All posts by lewmanj

“Bringing Names to Numbers”

Nine. The number of days in the field. Nine days of digging in the hard south Texas dirt. Nine days bringing the remains of the nameless back to the surface; back to the light of day. Nine long, tiring days of body aches and pains.

Group photo of team members on day 1.Group photo of team members on day 2.Group photo of team members on day 3.

Group photo of team members on day 4.Group photo of team members on day 5.Group photo of team members on day 6.

Group photo of team members on day 7.Group photo of team members on day 8.Group photo of team members on day 9.

Seventy-two. The number of bodies uncovered by our efforts. The number of persons either too poor to afford what most would consider a ‘proper’ burial, or too poor and downtrodden to afford the ‘proper’ route to United States citizenship and instead paid the ultimate price: their lives.

Thirty-seven. The number of individuals whose bodies and personal effects traveled to Texas State University for forensic anthropological investigation. The number of families who we hope, through our efforts, will one day see closure.

The slogan for Texas State Universities’ Operation Identification is “bringing names to numbers”.  A New York Times article from May 2017  reported that there were 6,023 documented migrant deaths along the U.S.-Mexico border between October 2000 and September 2016 (NYTimes, 2017). It is hard, though, to picture the true magnitude that numbers entail until you see body bag after body bag being removed from the ground and placed in a cargo trailer.

For me, participation in this years Beyond Borders team really drove home the crisis that is occurring in our country. Sure, I have attended lectures on the topic, processed remains of migrants, and read articles reporting the issue, but participating first hand in the recovery of these individuals has placed it all in a new light. I recall a story told by our backhoe driver in which he told us about job-offers from the cartel and how people who mistakenly take these offers are told they will be loading cargo only to arrive and be forced at gunpoint to load semi trailers full of illicit drugs. Working class citizens, who want nothing more than money to put food on the table, roped into a massive international drug ring; not by choice but in fear for their lives. If these things are happening in the US, I can only imagine the atrocities people are facing further south where there is less security and a far lower standard of living.

When viewed in this light, it is easy to see why people will risk literally everything to cross the border by foot. Obviously not every migrant will have had direct contact with the Cartel;  this does not, however negate the fact that our country offers safeties, luxuries and opportunities that many can barely dream of… Things that for many are entirely financially and logistically out of reach by the ‘proper’ methods. Things  that are worth literally dying for.


Team photo in the field.

Day 6: The Resurgence

We have officially completed 2/3’s of this years field season in south Texas and while our bodies are entirely exhausted, our team is dedicated to completing what we came here to do: recover the remains of unidentified border crossers. Today our team started out by continuing a test trench across the middle of our quadrant. Although this area had not been noted by the funeral director as absolutely containing migrants, the lack of grave markers between graves of known individuals seemed promising. After digging down as far as 125 cm in our trench without uncovering anything but more dirt, the funeral director, Arnold returned to the cemetery telling us that the area we were trenching was a much older region of the cemetery and would definitely not contain migrants.

Overview of team members digging trenches.Refocusing our efforts elsewhere, we began trenching the northwestern extremity of our quadrant in areas pointed out to us by Arnold as definitely containing migrants. LOTS of dirt was moved today and unlike days prior in which multiple burials were located, just a single burial was located today. While this seems measly at first glance, making it easy to become discouraged (especially considering that today was the hottest day of the session thus far), eliminating regions of the cemetery is as important as finding bodies.

Moving so much dirt  without removal Deputy Don White flagging an area of interest.of remains to break up the monotony provided lots of time to reflect. Deputy Sheriff Don White, our hired security, decided to step in and help us move some dirt today. We were very grateful for his help and company. As he helped us work, he told us of a story that helped us remember our goals:

-The cemetery in which we are working is one of three family owned plots which have been divided over the years as one single family cemetery was broken up due to familial conflict. The owner of one neighboring cemetery visited this week and spoke with Deputy Don. This particular family member exhibited hesitance towards our work on the neighboring plot, but Deputy Don relayed the goal of our work and highlighted the efforts we are taking to maintain dignity and respect for all inhabitants of the cemetery recounting one particular case in which we went out of our way to uncover and reinter a particularly shallow grave at a greater depth. With Deputy Dons reassurance, this family member, no longer hesitant towards our efforts, left us with their blessing.


