Category Archives: Community

Interaction with the community of Falfurrias

After We Are Home

I’ve been home now for a little while, and everything seems out of place.  I was only gone for a week, but coming home to my apartment and seeing everything exactly how I left it before I headed to the airport felt very weird.  While the week went by fast it was so full of activity and new experiences that it felt more like a month than a week.  Before heading to Texas I had a lot of hopes and wants, but I don’t think I fully knew what I was in for.  I hoped that we would find someone and be able to do a recovery, I hoped that I would be able to handle the tough days full of walking in rough terrain, and I hoped that I would gain something from the trip that I wouldn’t be able to in other places.  Luckily all of my hopes came true, though not necessarily in the ways I expected.  We were able to make three recoveries, I definitely made it through all of our search days (though I was quite sore after a few of them), and I’ve learned so much from all of our experiences.  

Two women with backpacks walking in grass covered area
Claire and Ella in Line Search Formation
Hannah, Claire, Chastidy, and Ella clear dirt with trowels from an area
The team working to clear dirt from the search area

Going in I knew it was going to be tough, but I figured most of the difficulties would come from the physical work we would be doing.  Dr. Latham warned us about the emotional toll this work can have on people and while I was cognizant of this, I thought I would be able to deal with it more efficiently than I did.  While we were in Texas there isn’t much time to process what you are doing.  We wake up, go to breakfast, finish packing our field bags and then we’re out the door heading to our next location.  When we get done its shower time, dinner, a debrief with Dr. Latham and then looking through the pictures from the day and we’re off to bed.  It wasn’t until I got home and could finally lay down in my own bed that I really thought about what we had done this past week.  Three families will now have more closure, and be able to bury more of their relatives, even though we didn’t find every skeletal element we found more and impacted those three families in a positive way.  

The unity team walking through grass back to the truck and jeep
Heading back to the cars after a long day in the field
Ray and Don lean against a tree branch
Don and Ray supervising our work

Before I went to Texas I was thinking very selfishly.  I was hoping I would find something more so because then I could say I found something, and I wasn’t thinking about the impact it would have on others.  I was thinking it would be cool to go to a different state and get to see parts of their culture that I haven’t experienced.  Now that I’ve returned home, I think back to our trip to the Don Pedro Jaramillo shrine and reading the heartbreaking letters left for him, and finding socks out in the middle of the brush with little hearts on them or seeing your favorite snack wrappers littering the ground around a tree out in the middle of nowhere.  There are so many aspects of the trip that will stick with me forever, reminding me of how other people live and why we make the trip down to help.  I never would have guessed just how much work we would be able to accomplish in a week, and as tired as I am I would do it again in a heartbeat.  I’m so proud of my teammates and I for using our knowledge to do something good and productive, and I’m incredibly grateful to have gotten to work with Ray and Don who taught us so much, not only about the work we were doing but about how to be a good person and to use your skills to help others.  I’ll never forget our hotel breakfast meetings, flying an infrared drone on the side of the road, playing with Socks during our water breaks and getting teased by Ray and Don.  Most of all, I’ll always remember the work we did and what we were able to accomplish together.  

Taking a break to give some pets to Socks.
Taking a break to give some pets to Socks.
Five women stand next to each other in a field
2024 UIndy Beyond Borders team


Ray in the midst of a mass of trees search with the UIndy Beyond Borders Team.

Day 6: Recoveries, Records, and Reflections

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

Tall game fence on a ranch damaged from migrants climbing and bending the wires.
Tall game fence on a ranch damaged from migrants climbing and bending the wires.

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.

Don's Jeep 4-wheeling on a sand dirt road on the ranch.
Don’s Jeep 4-wheeling on a sand dirt road on the ranch.

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. 

Herd of cows following behind our vehicles as we drive through the ranch.
Herd of cows following behind our vehicles as we drive through the ranch.
Large wild cucumber found in the environment of South Texas.
Large wild cucumber found in the environment of South Texas.

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.

UIndy Beyond Borders Team day 6 photo in the field.
UIndy Beyond Borders Team day 6 photo in the field.
Using a line search to try and find missing elements scattered in the surrounding area.
Using a line search to try and find missing elements scattered in the surrounding area.

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. 

Don ready to break out the Très Leches cake.
Don ready to break out the Très Leches cake.

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.

US Border Patrol Checkpoint located in Falfurrias, Brooks County, TX.
US Border Patrol Checkpoint located in Falfurrias, Brooks County, TX.
Toasting our authentic Mexican cokes celebrating our last day in the field.
Toasting our authentic Mexican cokes celebrating our last day in the field.

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.

Team dinner at the La Copa North Ranch with Don and Ray.
Team dinner at the La Copa North Ranch with Don and Ray.

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.


