This is my first day back home in Indianapolis. Today I woke up naturally and not to an alarm. I was able to leisurely roll out of bed and, on my own time, and start to unpack. There’s no more sense of urgency to quickly get my things together to go out to the field and search. Although I am very happy to be back in my own bed and with the people I love, I feel a sense of longing. On the ride to the San Antonio Airport, I remember looking out the window at all the thick and thorny brush that had left cuts on my hands and clothes. I was sad that I wouldn’t be out there today with Don, Ray, Socks, and my companions. I won’t be able to see an entire night sky of stars outside, unpolluted by the lights of the city. Nor will I be out trekking through breath-taking scenic and massive ranches, searching for those who have gone missing. Being out in nature and doing something with a great purpose made me feel incredibly accomplished and motivated. Today I find it hard to be motivated to do anything, writing this reflection included. Instead, I lay here and look at some of the photos taken down in Texas. Now that I’m back here, in my normal life, I can’t help but feel ‘Did all that even happen?’
I began to think about my pre-trip reflection and my thoughts the days before the trip. I realize that I thought about the trip selfishly in the beginning. I asked: What would I get from this trip? How am I gonna handle the Texas environment? Will I be able to handle my emotions? Can I make a good contribution to the team? My initial thoughts all were about me while the realities of the crisis were a background concern. It was when we were down in Falfurrias did the crisis become my main concern. Some of these selfish thoughts permeated while we were on the trip. I felt the need to prove myself and find things in the field, take good pictures, and be professional. I needed to prove to myself that I can do this as a future job. I needed to show that it was a good decision to bring me to Brooks County. Although it was hard to push these thoughts aside, I had to realize that, in the larger scheme of things, my anxieties were no match compared to those of migrants attempting to cross into the United States. Even being at home those thoughts continue to resurface. I feel a sense of great guilt that I cannot keep these egocentric thoughts away and instead focus on the issue plaguing the borderlands.
Although I did research and read personal accounts before leaving for Brooks County, I wasn’t prepared to see the things I did and hear the stories Don, Ray, and Eddie had shared. With every heart-wrenching detail, I had to keep reminding myself that these didn’t happen decades ago, they happened weeks or months ago. While I was studying for exams for school, somebody’s child was lost, dehydrated, scared, beaten, and battered. While I ordered pizza, someone was eating the last of their canned fruit while taking a moment’s break inside a mot. Why am I safe here while others risk their lives attempting to cross through Brooks County? It doesn’t feel fair, coming back to my comfortable lifestyle in Indianapolis, while others are sleeping on trash bags outside exposed to the harsh South Texas environment. Dr. Latham had told us that we couldn’t choose to whom we were born and the privileges inherited with that. We could, though, choose what to do with that privilege. Going to Texas and working to make the very slightest change in the human rights crisis along the border is one way to use that privilege. I know that what we did in Texas was truly meaningful and, now more than ever, I want to continue to make a difference in people’s lives and ensure everyone receives the basic human rights they’re entitled to.
6:30 AM. The morning alarm goes off and we began our final day in the field. After two consecutive days of recoveries, our bodies were sore but we got up to start the day. `As we sat and ate our breakfast, I started to reflect on our time down here in Brooks County and how we can make the most of this last day. With everything packed in our field bags and full stomachs, we set off to La Copa North to meet up with Don and Ray.
Today we traveled to a ranch much further south than the ones we searched previously this week. On the drive, we got to see and learn more about Falfurrias and the neighboring town, Encino. The main industry of Brooks County was oil but it has since slowed and work moved out of the area. This is evidenced by abandoned oil derricks and gas stations all along Highway 281. As we’ve seen in other areas, there were many fences damaged. Many of the ones seen today are “game” fences. These are 8-foot tall fences made of barbed wire, used to keep animals on the ranch they come from. You can see where migrants stepped on each strand to climb and cross further into Brooks County. According to Don, most ranchers don’t bother replacing these game fences, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. After the pandemic, game fences became 4 or 5 times more expensive than what they were. Along our drive, we passed a previously busted “stash house”. These small trailers or structures are used to store migrants being trafficked across the border during the day or until they are transferred or transported. The evidence of this billion-dollar illegal industry permeates Brooks County and can be seen everywhere.
After an hour’s drive, we finally got to the gate of the ranch we will be searching. Although previously arranged with the ranch manager, the gate to the ranch was locked and the codes and keys Don had gotten for that ranch did not work for the new padlocks on the gate. While trying to find an alternate path, I asked Don why ranches replace their locks or sometimes entire gates. Until now, I had wrongfully assumed that trafficking into the United States was always done on foot and led to a pickup spot. It is not uncommon for coyotes (a person who is paid to smuggle immigrants across the Texas-Mexico border) to use vehicles such as trucks to transport migrants faster. To do this, the driver will smash through or cut through fences and gates in order to get their truck in. Ranchers in this instance must replace those to keep game from getting outside and prevent trespassers inside. This was the case at the ranch we searched today. After many attempts to call in an area with nearly no cell signal, we finally got the code for the locks and entered the ranch.
