  Tomorrow is a new day and I am looking forward to seeing what it brings.