[Postcard ]The Things They Carried | Harper's Magazine

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Relying on personal effects and DNA, forensic scientists work to identify undocumented migrants who passed away in South Texas

All photographs by Alessandra Bergamin

“You can borrow a mask if you’d like to have something between you and the smell,” says Timothy Gocha, as he snaps on a clean pair of blue nitrile gloves and adjusts his surgical mask.

It is midmorning in Willacy County—the easternmost portion of Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, some forty miles from the border and abutting the Gulf—and so far, there is only a light breeze, not enough to catch a scent on, but strong enough to slowly turn the wind turbines that arch over the fields around us. This dusty, flat landscape of dying grass stretches from the base of the turbines to the dozen crucifix-topped headstones near Gocha, each four-pointed shape echoing that of the other.

“I’m okay,” I reply.

Gocha, an assistant professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas and chief forensic anthropologist at the Clark County Office of the Coroner/Medical Examiner, kneels to examine a black body bag that has just been pulled from the soil. Gocha takes a pair of scissors, slices through the plastic, and lays each side of the bag flat on the grass. On the bag’s bottom right corner is a red tag labeled “John Doe.” Inside this bag is the body of a man decomposed beyond recognition, but with enough flesh remaining for me to make out the curl of his fingers and the two silver nipple rings still pierced through his skin. From his right shoulder down to his navel is the outline of a sprawling panther tattoo, the ink faded to the point where it’s impossible to determine the finer details. As Gocha notes, there is enough flesh to see the marbled muscle that once surrounded a section of his right thighbone, which was removed for DNA testing when the body was first found somewhere in South Texas.

Gocha asks Courtney Siegert, a skeletal analyst at Texas State University in San Marcos, to note the tattoo—what it depicts and its rough placement—on a field intake notes form attached to her clipboard. On this January day, every bag pulled from the weight of the earth will be given an alphanumeric tag, an epithet for an unknown name. In this anonymity, every body is a John Doe.

I watch as students from Texas State University and from the University of Indianapolis work within a border of yellow caution tape, marking gravesites with small orange flags. A backhoe hums nearby, digging and filling trenches. Then I smell it: a pungent mix of effluent and ammonia, of something natural and something not. A sweetness follows. Death is like nothing I have smelled before.

“Hang on,” Gocha says to Siegert. “We’ve got personal effects on the outside of the body bag.”

Reaching into the body bag, he takes out a folded sheet from between the man’s legs and unravels the items one by one. He lays them across the body, and narrates a clinical description of each to Siegert as she notes each in an inventory: a canvas belt, size thirty-four; a white Aéropostale baseball cap; a t-shirt that reads mexico; Nike sneakers with rust-colored scuffs; a broken pair of wraparound sunglasses; two pesos. Less than twenty miles from the border, between being found by Border Patrol in one South Texas field and buried by the county in another, this is all that remains of a man’s life.

Since 2013, Operation Identification—the team working at this small, private cemetery now reserved for those with no one to claim them—have exhumed the remains of approximately 140 migrants across seven South Texas counties. Based out of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State in San Marcos and led by Dr. Kate Spradley, an associate professor at Texas State, the organization is an affiliation of groups ranging from the South Texas Human Rights Center to the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team. Using fragments of personhood—gold stud earrings, religious charms of St. Christopher, plastic hair combs—the team hopes to reunite families and repatriate remains with DNA samples. At the very least, its goal is to make sure these bodies amount to more than a forgotten grave in some far-flung field.

In life, these undocumented migrants have been reduced to a Trump administration election promise that projects upon their existence all of the ills of America. In death, they are zipped into body bags and buried in unmarked graves that are hidden on small cemeteries and abandoned in a country that did not want them in the first place—an ironic place to rest for eternity. Since his candidacy, Trump has rallied his base by calling immigrants “rapists,” “criminals,” and “bad hombres” from “shithole countries,” he has tweeted that undocumented immigrants “infest our country” and most recently, he has conflated immigrants with gang members by vaguely labelling everyone “animals.” But with these comments, the reality of being an undocumented migrant has also been pushed into the spotlight, one where the journey to flee violence and war is perilous and potentially fatal. This is the frontline of an American humanitarian crisis, masked as a war. For anthropologists working at the border, this kind of forensic science is not only humanist, but has become undeniably political.

Earlier that morning, I meet Eddie Canales, the executive director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, in the breakfast room of the Harlingen Country Inn and Suites. Inside the lobby, a television blares the morning edition of Fox News and the day’s headlines scroll across the bottom of the screen. One headline summarizes that Trump has revoked protections for El Salvadorans living in the U.S. with Temporary Protected Status. Canales shakes his head.

“This country has a historical animus against immigrants even though they’ve been used and abused,” he says. “The American way is a white way.”

Canales, a former labor and political organizer who has worked all over the state, became involved with the project back in 2013 when it was discovered that hundreds of migrants were missing in South Texas, many in the Brooks County area. Seventy-five miles north of the border, Brooks County was not considered a borderland. (Now, the Justice Department considers any location within one hundred air miles from any U.S. land or coastal boundary “borderland.”) Rafael Hernandez of the San Diego-based organization Los Angeles del Desierto, which searches for people who have gone missing between the U.S.-Mexico border, began receiving hundreds of calls from families in Central America whose loved ones had been last seen in Brooks County. That year alone, 129 migrants were found dead in the area.