Driving through the ranch we were able to see close up the fauna of the area including a herd of cows chasing the Jeep and a massive wild hog running out in front of us. The area we would be searching was one in which Don had recovered a single cranium under a massive tree. According to Dr. Latham’s previous experience, it is not uncommon for an individual’s head to be placed within a tree so that it can be discovered. This could be done by other migrants or farmhands. It has been noted as a sign of respect that the face be pointing south. The way this element was found has led Don to believe this was not the case in this instance. We began our search by combing the area surrounding the tree the element was recovered from. After a brief search under the tree, we noticed tons of leaf litter covering the ground making it hard to see any scattered elements. After a few more searches out in the brush, we had come up with nothing other than wild cucumbers. After a hunch from Don that there was something still under the tree, we returned to do a more in-depth search. We located where the cranium was found and began to rake through the dead leaves and twigs around that area. Once we got to the dirt we proceeded to dig a few centimeters lower to see if any elements had been buried by the Texas winds. After some searching, we finally discovered an element. A single scapula approximately 5 feet from where the cranium was found. This discovery marked a new record for the Beyond Borders team: three recoveries with Remote Wildlands Search and Recovery within the same trip to Brooks County! After setting a new record we were presented with a title to our trip by Don and Ray: Operation Rebound. Finding this elements reinvigorated us to keep searching hoping to find more of the many missing bones of this individual. The searching was broken up by water breaks entertained by fetch with Socks and watching Ray and Don chopping down branches to clear the work area. After many hours of combing through litter and expanding further and further outward, we were instructed to conclude our search. Unlike our recoveries from the previous two days, we only found one element. Although disappointing, we had to understand that because of the work we did today, the family of the deceased individual can have more of their loved one returned. It is a harsh reality that many of the individuals recovered from the borderlands are not fully complete due to the animals and harsh environment. Even after two searches the most we could return was ~14% of the entire individual. With how important it is in Hispanic culture that their loved ones are together entirely, this instance is especially hard for me to come to terms with. I can not imagine the pain one’s family experiences when their loved one goes missing, has passed, and not all of them are able to be returned. This is the reality for so many families every year.
We took our final day photo and some extra photos with our guide Don, and Ray, our medic… kinda (according to a patch on his backpack). We gathered our things and took a last look around the ranch and area. While searching the ground, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact these ranches are so confoundingly massive. Being from the northeast where everyone is relatively close, the phenomenon that someone could have so much while other people have so little is odd to me. Furthermore, these thousands of acres of land hold evidence of the perilous journey that hundreds of thousands of migrants face. Without someone like Don, who has dedicated his life to solely searching the borderlands, families may never have had their questions answered and missing loved ones found and returned. For the last time, we loaded into Don’s jeep and Ray’s truck. While riding with Don I get to listen to tons of heart-wrenching stories about the people he’s recovered or instances where migrants have asked for help. The insight and information he shared has truly exposed me to the cruelty of the trafficking industry and how desperate those crossing into the US can be to escape. The depravity of coyotes can depend on whether they are paid before or after the trip. Those paid before could inflict grueling traveling conditions, abuse those they traffic, and even completely abandon the group in the wilderness to survive and travel on their own. Those paid after are more likely to take better care of their group as they get paid by them bringing everyone who paid. The unfortunate fact, though, is that migrants are at the mercy of whatever coyote they meet on their way to the border and this decision can be the factor between life and death.
On the hour ride back, Socks falls asleep on Don’s lap. I had time to reflect on all the good Don has done down here in Brooks County. He tells me his work down here is a thankless job. Families of loved ones won’t know his name and that he found and recovered their loved one. The job he does is not a monetary one, so what motivates him to keep going with searching? His answer is simply the satisfaction of knowing that, because of what he’s done, an individual can be reunited with their family to be properly honored. I aspire to make even half the difference that Don and his colleagues in Remote Wildlands Search and Recovery do.
On our way, we passed through the US Border Patrol Checkpoint which is the largest interior checkpointin the US. One at a time vehicles pull up to be inspected and either let through or pulled and questioned further. Interestingly, no facility exists on the stretch of road going south, only on the highway traveling north. We arrive at our meeting place, dismount the vehicles, and get back in the van to head back to the hotel. We have a quick toast of our authentic Mexican cokes in the parking lot to celebrate a job well done and all the accomplishments we’ve made. We spend the next hours bonding together in picking ticks off both our clothes and skin. We quickly made a final stop at HEB where we grabbed some snacks and dessert for a home-cooked team dinner at the La Copa North Ranch, made by Ray. We enjoyed a Texas staple, Frito Pie, as well as venison and cornbread. Over a piece of Très Leches cake, we discussed our thoughts on the trip, what we expected, and what we will do in the future. After a few goodbye pets to the best doggo Socks and hugs to Don and Ray, we pull out in our trusty minivan to spend a final night at the hotel.
