Category Archives: Human Rights, Migrant Death

Talking about the project itself

Back of a truck with 4 individuals and a dog sitting in the bed of the truck, two men stand next to the truck

Day 5: Recovery in the Heat

Another day, another search. Today is the hottest day we will experience, with a high of 87 degrees. We start our day with breakfast at the hotel again. Don and Ray join us with coffee in hand. We chat a little before we head back to our room. At this point we all have a mini checklist that each of us go through before heading out. Wrist compass? Check. Walkies? Check. Camera? Check.

Once we feel confident we have what we need, it’s time to pile into Don’s jeep and Ray’s truck. Today it is my turn to ride with Don and Socks. I sink into the passenger seat, amazed at the number of buttons and gadgets he has within arm’s reach. Socks is excited to see a fresh face, immediately hopping up on my lap. We pull out of the hotel parking lot, and we are on way. Socks moves from Don’s lap to mine and Don starts to tell me about the areas that we pass. Don says that as soon as he shifts the Jeep into 3rd, Socks will settle in the backseat. Sure enough, as Don shifts, Socks moves at once. Originally, due to the ranch’s planned hunting excursions, we were not going to be able to search until noon. However, Don says that he has gotten confirmation we can head there early. We are about to turn towards a gate to the ranch when I see a Nilgai running along the left-hand fence. Don says it is most likely a young female Nilgai that is looking for a way inside. We pass by it, and I wonder if it will find a space to get through the fence.

Nilgai jumping near a fenced area

That thought aside, we turn into the gate and drive into the ranch. Once we drive close enough to the first search area, we all grab our packs and begin walking. We start in a line search, walking along a space that seemed to be under water at some point.

Two women with backpacks walking in grass covered area
Claire and Ella in Line Search Formation

We find some evidence of people traveling, including clothing and footprints. Ella also finds a few non-human (possibly turtle) bones, while Chastidy finds a non-human bone as well.

Black gloved had holding white elements
Non-human Elements

We search until we are pretty far from the cars. Ray recommends we settle down for a quick break to plan the route to our next location. Don plans a hike through the brush. We are headed to a location where he had done a recovery before.

2 women sitting, one standing under branching vegetation

We begin walking in single-file. Don is at the front of the line, barely letting any branches or thorns slow him down. Ray follows behind us, making sure we are still doing well and pushing us to stay hydrated.

3 individuals lined up in dirt floored area with branching vegetation
Single-File Hike

Though we have not yet reached our main search area, we get to a clearing that has more space. Don recommends that we spread out a bit and search the brush moving south.

Man holds cellphone pointing towards it and looking downward
Don Explaining His Previous Searches of the Area

Ella and I partner up making sure that we never lose sight of one another. We find various water jugs, most of which had been spray painted a dark color. We also find clothing and backpacks. We check these for anything identifying and hang the items that can still be used in branches for easy access. These are some of the most recent evidence we’ve seen since we came to Texas.

Woman holds jacket that has dirt covering it
Ella Holding a Jacket That Was Found

Up to this point, much of the items we had found were clearly discarded a while ago. Many of the clothes had holes and the food package labels had clearly been bleached by the sun. Today, however, many of the items are in good condition suggesting they had been left behind fairly recently. I am struck by where I find these items. I am dressed specifically to walk through the brutal vegetation, and yet many of these people are not. I find things in deep parts of the brush where, if you aren’t dressed the way our team is, it would be painful to hike through. I know that people traveling do this to remain unseen while they rest, but I can’t imagine the discomfort and stress they must feel.

Black sweatshirt with dirt covering parts of it, laying in grass
Dirt with some grass, clear footprint is visble

After a little while, Ray helps us group together again to head towards Don’s location. We hike again towards the next search area in a single file line. With the search area just ahead, we settle down for another break.

Man reclines in foreground with two women in the background
Water Break!

As I mentioned, Don previously recovered elements from this area and wants to search it again. The remains we are searching for are thought to be from an individual that had been traveling through this ranch. The individual had perished leaving behind his bill fold with an ID inside. Another person that was also traveling through the ranch later found the ID and decided to mail it to his relatives in Central America. The son of the deceased received the ID and was able to contact family that lived in the U.S. to begin the search and recovery process.

