All posts by lathamke

Image of the Beyond Borders team members in Eagle Pass, TX

We Decide What to Do With the Time That is Given Us

The field of forensic anthropology has grown due to disasters. While most of forensic anthropology practice occurs on single death cases, it’s the disasters that have brought attention to and interest in the field out of the need for it to grow. Genocide and mass graves in Eastern Europe and Latin America first warranted the training of large teams of forensic anthropologists. The September 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, aircraft crashes, large fires in the western US and the prolonged mass disaster along the US-Mexico border have drawn students to the field. Once each disaster is addressed we wonder if the field will be saturated with practitioners, but there’s always another disaster. Some of them are sudden, unexpected and relatively short in terms of investigation. While others are prolonged in terms of deaths and investigations.

Team members exhuming a grave in Eagle Pass with Deputy White in the background.
Exhumations in Eagle Pass

With all mass disasters we ask “why” and “how” this could possibly happen. With the US-Mexico border crisis these questions have lingered for decades with no response. Addressing immigration policy or the global circumstances that have created the mass migration event are often out of the hands of the forensic scientists, but we can address questions of and advocate for policies that focus on the forensic investigations and analyses. For decades I’ve watched colleagues in Arizona and Texas work to find creative ways to address the large volume of migrant deaths with little state provided resources. My colleagues in Texas are not paid to do this work, they have chosen to devote their time and resources to locating, identifying and repatriating those who died crossing the border.

Two team members removing dirt from a burial with shovels.
Removing loose dirt from above the burials in Eagle Pass

What I have always struggled with, second to the fact that a large number of deaths occur on our border in the first place, is the lack of support for this work. There are always family members and friends that vocally display their lack of support for the volunteers working in the Texas borderlands. Their opposition is usually politically driven and narrowly focused.  We decide what to do with the time given us. For my colleagues it means dedicating themselves to this work daily. For the Beyond Borders Team it means shorter bursts of intensive work and immersion in this crisis.  The students learn practical forensic skills that will prepare them for a future in the field. They are being provided with an opportunity to grow and expand their skills, which should be celebrated. Yet that is often overshadowed by the context in which they are working. Every member of the Beyond Borders team has chosen to spend their time working on this large-scale identification project. They have chosen to work towards providing closure to families of the deceased and have chosen to put themselves in often uncomfortable and difficult situations in order to grow as professionals and as people.

Three team members measuring the location of a grave marker to create a map.
Mapping in Eagle Pass

We decide what to do with the time given us. We can decide to be positive and work towards positive change, we can do nothing or we can work against it.  More and more often I find myself worrying about the physical and mental health of my closest colleagues working regularly at the border. With what I experience after just short trips, I can’t begin to imagine how they feel with the daily weight of this work. So, if you see a smile out of place in our work photos, do not misinterpret it as making light of the situation. It’s usually a smile at someone we admire, a smile at someone we are happy to see, a smile at someone we are watching grow or just a smile that helps us get though whatever difficult situation we are facing at the moment.  If you have a forensic scientist or last responder in your life, take a moment to check in on them. You have no idea what they see, hear and experience on a daily basis. Whether you agree with the context of their work or not, they are choosing to make a positive contribution to society regardless of the emotional and physical toll it might take on them.

Two team members removing dirt from a burial with a shovel and mattock.
Breaking up the hard top soil in Eagle Pass

The purpose of this blog is to bring awareness to the situation in the Texas borderlands through the perspective of the forensic scientists working there. We try to provide you an insight you will not get from watching or reading the news. While there are so many challenging, difficult and disheartening things I could focus on in my reflections of our time at the border, I always try to highlight something positive.  I am so incredibly proud of the hard work and growth I witnessed in all the students at the cemetery during this trip to Eagle Pass. It was physically challenging and emotionally difficult yet they started and ended each day with professionalism and motivation, learned to work as a team, witnessed the complexity of a crisis with no end in sight, and chose to spend their time serving others in a time of crisis and disaster.

