Researchers overcoming major hurdles, working to identify human remains on border

Lost souls along the border

BORDER TEAM -- It’s an international effort to bring closure to families who have lost loved ones.

The Rio Grande Identification Project has spent three years trying to identify all the undocumented immigrants who have died in search of a better life in America.

Just passed the last Border Patrol checkpoint is a town 80 miles north of the Texas-Mexico border.

Falfurrias was in the national spotlight around three years ago where hundreds of unidentified human remains were exhumed from a public cemetery, the graves of the unknown.

John and Jane Does, placed in plastic bags, unlawfully buried and without notifying their loved ones they had died. It’s what prompted the South Texas Human Rights Center to open its doors in Falfurrias, and why director Eddie Canales takes a handful of distress calls every day since 2013.

“The hardest part is finding where they are,” he said.

Canales said more undocumented immigrants are dying out in the ranches than last year. A problem that has put pressure on organizations like his.

“There’s no systematic effort to try to recover remains or bodies,” Canales said.

Before Canales took KENS 5’s Border Team to the cemetery, he received another call for help.

This time it was a Honduran woman calling from North Carolina.

Her 62-year-old aunt was lost near one of these ranches. She turned to Canales claiming to have paid $5,300 to smugglers extorting her, but didn’t have enough information to help search crews find her aunt. 

“We found out that this was the valley, the county of death, the corridor of death,” Canales said.

Many of the remains are now 200 miles away in a lab at Texas State University in San Marcos waiting to be identified.

“That is a real struggle,” said Anthropology Professor Kate Spradley. “It was like having a mass disaster dropped off at our laboratory door.”

For over three years, Dr. Spradley and her team have received 195 bodies, but only identified 18 of them with 10 being sent back to their families. The progress is slow. 

“Despite the fact that we have laws in Texas that state you must have an autopsy or anthropological exam, and a DNA submission to our federal database, this doesn’t happen a lot,” Dr. Spradley said.

The challenge said Operation Identification researcher, Dr. Tim Gocha, has been compliance and coordination, not only with local government and law enforcement, but international organizations.

“This is truly an international problem, so it requires an international solution and sometimes we’re bound by national laws on what we can or can’t do,” he said.

After the discovery of the graves, Texas lawmakers tasked the Forensic Science Commission to streamline the identification process. They are faced with two major hurdles: permanent and sufficient funding and uniformity. Getting all the parties involved to follow the FBI’s national database guidelines.  That way anyone, anywhere, can find answers they’re looking for in one place.

Back in Falfurrias, Canales is not only working for the dead, but helping to keep others alive.

He replenishes water stations. Nearly a hundred of them spread out in Brooks and neighboring counties.

“Families don’t have anywhere to turn to,” said Canales. “That’s basically what motivates me in terms that the center is there for the families.”

Activists, medical examiners and volunteers across the country are placing a great amount of effort into addressing what they consider a humanitarian crisis. But getting enough people to realize that, is possibly the biggest obstacle of all.

“It really starts to hit home that these are not just numbers, these are not just nameless individuals, but people,” said Dr. Gocha. “Each one has their own story and we need to get them back to their families so that the stories can come to a peaceful end.”

“I think the worst feeling in the world would be to have a family member to walk out the door and never come back and never know what happened to them,” Dr. Spradley added.

Researchers plan to go back to Falfurrias one last time in January to conduct final exhumations of the approximately 50 unknowns remaining.  

(© 2016 KENS)


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