Don leads us over to the area and stops. He says (or rather sings), “just take a look around”, motioning to a spot near his feet. Ella looks down and sees an element that looks to be human. We begin to search the surrounding area and find two more. As skeletal elements are found, each is marked with a bright orange flag. At this point Dr. Latham directs us to begin clearing the area. We work to clear the vegetation and surface debris.

4 individuals surround a tree kneeling on the ground
Hannah, Chastidy, Claire, and Ella Clearing Vegetation and Surface debris

Ray kindly lets us borrow his knife to cut down the taller plants. Ella finds more elements as we begin to dig below the ground’s surface. Hours pass as we tirelessly search, finding 10 elements in total. As we work, Ray thankfully makes the 1.3 mile trek back to the cars in order to drive his truck closer to where we are searching. This way, we won’t have to walk back after the team finishes. Once notes and photographs have been taken, we clean up and pile into the truck. All of the student team members decide to sit in the bed of with Don and Socks. Once we make it back to Don’s jeep, we leave the ranch. We head out the same gate that we passed through earlier and head down the road. Surprisingly, the young nilgai we had seen earlier is still there. Don pulls up next to the gates and puts his jeep in park. I sit with Socks in the passenger seat. Don hops out and begins to work on getting the gate open, while Ray uses his truck to heard the Nilgai towards it. After some patience, the Nilgai runs through the gate and Don closes the gate behind it.

Happily, the group heads toward a celebratory ice cream stop. We sit in the Dairy Queen near the hotel and relax for a bit. It was great to decompress after another tiring day in the field.

5 women stand in a line, shoulder to shoulder
Day 5

Once we finish, Ray and Don take us back to the hotel where we will prepare for our final workday tomorrow. I am curious to see how tomorrow will compare.


grassy road with a rusted gate in the bottom right corner

Day 4: A Discovery

Day four started off very similar to the past few days.  We’ve gotten pretty set in our routine at this point. It’s funny how quickly we’ve settled into life at the hotel and how to prepare for a day in the field.  It feels like we’ve been here for a lot longer than four days, and at the same time its gone by so fast.  It feels like we’re just getting started and now we only have two more work days to look forward to.  We got up and were joined by Ray and Don for a hearty hotel breakfast.  We all feel a lot more comfortable with each other after a few days so we joke and chat while we drink our emergen-c and eat our fill of oatmeal and cereal.  The plan for today was to search alongside a couple backroads and then head out to a ranch for the afternoon where Don had found skeletal remains in the past.  As we headed out we got to see more of the area around Falfurrias and enjoy the plethora of goats, dogs, cats, and nilgai that roamed the area.  When we arrived at our first location we set out in a loose line search, focusing mainly on each side of the road, peering under cacti and trees searching for water bottles, backpacks, clothing or skeletal remains.  Our search there only led to a backpack and an old shirt.  When we find backpacks or clothing we typically search them for anything that can help us know who is passing through and make sure they are accounted for, things like IDs, passports, photos with names or phone numbers, etc.  Any that are in good condition we hang on a nearby tree, both so others who are searching know it’s already been searched, and so those who are passing through can grab anything they might need.  As we searched our second road, we began to hear gunshots in the distance.  The purpose of many ranches in the area is hunting, so this wasn’t surprising, but because we didn’t know which way they were shooting or how close they were, we decided the best course of action was to stop this search early and move to our next location just to be on the safe side.  

A black jacket hanging on the branch of a tree
A jacket left on a tree branch
Hannah and Ella search the edge of the road while Ray walks down the road
Hannah and Ella search the edge of the road with Ray

As we arrived at the next ranch, we paused for a snack break and to search the nearby mots (mass of trees) while we waited to ensure the hunters would be done for the day.  Immediately we could see just how much debris was in the area, and Dr. Latham called us into the middle to point out some of the stuff we haven’t seen before.  There were tuna packets, fruit cups, electrolyte drinks and juice cans spread all around.  They looked fairly new, and we’d seen this kind of thing before in our other searches, but there were also some other things that were new to us.  Many of the water bottles were spray painted with black or dark green paint, to prevent the clear plastic from reflecting light and giving them away.  

