Bodies in trash bags, bones in milk crates, and skulls wedged between caskets. That’s the horrific scene researchers found when they excavated a county-run South Texas graveyard for suspected undocumented immigrants last year.
Forensic scientists are now struggling to reunite the more than 120 bodies they excavated from Sacred Heart Cemetery, in Falfurrias, Texas, with their families. The process has been slow going: There’s no funding for the scientists' work, and only three people have been identified so far. Experts say this is likely how many dead migrants are buried across Texas, where this kind of treatment of the dead isn’t against the law.
Usually, counties are supposed to take DNA samples and clearly mark graves of unidentified bodies. Then they upload that DNA data to a national missing persons database. But in Brooks County, Texas, the site of the cemetery, that didn’t happen: no DNA samples were taken, bodies were buried haphazardly, autopsy reports are rife with errors, and the county only has death records for a third of the people in their cemetery.
Baylor University anthropology professor Lori Baker arrived at Brooks County in the summer of 2013 with her students, offering to help identify bodies. She expected to find maybe a dozen bodies they could work on. Instead, they dug up more than 50, in various states of decay, over the course of 10 days. The next summer, they went back and dug up another 70, some dating back more than a decade. And there are still graves left to exhume.
“It was really frustrating to see the lack of respect that the funeral home had for these individuals in their final resting place,” Baker told Fusion. “They didn’t seem to care about them.”
An investigation published in the Texas Observer last week found that the county and funeral home responsible for the cemetery likely violated numerous regulations—but because the state has very vague laws about how to bury corpses, no one was found criminally responsible.
According to the Observer's report, the county hired a local doctor with no experience as a pathologist to conduct autopsies of the bodies. And they contracted the burials to a local funeral home, Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams, which Baker said was the most to blame. “They were the ones getting paid a substantial money for the burial, between $1,100 and $1,400 dollars,” she said. “That’s plenty of money to buy an eight-dollar body bag.” The funeral home declined to comment to Fusion.
About 90 miles north of the border, Brooks County has become a (literal) hotspot for migrant deaths: hoping to avoid a border patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias, the county seat, migrants walk through scrub brush and desert, where temperatures can rise beyond 100 degrees in the summer.
But Brooks is hardly an exception; about half of the 6,300 immigrants who have been found dead near the border since 1998 are still unidentified, the Houston Chronicle reported. Baker, who has started to investigate similar cemeteries in other Texas counties, thinks that bodies of suspected migrants are treated the same way across most of the state. “It’s a bigger problem than I think most people know,” she said.
And while state lawmakers approved $2.3 million to expand the DNA database this year, there’s no funding to identify these bodies, leaving the work to volunteers: Students at Baylor and Texas State University are now trying to identify the corpses and get them back to their families. They comb through missing persons reports, take DNA samples, and share their findings with consulates in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. “It’s a pretty long process when you have a mummified body,” Baker said.
One of the corpses in the cemetery belonged to Elmer Barahona, who was 20 in June 2012 when he left his 2-year-old daughter behind in El Salvador to go find work in Houston. He made it 1,500 miles across Mexico and the U.S. border, but while running across the desert in 100 degree heat to evade the checkpoint in Falfurrias, he hurt his leg and collapsed. The smuggler helping him and others left him behind for dead. County officials found his body and threw him into the cemetery with the others.
Like other unidentified migrants who made it across the border but didn’t survive, he was left nameless and unclaimed until 2013, when researchers excavated the cemetery. They identified him thanks to a brown plaid shirt wrapped around his injured leg. His body is now in a Houston funeral home, waiting for final approval from the Salvadoran government to come home.
The identification finally gave some peace to Barahona’s family, including his aunt, Marta Iraheta, who had been criss-crossing South Texas, visiting morgues with photos of her nephew. “I felt like I was in hell,” Iraheta recalled at a 2013 vigil in Houston. She urged attendees to remember the missing, and asked for their prayers: “Pray for him, for his family, and for those that remain in the desert that came in search of the American Dream.”
Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.