Identifying someone after death is no easy task, especially if the deceased person is believed to be an undocumented immigrant. But a team of forensic anthropologists and college students are attempting to do just that, exhuming nearly a dozen human remains from a cemetery in South Texas.
What’s normally a quiet and peaceful day at Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias is much more active. A forensic team has arrived with one ambitious goal: to exhume and identify the last of these mystery human remains.
Faculty, students and volunteers from Texas State and Indianapolis University are working to get the job done.
“They are presumed migrants who crossed over the U.S.-Mexico border,” said Dr. Timothy Gocha with Texas State University.
With ground-penetrating radar and land markings, these researchers work meticulously to locate, dig, and shovel layers of soil sitting on top of deteriorated wooden coffins.
“They were buried without DNA samples taken, their deaths weren’t thoroughly investigated,” Dr. Gocha noted. “They are buried as unidentified so they have no chance of making it back to their families.”
Researchers say there are at least eight known sets of human remains needed to be exhumed with up to 30 more that could be scattered across the cemetery.
This is the third and last round of excavations since 2013. Already, nearly 200 sets of human remains have been recovered by this team. However, only about 10 percent have been successfully identified.
“That’s just individuals from Brooks County,” Dr. Gocha explained.
Dr. Gocha believes there could be up to 10 other border counties with a similar problem. And with limited resources, they are now calling on the state and federal government for help.
“I would like the state to recognize this as a mass disaster situation and I think the state needs to pay for these exhumations and the analysis of these,” said Dr. Kate Spradley, an anthropology professor at Texas State.
Missions like these have already cost Brooks County upwards of $700,000 according to County Sheriff Benny Martinez, with immigrants continuing to die in ranch lands across South Texas as they enter the U.S. in what ends up being a deadly journey.
“At the end of the day, we’re going get things done as it should’ve been done, the right way,” Sheriff Martinez said.
For those involved, it’s more than a professional responsibility, it’s a moral obligation.
“We’re just one very small piece of this huge effort to try to bring awareness to this humanitarian crisis that is happening on the border, and to try to bring some closure to the families,” said Dr. Krista Latham, a forensic anthropologist with Indianapolis University.
The team of forensic scientists are expected to spend 10 days in Falfurrias to make sure they recover all the unidentified human remains before bringing them in to the lab.