A plastic water bottle with peeling black spray paint on the ground
A plastic water jug with the remnants of black spray paint

We also saw medicine bottles, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and a cracked phone missing its battery and sim card.  Dr. Latham explained that this spot is probably a staging area where the migrants would get picked up, so what looks like garbage to many can also be seen a transition point in their journey, where they would have freshened up, ate, drank water, and prepared themselves for whatever the next step in their life would be.  I can’t imagine the emotions and thoughts that would be running through their head as they waited here.  

Dr. Latham holding a cracked smart phone
A cracked phone that was found in an abandoned backpack

We then moved into the first area Don had in mind for us to search.  He explained what he had found here in the past and pointed out exactly where he made these discoveries.  We then started walking to the brush, scanning the ground as we have so many times in the past few days.  At this point I was starting to worry that I wouldn’t be able to spot anything even if I walked by it, the possibility that we’ve walked by someone’s remains and not even noticed terrified me.  I knew clearing an area was just as important as finding someone, but I couldn’t help but question if we were doing things right, or if us being a team of rookies was the reason we hadn’t made any discoveries yet.  It took about two minutes for our luck to change.  Don called out for Dr. Latham and sure enough, the proximal end of an ulna was sticking out of the ground a couple feet from where we had begun our search.  It was as if someone had lit a fire under us, we couldn’t wait to begin our search around this area to determine if there was anything else to find.  It wasn’t long before I turned around and saw another bone sticking out of the ground, so we knew there was more here than just one isolated bone.  

Don talking with Hannah and Ella while holding sock's leash
Don explaining the background of the ranch to Hannah and Ella

As much as we wanted to immediately begin searching for more in the area, we knew we had to make a plan.  Dr. Latham examined the area and began giving us instructions.  Before long we had cleared all the brush and ground cover of an area about 7 meters long.  In the process we found more skeletal remains on the top but also more as we ripped roots out of the ground.  This told us that we would probably find more if be dug down a few inches.  That’s where we had to get creative.  In the past, when teams would find skeletal remains they would all be on the surface, so there wasn’t a need for multiple trowels and digging equipment.  We are limited in what we bring because Dr. Latham carriess all of our recovery gear in her backpack. In this case, the area we were searching was on an incline, meaning skeletal elements could have rolled down and had dirt roll down on top of them, making them a lot more difficult to spot.  We weren’t going to let our lack of trowels slow us down though.  After we formed a grid over the area to let us know where to search and were given our instructions, we did a quick search of Don’s Jeep and Ray’s Truck for what we could use.  Luckily Don had a trowel and a small shovel we could use in additon to the one we brought, so we were all set.  This was a new situation for all of us, and I can confidently say we proved my earlier anxieties wrong.  We spent about four hours working on the area and by the time we had finished we were all covered in sand, sweat, and were very exhausted.  We packed up all of our tools, hopped in the cars, and took a short drive to another spot Don wanted to show us.

Hannah, Claire, Chastidy, and Ella clear dirt with trowels from an area
The team working to clear dirt from the search area

            Don showed us an area where he had previously found a woman who had gone missing.  He explained that when she knew she was in distress, she first called her parents instead of 911 and that if she had called 911 in the first place she probably could have survived.  Ever since he told us that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about her.  Whenever I get into a difficult situation my first instinct is to call my dad.  I just assume he’ll know what to do and can help me with any issue.  Its such small decisions that can be the difference between life and death in these situations, it puts everything into perspective.  I can’t imagine having to worry about being in a different country, trying to stay hidden while also surviving long enough to get somewhere safe.  The next time my car breaks down, or my kitchen sink breaks, I’ll think about her when I call my dad for help.  The difference is my situation is just an inconvenience, while she passed away because of that decision.  I’m incredibly grateful to live the life I do and be able to help those in situations like hers.

Day 4 Team Photo
Day 4 Team Photo


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!