August 20, 2011
by Naxiely Lopez
FALFURRIAS — Sergio Gaspar died a slow death in an area known as the desert of McAllen.
Workers at Cage Ranch found the partially-decomposed body of the Ecuadorian immigrant Monday — a day before his 35th birthday.
Half naked and already beginning to bloat, Gaspar was the 32nd victim of the violent heat and tough terrain in Brooks County this year. Deputies have counted at least 35 bodies found on the ranchlands this year.
The ranchlands, which cover 60 to 70 percent of the nearly 950-square-mile county, are known to many illegal immigrants as the desert of McAllen — even though the city is about 60 miles south of the region. The term derives in part from their lack of knowledge of the geography and also because of the sandy terrain that dominates the area.
Thousands trek the Brooks County wilderness for days at a time in an attempt to bypass the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint, where 8,074 immigrants had been caught and 251,001 pounds of narcotics had been seized as of Aug. 15.
The checkpoint is seen as one of the last hurdles for illegal immigrants heading north. Bypassing it is a daunting task.
It takes about an hour to walk a mile in the sand. With triple-digit heat and virtually no water supply, not everyone survives.
“I know them by numbers,” Maggie Saenz said of those who don’t.
Saenz, the secretary at the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office, helps keep track of the dead by keeping their individual files numbered within several binders. Pictures of corpses and human remains not intended for the weak-stomached fill the pages along with copies of other personal information.
The Sheriff’s Office must investigate every death outside of the Falfurrias Police Department’s jurisdiction, including those of illegal immigrants, said Daniel Davila, the department’s only investigator.
Border Patrol does not have the authority to investigate, said agency spokeswoman Rosalinda Huey. So the task of figuring out whose remains were found, how they died and how to notify their families falls upon the shoulders of a handful of people at the Sheriff’s Office.
“Right now it’s really hot,” Deputy Juan Aredondo said.
The 28-year-old, however, was not referring to the scorching temperatures outside of the gray 2009 Dodge pickup he uses to patrol the brush. Instead, he used the term ‘hot’ to describe the highly active season for drug and human trafficking.
Aredondo is one of two officers assigned to patrol the immense brush land of Brooks County. Aside from Davila and Sheriff Rey Rodriguez and a chief deputy, there are only eight deputies working at the office. One is stationed at the court house, while another is stationed at the school district.
Aredondo and his partner, Mo Saavedra, began venturing into the thicket in early 2009, when the newly-elected sheriff initiated the brush patrol program, said Davila, who’s worked for the department since 1994.
“At first we were only going to gather (intelligence) and not engage, but that quickly changed,” Davila said, adding that too much illegal activity forced them to take action. “It’s becoming our job.”
The sheriff’s office estimates nearly 65 percent of their workload stems from illegal border activity that manages to evade authorities along the Rio Grande.
“We spent many days just getting lost in the brush,” Aredondo said of his first months traveling through the ranches.
Slowly, however, they learned the lay of the land and began putting pressure on the traffickers. Their patrol unit soon earned the name “la troca gris” (the grey truck) among many of the small-town residents — some of whom are known traffickers.
“It’s a money-making business,” Davila said. “It seems like everybody is doing it.”
Human smuggling is especially lucrative as immigrants pay coyotes up to $5,000 to be smuggled.
“It’s an easy crime to commit because the evidence runs away with you,” Davila said about smuggling immigrants. “It’s ‘Keep up or die. Either way, I’ve got your money.’”
THE LUCKY ONES
Gaspar stripped down to his blue boxers before he collapsed underneath a tree — a last attempt at cooling his body.
“It’s not uncommon to find naked bodies in the ranches,” Aredondo said. “The heat makes them delirious and they get desperate.”
Those who get lost or left behind are lucky to survive, the five-year veteran said. He always carries bottled water and candy as well as his pistol and M-4 in his truck in case he runs into a distressed immigrant. Some of them often carry cell phones and call for help.
Finding them, however, is another problem, but the officers use whatever tools they have available. Aredondo uses his truck’s siren and horn to guide himself through a search that resembles a game of Marco Polo. The deputy will emit a sound and the immigrant, who remains on the phone with a dispatcher, will notify authorities if he or she hears him nearing the location.
Some are saved; others aren’t. Some bodies are found; others aren’t.
There is a small window of opportunity to identify the bodies before the sun takes a toll on them, Davila said. The eyes are the first to go, then tattoos become unrecognizable as the body blackens and begins to bloat.
“Two days in the sun will cook (you) pretty quickly,” Davila said. “That’s if the animals don’t get to you first.”
Some people are buried and others are abandoned, Davila said. Some have been found half eaten by animals, while only a few bones are found for others. Investigators must rely on whatever personal effects are found with the remains in order to identify them as not all carry indentifying documentation.
If Saenz knows the dead by their assigned numbers, Nora Salinas knows them by heart.
Salinas, an administrative assistant at the sheriff’s office, takes calls from families whose loved ones have gone missing. She works closely with investigators to connect the bodies of those found in the brush with their families by communicating with other law enforcement agencies, funeral homes and consulates on a daily basis.
“Yeah, they’re not going to answer your calls,” Salinas said over the phone in Spanish to a family in Connecticut searching for a relative who was abandoned next to an antenna on U.S. Highway 281 — a seemingly needle in a haystack.
Smugglers stop taking calls or will threaten the families who try to reach them for information about the lost, Salinas explained to them as she jotted down the man’s date of birth, nationality and the day he started and stopped trekking — all crucial information for the search.
“Are we going to find him?” she asked rhetorically after the phone call ended. “Probably not.”
It’s a task that weighs on her as it is sometimes difficult to separate work from home. Salinas, who sometimes is jokingly referred to as a private investigator because of her workload, recalled last year’s Thanksgiving Day, in which she walked out of her home to take a call from a family in need.
“It’s tough,” she said. “You want to help everyone, but sometimes you can’t.”
And while she tries to help others with their problems, she must also deal with her own.
Salinas’ 86-year-old aunt was killed by an alleged human smuggler Aug. 6, when the suspect drove his Suburban through the woman’s home. Salinas’s aunt was dragged about 15 feet before she died from severe head trauma near the scene of the crash.
But Salinas is not the only person in the department touched by the criminal activity in the area. A local smuggler, upset that deputies continuously interdicted his loads, allegedly hired a hitman from the Zetas Cartel to kill two officers, including Saavedra.
Authorities, however, foiled the smuggler’s plans. He pleaded guilty to smuggling operation in U.S. District Court in May.
“Yes, it dangerous,” Davila said about the work they do. “But we’re not going to let up.”