Back Home Again in Indiana

We went to bed late yesterday after a final debriefing meeting and packing. We felt good about the work we did as a team. We woke up to news that all domestic US flights were grounded due to issues with the FAA computer system. But we packed up Monica and headed toward San Antonio hoping for the best.  I’m responsible for my student team members and getting them home safely, but I’m also painfully aware that our barriers to travel are mere inconveniences compared to the those faced by many.

Our view of the sunrise as we packed the minivan for the last time

We stopped for a last round of Whataburger breakfast taquitos and decided to eat breakfast in a park at the base of the Eagle Pass International Bridge. Here we saw the Rio Grande and a wall constructed of box cars and barbed wire. The river looked clam and peaceful, yet we were facing what caused the death of many of the individuals we had just exhumed from the cemetery. This was our last memory of Eagle Pass before leaving town.

View of the Rio Grande from Shelby Park

While driving to San Antonio we were notified our first flight was delayed but not cancelled. That gave us a few hours of sightseeing and time for lunch. This down time creates a buffer between our work in the Texas Borderlands and returning to Indiana, something that is essential for the mental health of the Beyond Borders team members. There are many coping mechanisms enacted by last responders and forensic scientists who repeatedly confront things that are disturbing and emotionally challenging to interpret and better understand. In Texas and in our daily casework in Indiana I try to instill facing, rather than avoiding, the emotional response of casework.  I teach my team to rely on each other for support and to come to me with any feelings or questions they have. The hope is this will create a healthy pattern of mindfulness but I also have resources for professional help with coping strategies. So our last day of sightseeing is not meant to downplay the mass disaster situation in Eagle Pass, but is always highlighted to show some of the deliberate steps we take in making sure we stay capable of contributing to do this work.

The Alamo
The River Walk

After several delays (of both flights) we were finally headed home. Our last flight experienced a lot of turbulence, so we were all wide awake for the 1am landing in Indianapolis. Please continue to read the blog for the next week as we all post our post-trip reflections.    

Waiting at the airport


A New Year

A New Year - 2023

The New Year means saying good bye to all that troubled us in the previous year and welcoming new beginnings for ourselves and our loved ones in the new year. We make resolutions aimed at making ourselves better, healthier, more successful or more economically stable. We dare to dream and hope for all the things we think will make us happy and safe.  We send blessings of peace, love and prosperity to our family and friends. But how far do those good tidings extend? Who is worthy of this peace, love and prosperity? These are common questions for people who work as first responders, last responders and in human rights contexts. While it is said that “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members” (Mahatma Gandhi), these professionals see the worst of what people do to each other. And yes, there are bright spots, glimmers of hope that restore faith in humanity. But shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t the good outweigh the bad?

Jan 2023 Beyond Borders Team
Jan 2023 Beyond Borders Team

Each time we travel to the Texas Borderlands we highlight the amazing people we meet who are doing good and selfless things in the midst of humanitarian crisis and mass disaster contexts. But we have created a situation where we need these people. Issues of borders, migration, poverty and violence extend beyond recorded history. Yet, we have no solutions. If it were easy to fix it would have been addressed by now. Or perhaps we are just not approaching it the right way or with the right perspective. Part of why my team returns year after year is a practical and applied reason: to volunteer a specialty service that fills a need in the current crisis situation. Part of it is to expose the next generation to a situation they have a platform to address. The next generation sees the world differently than we do and I am continuously surprised by their innovative ideas and approaches to complex situations. They will be the change we see and we need.

Grave marker from Falfurrias, TX
Grave marker from Falfurrias, TX

During this trip we will be returning to cemetery exhumations for the first time since January 2019. We will be working closely with colleagues from Texas State University, Remote Wildlands Search and Recovery and the South Texas Human Rights Center. We will also be meeting new colleagues from the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Exhumations are hard work physically and mentally because it will bring the team face to face with the victims of the border crisis. We will be in a new county and faced with many new experiences over the next week. All we can hope is that we contribute in some way to positive change and progress.

Thank you for supporting us and coming back each day to read about what we are doing and to learn more about the situation in the Texas Borderlands.