Canales opens a map on his phone and points to the location of the inland Border Patrol checkpoint. It is just south of the town of Falfurrias, a policed checkpoint and detention facility that spans a portion of Highway 281. The land in either direction is dry, desolate brush, a combination of grasslands and ranches, watched over by scavenging birds. Even in the winter, the South Texas sun will brand your cheeks and leave you parched. For those caught in its clutches, the most common cause of death is dehydration.

About a year later, it became known that Brooks County—later joined by other South Texas counties—was not following state law when it came to unidentified remains. DNA samples were rarely taken, and even more rarely were they submitted to databases such as the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS). The reason, Spradley explains, is a lack of funding and resources. Counties in the south are some of the poorest in the state and few have a medical examiner trained to handle unidentified remains.

In the wake of this discovery, Operation Identification and the University of Indianapolis worked together on their first cemetery excavation in Brooks County; now, Operation Identification handles all digs. At Sacred Heart Burial Park, the team exhumed the remains of sixty-five unidentified migrants, the most buried at any one location in Texas. Spradley recalls that the cemetery was awash with placards for the unknown. Some gravesites contained small boxes with just a few bones. Once, they excavated the remains of a dog or a deer, buried as if it was a human.

“What we found in the cemeteries here is what you find in areas of conflict,” Canales says as we leave the hotel and drive to the work site. “It’s crazy.”

Seated at the bottom of a trench, Shelby Garza, anthropology graduate student at Texas State University, scoops the dirt from around a body bag and dumps it into a bucket beside her. This section of the Willacy County cemetery looks like a series of trenches, each one ploughed to uncover a body from the soil. The bag Garza works on is almost ready to be “pulled,” she says. It is a phrase repeated throughout the day, when a body can be lifted from the ground and carried over to Gocha’s work area.

As an anthropology graduate student, Garza has also worked at the Osteology Research and Processing Laboratory, handling the bodies of missing migrants. Before the bodies can be analyzed most are placed within a gated section of Texas State’s Forensic Anthropology Research Facility—which is designed to study human decomposition—and are left outdoors to further decompose. Then, students at the lab remove what’s left of the greying flesh and a body is reduced to a skeleton.

At the lab, ethnicity is determined by comparing skeletal and cranial measurements with a population-specific­ database. In this case, the population is Latino. The database can not only identify whether someone is Hispanic but also whether they are from northern or southern Mexico and whether they are indigenous. While this kind of data has long existed for white Americans and African-Americans, Spradley has been developing the Hispanic database for about a decade, which has since helped with the identification of migrant skeletal remains found across the border corridor. Alongside this ethnicity data, a DNA sample is taken, dental patterns are recorded, especially modifications such as diamanté adornments, and basic facts such as age, gender and height are all submitted to the NamUS database.

But more intimately, beyond who we are as a set of data—from our age and height to the many apps of the West that track everything from footsteps to the personal currency of likes—you cannot recognize someone from their bones.

Instead, it is the personal effects that help piece a person back together. At the lab, each collection of faded t-shirts, sullied sneakers, and laminated prayer cards of the Virgin of Guadalupe is hand-washed and photographed, and the photos are assembled into a sparse album. They are a final link from the dead back to the living.

As most of the team gather under a white tent for lunch, cooling down with cold water and snacking on sweet cookies dusted in cinnamon, Garza continues her work in the trench.

“What interests me is that this is really a mass disaster and no one has any idea of what’s going on,” she says. “Every individual has the right to be a human being. Everyone has the right to be recognized.”

In the first months of the Trump administration, the President triumphantly declared that border crossings “fell by an unprecedented 40 percent.” In this case, it was a statement with some truth, one borne from the cherry-picking of data that is now de rigueur. But it is also a statistic that obscures a larger problem: since the beginning of Trump’s presidency, deaths along the border have increased. During the first half of 2017, there were more than 200 migrant deaths in Texas border counties alone, a 17 percent increase from the first half of 2016. While the cause of this increase is somewhat unknown, the desire to skirt border patrol often leads migrants further into the desert where conditions can be extreme, water is scarce, and help is hard to find. But Gocha has heard the counter to this statistic too—that the border wall will save lives.

“It’s not going to stop anybody, and when you make it harder, more people will die,” Spradley responds when I mention this. “No one talks about that when they talk about border security.”

At the cemetery, Canales joins the team in the trench and digs at the dry soil compressed around the final body bag. But this bag is no John Doe. Spradley runs the name on the label, now known as Pablo, through the Missing Migrant Program database. And there’s a match. Pablo was reported missing in December 2016 and was buried by the county one month later. For more than a year, his family, who live near the border town of Brownsville, have continued to search for him, even submitting the DNA sample that would eventually bring them back together. They did not know he would be found in an unmarked grave, thirty minutes from their home.

As the sun dips into the horizon and the sky is awash with wispy clouds, the team begins to pack up. They carry shovels and tents and water coolers to trucks lining the cemetery road. The backhoe whines and sputters to an end. The fake flowers that adorn the graves of the known flutter in the cool breeze. Beneath the sky, with its orange cast that will soon darken into an inky night, lies Pablo, resting on a yellow patch of grass not far from the trench where he was buried. He has been wrapped in a clean white body bag, his name printed in black marker across its center. Half of the bag lies in the sun, radiating the warm glow it absorbs.

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