Brooks County in South Texas part of main trek by immigrants
Jul. 10, 2018
FALFURRIAS, Texas (AP) — A large blue bin filled with jugs of water on the side of a back road here had two messages written on its side.
The San Antonio Express-News reports one said "AGUA" in capital letters. The other: "Build the wall."
A persistent stream of undocumented immigrants flows through Brooks County some 70 miles north of the Rio Grande, part of the busiest Border Patrol sector in Texas, provoking both humanitarian outreach and resentment.
The Trump administration's zero-tolerance policy that separated immigrant families at the border also brought attention to other hardships facing immigrants: human traffickers, grim conditions in detention facilities and abuses at federal children's shelters.
Within the harsh brushlands of this South Texas county, hundreds have met an even worse fate.
The Brooks County Sheriff's Office has recovered 33 bodies since January, even before the worst summer heat. That puts Brooks on track to exceed last year's total of 52.
The county is ground zero in Texas for migrant deaths from exposure. It accounted for half of all bodies discovered last year in the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency's massive Rio Grande Valley Sector, which stretches from McAllen up the coast to the Louisiana border.
Since 2009, law enforcement has recovered more than 600 bodies in Brooks County.
That hasn't stopped migrants from coming.
"It's like water," Brooks County Sheriff Benny Martinez said. "Water is going to find its way through."
In the 2017 fiscal year, which ended last October, 294 immigrants died along the U.S.-Mexico border — 104 of them in the Rio Grande Sector, the most among the CBP's nine sectors.
The water stations are one of many efforts by human rights groups, the Border Patrol and the Sheriff's Office to save lives.
Immigrant activists say the Trump administration's crackdown on the border and an expansion of Border Patrol checkpoints leads immigrants to take more drastic, dangerous measures to avoid law enforcement.
"They continue to take what they presume is the path of least resistance, which is usually the most dangerous path they can take," said Bob Feinman, vice chair of the nonprofit Humane Borders, which maintains a network of water stations in Arizona's Sonoran Desert.
Two other nonprofits, Angeles del Desierto and South Texas Human Rights, have reported an increase in inquiries from family members trying to locate missing migrants since President Donald Trump took office.
Every year, nearly 50,000 undocumented immigrants are apprehended after crossing into the U.S. in the Rio Grande sector.
An untold number make it past law enforcement, and, in pursuit of family members scattered throughout the U.S., head north along U.S. 281 through Hidalgo County until they reach a Border Patrol checkpoint a few miles from Falfurrias, the Brooks County seat.
The checkpoint is expanding from three lanes to eight to accommodate the increased traffic.
Just before reaching the station, many immigrants strike out on foot, taking circuitous routes through brushland to evade the Border Patrol.
As the security crackdown on the U.S. 281 corridor continues, immigrants are being pushed farther and farther west.
"The traffic hasn't diminished at all; it's just deviated," said Rafael Larraenza Hernandez, director of Los Angeles del Desierto, a volunteer search and rescue group.
Every day in Brooks County, 60 to 70 undocumented immigrants are apprehended along highways or in the brushland.
Brooks is thick with rich soil that turns to red muck when it rains, sticking to shoes like glue. During episodes of fierce wind, sand whips dizzyingly around roots and shrubbery. Private ranches sprawl across thousands of acres bordering U.S. 281.
"If you run into the brush and you don't know where you're going to, you're going to die. It's a guarantee," Deputy Sheriff Elias Pompa said. "Once you're in the brush, there's no sense of direction, no anything. I've been in there. It's a little weird."
The Sheriff's Office has five deputies trained in rescue and recovery of undocumented immigrants — five deputies to scout 944 square miles.
Martinez estimates that for everybody they find, five go undiscovered.
Sheriff's deputies and Border Patrol agents find bodies hours, days, months and — in one recent case — almost a year after the migrants' deaths. They're found in various states of decay — from still warm, to partially decayed, to sun-bleached bone.
"You get to a point like, when does it end? Why are they dying?" Martinez said. "And are you doing enough?"
While nonprofits assert the Trump administration's strengthening of the border is leading immigrants down more dangerous paths, Martinez said this year's body count could reflect a high volume of immigrants passing through his county and his office's expanded efforts to retrieve corpses.
"It's going to be a while before we really feel how it's going to be impacted at the end of the day (by Trump's policies), how it's going to come to rest," the sheriff said.
Jason de Leon, a University of Michigan anthropologist who has studied migrant deaths along the border, said there's no comprehensive count of migrant deaths in the U.S.
"We've recorded thousands of bodies in Arizona and Texas, but we know there's probably a lot more we have not uncovered because natural conditions destroy corpses, sometimes within a matter of weeks or so," he said. "You've got a hell of a lot more missing person reports than migrant bodies."
Los Angeles del Desierto, based in San Diego, California, searches for missing migrants in a small plane in states along the border and aids in identifying remains. A few years ago, the nonprofit used to receive one call per week from people inquiring about missing family members who had crossed the border, said Hernandez, the director. Now, calls come in a rate of one per day, he said.
"After this new government, calls have increased drastically, especially in the bad areas of Texas and Arizona," he said.
Eddie Canales, director of the South Texas Human Rights, said he's also noticed an uptick in missing-person calls. The nonprofit, based in Brooks County, operates a hotline for people trying to tracking down missing family members.
