Migrant Deaths Challenge South Texas

By Mónica Ortiz Uribe
September 19, 2013
Monica Ortiz Uribe
Migrants crossing through private ranch land in Brooks County, Texas leave behind clothing.

BROOKS COUNTY, Texas — The road to the United States is paved with danger for tens of thousands of immigrants who come here illegally. The latest hot spot for illegal crossings is along the southern Texas border, where immigrant apprehensions have doubled in the last four years. 

Seventy miles north of the border, in Brooks County, Texas, locals are faced with a rising number of immigrant deaths.

One of those locals is a tall, square-shouldered rancher named Lavoyger Durham. He manages 13,000 acres on El Tule Ranch, 10 miles west of the county seat of Falfurrias.  

On this ranch, the evidence of illegal immigration is hidden in a tangled cove of mesquite trees. There are dangling bras, backpacks, tuna fish can wrappers and gallon after gallon of plastic water jugs.

Durham doesn't bother to picking any of it up.  

"The reason you see all this trash here is because this is about the only way I can impress on you what is happening out here," Durham said.

El Tule ranch is off U.S. Highway 281, the main thoroughfare that runs north from the Texas border. On that same highway is a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. In order to avoid it, Durham claims, hundreds of immigrants trek across his land.

"It's rough country," he said. "You've got coyotes, you've got snakes, you got all kinds of insects."

It's also miles of oppressive heat, thorny thickets and no mercy. Often the journey doesn't end well.   

“You know it's ranch etiquette that when you see a bunch of buzzards around you have to go over there and see what's dead. Whether it's a horse, a cow, a human being,” Durham said.

For most of these immigrants, ranch land in Brooks County is near the end of a treacherous odyssey across thousands of miles. A record number of them are coming from countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Extreme violence in that region is pushing people to flee. And southern Texas is the most direct route from Central America to the United States.

In a YouTube video Durham interviews one of the immigrants who ended up on his doorstep. She got lost after escaping a Border Patrol raid on the ranch.

The video is stark, with Durham sitting, legs crossed, in a cowboy hat next to the woman who wears a grey sweatshirt and a dazed expression.

He posts these videos online so in his words, "all the gringos can understand" what’s happening. The woman tells Durham she sold her home in Guatemala to pay a smuggler to take her to San Antonio. When Durham asks why she made the journey, she breaks down in tears.

"I want to give my two daughters in Guatemala a better future," she tells Durham in Spanish. "Back home armed gangs extort you and threaten to kill your family."

But death is also a possibility on the journey north.

At the Brooks County cemetery, chief deputy Benny Martinez of the local sheriff’s department maneuvered his truck under a canopy of oak trees.

“My mom and dad's plot is here," he said. "One of my sisters and an aunt.”

This is also where the unidentified remains of immigrants are buried. The graves are adorned with bright plastic flowers and a simple metal plaque marked “unknown.” Three years ago Brooks County recovered the bodies of 20 dead immigrants. Last year the number of bodies shot up to 129. The dead are a gruesome sight.

"I really don't have the words to really describe what they look like," Martinez said. "They have a lot of insects. They're missing limbs, they're missing fingers, they're missing toes, you know, their eyeballs are gone."

Sometimes the dead will carry IDs or scraps of paper with a relative's phone number. In those cases, the county will work with the migrant’s home country to repatriate the remains. Forensics experts at two Texas universities are trying to identify the rest through DNA testing.

For Martinez, the deaths weigh heavy on his conscience.

"A lot of these people are just honest people that are coming over to work," Martinez said. "And we need to realize that. They're not trying to come over and take over the country. They wanna come and work.”

For now, human rights groups that have been working in the Arizona desert for years are beginning to help in Brooks County. In late August, they installed the county’s first remote water station. More will be put up in the coming weeks.

Illegal Crossings