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.