All posts by strandr

Day 7: Smarter AND Harder

I’ve been fortunate to be part of Team UIndy for part of yesterday and for the full day today. I was part of the team for all of the first two digging seasons, but unfortunately wasn’t able to help for the full season this year. But because I was able to be with the team for the full day today, I figured I’d write today’s post.

Today the team started the main process of working on the first section we ever worked on here in Sacred Heart Burial Park, from 2013. This is an incredibly challenging task, because it involves moving more dirt than we’ve ever moved before, in a very small window of time. Essentially, we were tasked with developing a strategy that allowed a six-person team to completely check a plot of land that was originally searched by approximately 30 people back in 2013. We only had one gravemarker to show us where a grave could be, and we knew that we would encounter empty coffins from 2013 after we had already exhumed the individuals from inside, which could eat up our limited amount of time.

Our solution: we dug three trenches, each about a meter apart and about half a meter deep, that spanned a main portion of the plot of land and from which we will expand in the coming days. From the trenches, we could probe deeper with a T-probe to try and find coffins, and we could also probe at an angle into adjacent areas without having to dig. With this strategy, we can check all of the land with only doing about a third of the digging. And it worked.

Today we recovered two individuals, one that was marked by the aforementioned gravemarker, and the other being someone that was missed in the 2013 exhumations. We also found a few empty coffins, but were able to analyze the situation, verify that there were no individuals inside, and continue along efficiently. I made the cliche remark to Justin today, “Work smarter, not harder”, and he replied, “I hate that phrase. Every time I hear it I think ‘How about you just do both?’ “. Today was that day: we worked smart, and hard.


Helping Families Find Their Loved Ones: Long Term Cases

Out of all topics I planned on covering this blog-year, I believe this topic is probably covered the most, mainly because Team UIndy’s expertise lies in exactly this category: long term cases. However, in the past, long term cases have mostly been discussed on the unidentified persons side. This includes the exhumation process and the anthropological analysis. So, for this post, I will focus on the missing persons side of long term cases

What is a long term case? For us at the South Texas Human Rights Center, we don’t have a particularly clear definition, but a long term case can usually be defined as a case that we’ve exhausted all possible resources to find a family’s loved one. This means that we’ve evaluated the circumstances of the disappearance and have called hospitals, detention centers, Border Patrol, etc. (all only with the family’s permission) with no luck.

In these cases, we do everything we can to keep the case actively investigated. First, we conduct a full interview that covers everything we can possibly think of regarding the person who went missing and how they went missing. Our form is around ten pages long and takes about an hour to fill out. We want the family to know that any and all information is extremely important and can ultimately can lead to finding their loved one. We ask for dental records, medical records, and any other potentially identifying information. With the family’s permission, we can file a law enforcement missing persons report and enter the case into NamUs (National Missing and Unidentified Persons System), which is an online database that allows the public to search among missing persons and unidentified persons cases in order to try and find matches. If applicable, we will send the case to other organizations to see if they can do anything to help. Finally, we try and collect a Family Reference Sample, which is a DNA sample that can be compared to DNA samples collected from unidentified human remains.

Missing in Harris County Day was an excellent example of all of our efforts to assist families wrapped into a single day. And while Team UIndy discussed the day in previous posts, I want to highlight some of the key successes of the day:

– We helped ten families through the entire process. Full interviews were conducted, cases were put in NamUs, DNA samples were collected, and ultimately families were provided with resources to help them find their missing loved one. Completing all of these processes is extremely difficult for so many reasons, and rarely happens. But on Saturday, we completed these processes for ten families. That is INCREDIBLE.

– We were able to help families whose loved ones were missing, not from the US, but from other countries. This is nearly an impossible feat. But thanks to the presence of the EAAF (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team), these families could be helped.

– We were able to provide families with explanations about the entire process by allowing families to interact with experts. Again, because of the complexities of the process, families are usually left with more questions than answers after an interview or after a DNA collection. But with everyone together in one room, families could have many questions answered.

These long term cases are extremely difficult in so many different ways. And through this process, I’ve come to hold one position in higher respect than any other position I’ve witnessed: the interviewer. I am extremely thankful for the volunteers who listened to families as they told heartbreaking stories, offering condolences and an open heart to any family who needed it. These volunteers truly and honestly put the families before everything else. Some go as far as to give families their personal phone numbers to allow families to call whenever they need someone to listen. These volunteers were present at Missing in Harris County Day, and are a continual source of inspiration and hope during this crisis. I know I’ve said before that no position is more important than another, but I have to briefly disagree as I reflect on the fact that for these volunteers, helping a family ALWAYS comes first.


Finding Missing Persons: Recent Cases

For this post, I will focus on some of the more recent challenges at the South Texas Human Rights Center. Most of the work done at the center in the past focused on identifying those who lost their lives in Brooks County. Legislation was pushed to allow death certificates of the unidentified to become public record so that investigations could be made into the deaths of these individuals. Processes in Brooks County changed to make the system more efficient and effective at identifying the unknown. Collaborations were formed with other agencies and non-government organizations so that more information about those who went missing could be shared, ultimately assisting families and agencies investigating disappearances find their loved ones.

More recently, however, the South Texas Human Rights Center has played a major role in locating those who go missing within the past few days. We’ve had several success stories within the past few months where those who went missing are found alive, taken to hospitals, and ultimately reunited with their worried family members. It’s always a difficult situation, but we’re proud to live up to one of our goals: save migrant lives.

Looking for missing people along the border is extremely difficult for a number of reasons:

– the land that migrants are passing through is private ranch land. We can not search this land without permission from the owner. Ranch owners are very aware that migrants are using their land, but unlike Arizona, there  is no option to search the land without the owner’s permission.

– the land lacks specific landmarks that are easy to locate. In Arizona, the mountain ranges in the Sonoran Desert often provide a constant landmark that can be used to navigate; Texas land is flat. Migrants use phone lines, pipe lines, and fences to navigate north-to-south. This makes most missing persons reports extremely vague, simply because there are not many landmarks to reference. Border Patrol often relies on descriptions of fences (short and square shaped, tall and rectangular shaped) to figure out where someone could be.

– Combining the above information, information is vague, and even when it isn’t, is still unaccessible.

But we’ve had successes, many successes. As of today, since February of this year, we have found 28 people who were recently lost. Most of these individuals are eventually deported, but that’s a different story. At this point, what matters is that family members who call us are able to find out that their loved ones are alive. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding out that someone was apprehended last week. But often times, it takes unique collaborations between Arizona NGOs, us, and Border Patrol, to effectively locate and save someone’s loved one from an almost-certain death.

There are so many political and ethical roles that could be debated about these rescues. And for us at the STHRC, we are open to these conversations. They are important. Regardless, however, we must remember that as of right now, we are saving human lives. People are being sent to hospitals to heal. And each case involves multiple collaborations involving agencies of all kinds. Of course, if we think of systemic issues in home countries, there are many issues that still need to be addressed all over the Western Hemisphere. But we must keep in mind the small roles that we are playing in saving lives, and right now, that’s what matters.

Every day we respond to these cases. And every day I thank the individuals who talk to the families and reassure them that everything is being done to find their loved ones. I thank the multiple NGOs who stand up for the rights of these families to make sure that proper investigations and searches are conducted. I thank the Border Patrol agents who search for those who are lost. I thank the consulates who do everything they can to make sure that all agencies are are being held accountable. When it comes to these rescues, expertise comes down to experience and to patience and a heart of gold. I constantly thank those who teach me, directly or indirectly, what it means to apply skills to saving lives.