"No matter how much enforcement you do, people are going to continue to come and continue to die," he said.
Humanitarian groups have set up water stations and emergency beacons on some Brooks County ranches, and the Border Patrol has installed cameras and other sensors to detect immigrants across the county. Rescuers use sandy paths in the brush to track footprints of immigrants. Last month, several of the water stations were seen graffitied with anti-immigrant rhetoric.
Organizations must coordinate with ranchers — an obstacle not present in the open desert plains of Arizona, where migrant deaths have long been an issue.
"When they tell me they have a family member there, I'm thinking in my head 'Don't say Falfurrias, don't say Falfurrias, don't say Falfurrias,'" said Hernandez, of Los Angeles del Desierto. "We have so many reports about (immigrants missing in) Texas and Arizona, zones that are extremely risky for people."
The Border Patrol's Missing Migrants program, which began as a pilot in the Rio Grande Valley in July 2016, serves as a liaison between the federal agency, Central American consulates and humanitarian groups in seeking to rescue migrants in distress. Some call the Border Patrol on mobile phones; the agency has answered 722 calls with successful rescues since the pilot began, said Hugo Vega, the program director.
In hopes of saving more lives, the Border Patrol is preparing to install signs in the brush, each bearing a unique numerical code to help locate migrants who call seeking help.
Those rescued are nursed back to health and then given due process, Vega said. Many are deported back.
In his patrol car, a cowboy hat placed delicately on the dashboard, Deputy Sheriff Pompa pointed out apprehended smugglers' cars, packed in a lot next to the Sheriff's Office.
"It can be an old car, a new car, a big car, a small car. As long as people fit in there, it doesn't matter," said Pompa, who's apprehended dozens of immigrants and smugglers in his four years here.
Some of the vehicles in the lot lack back seats. Others have rigged flooring so the truck doesn't sag from the weight of migrants crammed in the back. A handful of others are smashed and broken from a police pursuit that ended in a wreck. "Human smuggling" and "Meth 3.5 KG" are scribbled on two car windows.
Brooks County deputies have busted 80 smuggling operations this year, Martinez said. Smugglers have been arrested along the border on charges of raping and killing undocumented immigrants, holding them for ransom or leaving them behind in the brush.
Pompa recovered six bodies in his first month on the job in 2014, he said. Now, he's almost immune to the horror.
"People don't realize when you see a body on the ground, its covered with a ring of oil. If you step on it — in the beginning, I messed up a pair of boots," he said. "I had to throw them away, I couldn't get the smell off. So now I kind of know."
Last month, a migrant in her twenties called 911 from the Brooks County scrub. She was seeking help for her father, who'd collapsed. By the time law enforcement arrived, the man had died.
Pompa has photos of the man, crumpled over water jugs in the brush while his daughter embraces him. He said he shows the picture to migrants he apprehends, to discourage them from trying again.
"I tell them nicely, 'Just give up,'" he said.
In addition to the smugglers who bring migrants across the border in vehicles, smugglers based in Falfurrias wait for lost, weak migrants to straggle across the brush alone or in small groups. They often hold these people hostage and demand ransom from their relatives, Martinez said. He called this form of exploitation "secondary smuggling."
Rancher Michael Vickers and his wife found the body of a dead migrant on their property a few years back, her face decomposed beyond recognition. Her long hair was unsullied, a reddish brown the color of dried blood. It was one several corpses they've discovered on their property, he said.
A large green sign 4 miles from their home, close to the Falfurrias checkpoint, warns, "Smuggling illegal aliens is a federal crime."
Along the highways, ranchers' fences are sporadically broken and damaged from immigrants climbing over them.
"See where the fence is mashed down right here?" Vickers pointed out on his ranch. "That's all traffic coming over that fence. Those fences are very expensive."
Some ranchers with acreage at "hot spots" have given up on fencing or placed ladders for immigrants to use to avoid damage.
Vickers attached 220-volt electric wiring to his fence.
"It can't kill anybody, but you'll get a good jolt," he said.
As for the ladder option?
"I don't believe in helping them that much," Vickers said.
Vickers doesn't have water stations on his ranch because he said he thinks it's just a "display" for nonprofits to get donations. He also said it would draw more foot traffic through his ranch.
"They've set my ranch on fire numerous times, burned a toolshed down, tried to steal my horses, threatened my employees, threatened my wife," Vickers said. "There's no question they came from a bad environment, but we cannot take care of the whole world."
Jorge de Luna's family knew he was thinking about leaving. They begged him not to go. But de Luna, an electrician, was looking for a better life.
On March 20, he left. Carrying few personal items, the man from Jalisco, Mexico, trekked toward South Texas, leaving behind his wife and four kids.
His family says he's now "desaparecido" — disappeared. De Luna, 44, was last thought to be traveling through Brooks County.
South Texas Human Rights searched for him, to no avail. The Border Patrol and the Mexican consulate have no record of him either, his family said.
"I can't think that he's dead yet. I don't believe it. I won't believe it until he appears, in whatever form," said Samuel Reyes Martinez, De Luna's brother-in-law, who lives in North Carolina.
"And if he never shows up, I will just keep thinking he's missing."
Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com