Earlier this semester I sat with a student in my office for the first of several long conversations. His family came to the US from Ecuador when he was a child because his father had a work contract in Indiana. He graduated high school, enrolled at UIndy and is in his Senior year. While in college his family’s work visa expired and they returned home. He was able to stay to complete his degree. He hadn’t seen his parents or younger siblings since they returned to Ecuador. He was excited because his father was getting a new contract and was coming back so he was going to a hearing about the visa. The next time we met he told me his visa was denied because he is 20 years old and too old to be on the family visa. His parents and younger siblings are coming back to Indiana while he faces the reality of going back to a country he doesn’t know. Is this the story of a migrant we encountered on our trip? No, but it could be. We fight over our broken system and we blame each other for the problems and in the process, we forget these are people. Every skeleton we recover or body bag we pull from the ground is a person with a story. Whatever their story, all I can think of is being on the other end of the phone. Waiting for the call that never comes. Making all the promises to God to just let them call or just let them answer when I call. That helpless feeling of just not knowing what is going on or what to do. While the answers we provide are not what many families want, at least we’re answering the phone when their loved one could not.
All the people you read about on the blog are volunteers. They volunteer their time, use their own money and chose to dedicate themselves to answering that phone call from family members. Politics aside, the people we work with in the Texas Borderlands run the spectrum from right to left. Whoever you ask will say you cannot have an informed opinion until you spend a few days in the brush. And they all just want to bring some closure to families and return their loved one home. If you have the ability to donate to the cause here are some links:
Beyond Borders Humanitarian Forensic Science Team: Donate Here
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.
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.
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.
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.