Diving Into Day 3

Claire head first in a blue barrel while refilling water stations.
Restocking water stations

After a good night’s rest, we started day 3 at 7:30 a.m. Today was hotel waffle day, which is one of my favorite foods. We sat down for breakfast, had our vitamin C shots, and discussed more in depth our plans for the day. Our first activity was doing water stations with Eddie. We met up at the South Texas Human Rights Center. The South Texas Human Rights Center is adjacent to the Ed Rachal Memorial Library. Dr Latham explained the foundation has a focus on children, literacy and education. Across the street is the Brooks County Courthouse, which according to Dr. Latham is absolutely beautiful inside after its refurbushment, but unfortunately, we were not able to go inside today because it is closed on the weekends.

The Ed Rachal Memorial Library
The Ed Rachal Memorial Library
Brooks County Courthouse and park
The Brooks County Courthouse

Eddie had loaded up his truck the day before with all our supplies for our water station route. We needed milk crates, gallon jugs of water, rope, metal stakes, and sharpies. After a quick stop at the hardware store and gas station, we headed out on our route. Fortunately, for part of our route I was able to ride in the truck with Eddie and chat with him. He explained a lot of his methodologies and reasons as to why he does what he does. He uses gallon jugs because they are easiest to carry and the local HEB orders them specifically for him to purchase. He started using blue barrels to store the water jugs because they stand out within the brush and the color symbolizes water. Part of our job today was to repair or reattach the lids with new rope. This was a team effort job, but we also had individual jobs as we continued to work and get into a groove. Clair and I split times riding with Eddie so whoever was with him was in charge of carrying the milk crates full of water jugs to the water station. Once our minivan pulled up behind the truck, everyone else would get out and start their jobs. Chastidy was in charge of writing the GPS coordinates of the water station on the inside lid along with the phone number of the South Texas Human Rights Center and 911. This allows anyone who arrives at the water station to know who to call if they want to ask for help. The remaining two of us would grab any empty jugs from the water station to place back in the truck to throw away. Once we figured out our jobs, it was really easy to work quickly and efficiently. A few of the water stations needed repairs so we had to place a new stake in the ground and tie the container to the stake.

Eddie (male) speaking with the UIndy team about water stations and supplies.
Eddie speaking with the UIndy team about our water station route and supplies.
Team unloading the truck filled with water station supplies.
The UIndy team and Eddie unloading the supplies from the back of the truck.
blue barrel in front of a fence line and brush
A water station in front of a fence where a makeshift path can be seen in the background.

Recently, there has been more support from the community. At the first water station we reached, we opened it to see a case of water bottles placed inside. Eddie said it was very heartening to see support from the community and that hopefully others are starting to see the impact they can have on Brooks County. Eddie also explained how some ranch owners are willing to allow him to place water stations on their property. On a large and heavily trafficked ranch, Eddie has been able to place 30 water stations around the property with the permission of the owner.

We ran out of water after about 5 hours of work and took a short break for lunch. After our turkey sandwiches and little debbie snacks, Dr. Latham drove us to the Sacred Heart Cemetery to visit the sites they have excavated in previous trips. She gave us a brief history of the work they’ve done and had a chance to appreciate all they’ve accomplished. Sacred Heart is a beautiful cemetery where all of the family members are responsible for the upkeep of their loved one’s grave. They were all well kept with very little weeds and so many bright, colorful flowers. It is also tradition to place the loved ones’ favorite drink or snacks by their headstone. Many of them have lights so they are lit in the evenings and decorations for holidays. It was very clear to me that the deceased were deeply loved and missed by their family members.

UIndy team walking through the cemetery
Dr. Latham giving us a tour of Sacred Heart Cemetery.

After visiting Sacred Heart, we drove to the Don Pedrito Jaramillo Shrine. It was a small little church where the walls were covered in little notes, prayers, and pictures. Don Pedrito was a community leader and folk healer, or curandero, in the 20th century. He traveled on healing missions throughout the Texas-Mexico borderlands visiting and healing sick people. Don Pedrito brought together aspects of Catholicism and traditional Spanish medicine that are still honored today. People even brought their crutches or walkers in hopes that Don Pedrito will help heal their ailments. It was overwhelming to see the pain and heartache the community places on these boards in hopes that their prayers will be answered.

Don Pedrito Shrine with alters, crosses, and flowers.
The Don Pedrito Jaramillo Shrine
Don Pedrito headstone covered in decorations and flowers.
The Don Pedrito headstone
large table filled with lit candles as a prayer offering for Don Pedrito
The prayer and candle offering table at the Don Pedrito Shrine

We ended our day with a quick dinner at Dairy Queen and then later met up with Don and Ray. Don was able to purchase an infra-red drone with some grant money. He taught us how to fly it and what he uses it for. The drone picks up infra-red signals which are heat signatures from living plants, animals, and people. Don uses the drone to look for potential decomposition sites. With the help of the drone, Don is able to send out teams to do searches and recoveries for those in distress.

infra-red scan of a dog and people holding up 3 fingers
An infra-red Day 3 picture of our group taken from the drone

Overall, this was a less physically exhausting day and more mentally and emotionally challenging. Understanding how the migrants are traveling, the conditions they suffer through, and learning more about Spanish culture and traditions has helped our team grow and learn to think deeper and differently about the migrant crisis. Our Day 3 was filled with so much learning and respect for the Brooks County community. I am looking forward to the next few days!