Day 2: I’ve Gotta Feelin’

Texas sunrise.Today we arrived at the cemetery at 6:45 am. While this was quite an early start (especially after a rather late first night), we had quite a beautiful drive from our hotel as we watched the sunrise against endless fields of wind turbines. The air was a chilly 32 degrees F on arrival, but the absence of wind made the morning much more pleasant than day one; in fact, our team began stripping our outer layers rather early in the morning as the rising sun brought much desired warmth topping out at a high of 64 degrees.

When Two team members digging a trench.our supplies arrived around 7:15 am we promptly hauled out our tools and hit the ground running. To begin our team split between the trenches we had started on day one with the goal of cleaning up their walls,  extending their lengths in either direction, and deepening them to find more potential burials. Basing our trench depths on the depth of the first body bag found in day ones test pit (~60 cm), our trenches were looking rather swell. Jessica, however, was not satisfied with the depth at her end of the western trench insisting that she had a feeling that something lied just beneath the floor despite the concrete-like soil we were encountering.  Following her gut, Jessica dug to a depth of about 70 cm uncovering the edge of another bag!

Overview of team members digging trenches.With this new depth info. on hand, we began deepening our trenches even further to ensure we weren’t missing any burials; but Jess still wasn’t satisfied and, following her gut, began digging even deeper. Call it intuition or whatever you please, Jess found the second burial of the day at a depth of about 75 cm. At this point it became clear that we could not expect uniform burial depths, nor could we trust that rock hard dirt meant undisturbed dirt so we all began digging deeper based on the combination of logic and instinct. By around 10 am Leann and Dr. Latham had discovered two more burials at depths of about 85 and 95 cm respectively. Obviously our 70 cm test pits and trenches from day one were severely lacking.

Three of the now four located burials lay in the western trench and (luckily?) they aligned with the rows of gravestones belonging to known individuals in the cemetery and occurring about every other stone. This spacing potentially left room for additional burials in between the three located burials, so we explored these areas as well and discovered an additional two burials bringing our count to six. Up to this point, we had been more concerned with locating burials than uncovering them and, as we continued to extend our trenches, Dr. Spradley from Texas State University delivered great news. The backhoe operator was just finishing up in Texas States’ southern quadrants and would have time to move dirt from our quadrant if we needed. And boy did we need it!

Armed with this new information, wThree team members mapping in trench locations.e changed our game plan. Cleaning up the gear from in and around our trenches we prepared our quadrant for Joe, the backhoe driver, and his brother Luis, his spotter. Fortunately, we had a bit of  time to do a bit of mapping before they headed over, so out came the tape measures and grid paper. Plotting each of the located burials as well as the trenches themselves, Leann, Sammi, and I knocked out the mapping in no time. In fact, we had enough time that we began to shovel shine and dig test pits in some areas of our quadrant that the backhoe would not be able to reach due to trees and headstones.

Dr. Latham watching the backhoe.Joe and Luis made it to our quadrant with about an hour of daylight remaining, and Jess was placed in charge of overseeing their efforts. As we watched the backhoe work each of us remarked at how efficient it was compared to our hand dug trenches. Within 30 minutes or less a mound of dirt larger than what we had accumulated all day had arisen. The backhoe was, in short, a godsend.

As the sun began to set, the areaDay 2 group photo. within our trenches was sufficiently cleared and a total of 13 burials were located. This leaves a ton of work for our team to complete in the coming days but with our amazing teamwork and communication, as well as Jess’ killer instincts I am confident that we can get it done in a flash.