Our suitcases packed, we prepare to return home to Indianapolis. The memories we’ve made, friendships we’ve developed, and things we’ve learned first-hand are invaluable and will stick with us for years to come. This mission to Brooks County has been one of the most formative experiences I have ever had the privilege to participate in. I thank everyone who had a hand in opening us up to the realities and work involved in the human rights crisis along the Texas-Mexico border.
Day two began with the plan to spend an entire day searching on an over 6,000-acre ranch in Brooks County. Our morning began with a humongous breakfast with Don and Ray at a local establishment called Rebecca’s Breakfast and More. Three out of the four of us decided to indulge in a plate of pancakes rather than the breakfast tacos they’re known for. We spent the breakfast sharing some of the photos we took the day before and getting to know each other a little bit more. Each of us filled our stomachs to the brim which we would need for the long day that was ahead of us.
Once we finished eating, we headed straight to the ranch that we were to spend the entire day searching on. I got to ride with Don and Socks in his Jeep where he told me about the many ranches, politics, and economics of Falfurrias. Ranches in Texas are usually passed down by lineage, but, on occasion, they are sold for millions of dollars. The owners may live on or off the property, hire a ranch manager, and sometimes a sub-manager, who often live on and handle the workings of the ranch. Many of the ranches in South Texas generate thousands in revenue via ‘for-profit’ hunting. This has led to ranchers importing and breeding exotic animals such as javelina (similar to wild hogs), a kind of Indian deer called nilgai, zebras, and even a kind of buffalo.
On a previous search of the area, Don had recovered partial skeletal remains. We went back with the Beyond Borders team to try and find some of the other elements of the skeleton. The terrain was denser and had more variety than the ranch we briefly searched yesterday. We traded the short grass and small sand hills for nearly 4-foot tall shrubs and mots (masses of trees) the size of houses. The foliage on this ranch grew to be very big and uncontained. These mots were a twisted maze of thorned branches acting as a natural barrier to the usually cooler lush center where the stump of the tree is located. We searched many of these mots during our time in the field, as evidenced by our torn flannels and long-sleeved shirts. Mots can be so thickly dense that you may not be able to see someone only a few feet from you. I experienced this confusing maze and how easy it is to get lost, panicked, and turned around. We had nearly made it through a dense mot to search for forgotten items and remains. One minute I have a clear view of my partner, and the next I duck under some trees and suddenly lose them, although I could hear them right next to me. I took one direction which appeared clear, but quickly found myself surrounded by thorned twigs and giant branches blocking my path in all directions. I knew that the outside was just a few feet in front of me and I could catch glimpses of my companions’ backpacks and brightly colored bandanas. It was then I tried to backtrack ducking under branches but in all the confusion I had lost where I was and went back and forth between the same areas (a natural reaction that tends to happen out in the borderlands). Knowing that I was lost and would not be able to navigate a way out by myself, I called over the walkie-talkies to let everyone know. Once Don got eyes on me, it became a coordinated effort to direct me to travel the less than 10 feet I was from the tree line.
Using systematic line searches of the brush and mots, we discovered several items left by migrants while traveling, including the usual water jugs, clothing, cans, and food containers but also items such as a pocket knife, a dead power bank, and a backpack in good condition with a jug filled with unclean water inside. Every time we discovered a discarded item, it made me think about the person who left that item behind. A particular stump in a mot had tons of empty fruit cups along the ground. Was this a group traveling together? How many? How long have they been traveling? Some items left confused me such as the pocket knife, but particularly the backpack with water. We have learned from Eddie, Dr. Latham, Don, and Ray that the main reason migrants die traveling to the United States is dehydration. Why then would someone leave an item versatile in carrying many things and a jug containing one of the most pivotal things needed for this journey? In thinking about some of the literature I’ve read and stories Don and Ray have told us, there could be any number of reasons why they decided to leave them. This individual might not have had the strength to carry the backpack and jug any longer. They may have recognized that the water was not safe to drink and decided to leave it behind to unload some weight. They could have likewise been spooked and fled the area quickly, thus leaving it behind. We may never know the true reason.
After stopping for a late lunch and playing with Socks, we headed back out to search more. As we trekked through the tall grass, uneven terrain, and dodged cacti, I would frequently think about the migrants who had walked where I walked. Here I am with gaiters, thick Carhartt pants, a thick flannel, and sturdy hiking boots whereas migrants may have a pair of blue jeans, a t-shirt, and tennis shoes. We are walking the same path, but for different reasons, and from vastly different positions of privilege. The drive and determination of these individuals demands respect. Respect and dignity should also be shown to those who passed away while trying to achieve a life better than what they once came from. That’s what I hope our work achieves by the end of our stay here in Falfurrias: restoring the basic human rights of those who’ve passed by recovering them and helping repatriate them back to their loved ones.
We finished our search for the day, as a team, exhausted but happy with our progress. With Don and Ray, we ate a humongous dinner at Jalisco Taqueria. With full stomachs, we left to head back to our hotel to reflect, refresh, and recharge for day 3!