FALFURRIAS, Texas – At the Sacred Heart Burial Park in Brooks County, the graves of dead migrants spread across three sections of the cemetery, topped with plastic carnations and simple aluminum markers staked into the dust.
Lacking names, they carry serial numbers and terse descriptions of the contents below. Unknown Female, reads a typical one, or Bones. Another, Skull.
The newest mounds of dirt are wedged between the road and a drainage ditch. As you can see, we’re running out of space for them, said Benny Martinez, chief deputy of the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office. It is senseless, just senseless death.
For years, the deserts of southern Arizona have been the deadliest place to attempt an illegal crossing into the United States. But the changing economics and geography of illegal immigration are taking a grim new toll in the flat, barren scrublands of South Texas, and especially Brooks County, where the bodies and scattered remains of 129 migrants were found last year.
The migrant deaths are on pace to more than double this year, and the blistering summer months – when temperatures blast beyond 100 degrees – are still ahead.
What is unusual about the crisis in Brooks County is that it is not on the border, but 70 miles north of it, where the U.S. Border Patrol has a highway checkpoint to search northbound traffic for hidden drugs and hidden people. The checkpoint, meant to enhance national security, has instead brought the border’s problems farther north.
There has been a surge in illegal migrants, mostly from Central America, trying to sneak around the checkpoint by cutting through the desolate ranches and labyrinths of mesquite brush that parallel the highway.
They arrive in South Texas by riding the freight trains up through southern Mexico and along the Gulf Coast. Smugglers float them across the Rio Grande to safe houses in border cities such as Brownsville and McAllen, then drive them north toward Houston and San Antonio along U.S. 281.
Several miles before the Falfurrias Border Patrol checkpoint, the smugglers pull over, and that’s where the migrants start walking.
They hike 20 or 30 miles through sand, thorns and withering heat, and when they get lost or their guides leave them, they collapse from thirst and exposure.
With lawmakers in Washington considering whether to create a path to legal status for the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally, there is broad consensus that such changes should be contingent on tighter security at the U.S.-Mexico border.
And along much of the 2,000-mile divide, the U.S. government can point to significant progress. It has doubled the number of Border Patrol agents since 2005 and tripled the amount of fencing. Apprehensions of illegal migrants are close to a 40-year low, while deportations by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement are at record highs. The flood of Mexican workers entering the U.S. illegally has essentially ceased.
Yet, from the vantage of the ranchers and lawmen of Brooks County, the border is not secure. And the border is definitely not at the Rio Grande.
We’ve got 400 or 500 people going through here every night, said Lavoyger Durham, who manages a 13,000-acre ranch west of the highway checkpoint. This border is wide open right now.
Motion sensors placed by the Border Patrol on either side of the highway have pushed foot traffic to more remote corners of ranches such as Durham’s. Rumbling in his pickup along looping dirt roads littered with discarded water bottles, he estimates that only one of every four bodies is ever found.
You’re lucky to spot the buzzards, he said.
The Border Patrol registered 463 migrant deaths along the Southwest border during fiscal 2012, the second-highest after 2005, when 492 bodies were found. But the overall number of people trying to cross was more than three times as high then.
From Central America
Illegal immigration from Mexico has dropped about 75 percent since 2005, the result of a stronger Mexican economy, tougher U.S. enforcement and widespread fears of the criminal gangs that dominate border towns.
But those factors have not discouraged Central Americans, whose desperation appears to be undeterred.
South Texas is their nearest entry point to the United States. Last year, the number of people arrested in the Rio Grande Valley sector whom the Border Patrol classified as Other Than Mexican jumped 139 percent, to nearly 50,000, accounting for half of all the OTMs caught nationwide. The vast majority were from Central America’s troubled Northern Triangle region: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Jairo Guevara, a scrappy, thin 18-year-old from Honduras, and a friend had set out six weeks earlier, traversing Guatemala and riding the rails clear across Mexico. They held tightly on to the tops of freight cars, some with curved roofs, along with hundreds of other Central Americans, and they saw legs and arms severed when fellow travelers drifted off to sleep and fell onto the tracks.
It is a route stalked today by kidnapping gangs and extortion crews that demand payoffs at periodic intervals, like toll collectors, charging $100 a traveler or more. The scariest part of the trip, Guevara said.
Guevara and his friend were waiting at a church-run shelter in Matamoros, Mexico, across the Rio Grande from Brownsville.
In the past, migrants could arrive at shelters in Mexican border towns such as Matamoros to rest and get water and food before jumping the line.
Not in Mat-tat-tat-a-moros, as Father Francisco Gallardo, the priest who runs the shelter there, dryly calls the city, echoing the sound of automatic gunfire. A few days earlier, armed men forced their way into his dormitory and abducted three men.
From McAllen, U.S. 281 runs straight north like a rifle shot, past some of the largest tracts of private property in Texas. The land is pancake flat and drought-parched, dotted with mesquite and verdant stands of oak trees.
Unlike Arizona’s deserts, there are no mountain ranges to orient migrants on foot, only unmarked ranch roads and cattle trails leading in circles.
Patrolling his 1,000-acre property and those of his neighbors in a new all-terrain vehicle, Michael Vickers places his binoculars beneath the brim of his camouflage cap, which read Texas Border Volunteers. Drops of dried horse blood speckles his shirt. At his side: an M-4 rifle, a scaled-down version of the military-grade M-16.
Vickers, a veterinarian, is a founder of the Texas Border Volunteers, a group that grew out of the Minutemen vigilante movement. Several times a year, the group gets together to carry out ops that involve lying in wait for migrants with night-vision equipment, radios and other military-surplus gear.
During one 10-day period in March, the Volunteers spotted 240 migrants, leading to 183 arrests, Vickers said. The group also produced a video, posted on YouTube, that shows the ghostly thermal images of dozens of people crouching in the brush mere yards from U.S. 281, awaiting their rendezvous with smuggling guides.
That’s 110 people right there, Vickers said.
Border Patrol officers acknowledge they were initially worried that the well-armed Volunteers could end up in a firefight with smugglers or traffickers. But the agency now praises the group’s assistance, and Vickers said he has personally rescued dozens of stranded migrants.
We need to stop it at the river, said Vickers, referring to the Rio Grande. We need to shut this border down before we start giving out green cards.
Like other ranchers here, Vickers speaks Spanish and has traveled extensively in Mexico, and he worked for Mexican ranchers as a veterinarian until the travel became too dangerous.
He and other exasperated landowners see it as a matter of lawlessness, with the creeping sense that Mexican criminal organizations are moving in and trying to muscle them out.
I don’t want the bodies here anymore, said Presnall Cage, whose family’s 43,000-acre property is west of the highway checkpoint. A more secure border would mean fewer deaths, he said.
Some of the migrants find their way to Cage’s ranch house, as three groups of people had done the week before. Cage has placed dozens of water faucets around his property.
I feel so sorry for them, he said. They have no idea what they’re getting into.
Last year, 16 bodies were found on Cage’s ranch.
I’ve been in law enforcement 34 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this, said Martinez, the Brooks County chief deputy, tipping his cowboy hat lower as he walked among the jumbled graves at the burial park.
I don’t know how you stop it.