Researchers have discovered a series of mass graves filled with the remains of unidentified migrants in a South Texas cemetery.
The researchers exhumed bodies that had been buried by the Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams funeral home from 52 plots in the Brooks County-owned Sacred Heart Burial Park Falfurrias. One plot contained three bodies stuffed inside a single body bag, another had at least five bodies in body bags and small plastic garbage bags. Other plots contained skulls and skeletal remains in biohazard bags.
The total number of people buried was unclear because the remains had been intermingled.
“I was pretty upset at the end, because this isn’t the way to be interred,” Baylor University anthropologist Lori Baker said. “The idea that all along the border there are these people buried anonymously is horrible. This isn’t even the worst we’ve seen, and it has to stop.”
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Brooks County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Benny Martinez said he will meet with the Brooks County judge and commissioners Tuesday in Austin to investigate what happened with the graves. “I’m trying to get a grasp as to why that occurred,” he said.
He added that the funeral home charges $450 to handle each body that deputies recover.
But he doesn’t foresee any criminal charges for the funeral home, he said.
“We have always been under budget constraints,” he said. “Maybe there was no money to facilitate burying the bodies.”
Brooks County Judge Raul Ramirez told The Corpus Christi Caller Times that for 16 years the county had been paying the funeral home to take care of bodies of immigrants who died crossing into the U.S. illegally.
A spokeswoman for Service Corporation International, owner of the funeral home, said in an email: “No matter if this is one of our client families we serve on a traditional basis or a migrant family’s loved one we’re serving, and we don’t have any identification of the loved one, I do want to let you know it is our policy to treat the decedent with care, to treat them just like we would treat anyone else.”
The anthropology researchers who exhumed the bodies this month include professors and students from Baylor and the University of Indianapolis who are working on the Reuniting Families project. That multiyear effort is attempting to identify the bodies of hundreds of immigrants who have died while illegally crossing the Texas-Mexico border in the past few years.
Brooks County has a high number of immigrant deaths each year. The county has recorded 33 deaths this year, 87 last year and 129 the year before that, Martinez said. The county has a Border Patrol checkpoint on the main highway north, which many immigrants and the smugglers helping them try to avoid by crossing nearby ranch land. Their bodies often are found in the unforgiving terrain.
The bodies were buried between 2005 and 2009, Baker estimated.
Baker said that when the researchers discussed the matter with the funeral home before the excavation, they were told that Sacred Heart didn’t have maps or lists showing where bodies were buried or who they belonged to. When they asked about materials used for the burials, they were shown fiberboard coffins, Baker said.
“But we are yet to find any burials using those,” she said.
Because the county is 70 miles from the border, it doesn’t receive federal funding to help with immigration issues.
“They’re so overworked,” Baker said. “Trying to keep people alive who are in distress is the county’s No. 1 priority, so they haven’t been able to make the remains one.”
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.