Monday, October 8, 2012

‘Angels’ search for migrants’ bodies

The Brownsville Herald
October 7, 2012
by Ildefonso Ortiz

FALFURRIAS — Miles and miles of brush filled with hidden dangers, dehydration and high temperatures line the road awaiting many undocumented immigrants who try to circumvent U.S. Border Patrol checkpoints in Falfurrias and Sarita.

The trek has led many of those migrants to graves that line the municipal cemetery in Falfurrias.Small metal plaques that read “unknown male remains” or “unknown female remains” mark the end of the journey for many immigrants and leave their families back home with questions about their fate.

“The bodies here are just the ones that have been found and most of the time they are found only by accident,” said Rafael Hernandez, the director of Angeles Del Desierto, a nonprofit that searches inhospitable areas looking for stranded migrants — and their bodies.

While the group is based in California, the repeated calls that it receives about migrants traveling through the Rio Grande Valley prompted Hernandez to make the drive east in an effort to establish the networks needed to have his group search the areas around the checkpoint.

“I have gotten about 200 reports of missing migrants that were traveling through this area,” he said. “Unlike California or Arizona, most of this land is private property so we have to make contacts with the ranch owners so they will let us search through their property.”

Angeles Del Desierto attempts bringing closure to families, said Hernandez, who arrived with a list of missing migrants he hopes to find or rescue.

In 2012, Border Patrol has rescued about 300 immigrants and recovered more than 150 bodies in the Rio Grande Valley sector to date, said agency spokesman Enrique Mendiola.

“On top of the extreme weather, you have the dangers presented by the wildlife out there: coyotes, wild pings and rattlesnakes are just some of them,” Mendiola said, adding that immigrants also suffer from dehydration. “They are not able to carry enough water with them and if they do find water it is from a contaminated source.”

During his trip to the Valley, Hernandez trekked through one of the ranches searching for migrants and trying to survey the area to determine the dangers that migrants face. The biggest obstacles Hernandez faced were the “no trespassing” signs posted at many ranches.

With a backpack filled with emergency supplies and a cell phone, Hernandez walked for several miles searching for bodies or migrants in need of help. A cell phone is the best survival tool because migrants can dial 911 if they need help and authorities can pinpoint their location for rescue effort, he said.

“Sadly enough we were not able to find any migrants,” Hernandez said.

“We were, however, able to identify the body of a 12-year-old boy we had been looking for.”

Elmer Calinga Ceballos traveled from El Salvador to the U.S to seek a better life and reunite with his family; however, his journey ended on a table at the Elizondo Mortuary in Mission, where officials hadn’t been able to identify him.

Hernandez helped provide preliminary identification, which prompted the Salvadoran consulate to get involved and make arrangements to have the body sent home for burial.

When bodies turn up, the local sheriff’s office becomes involved.

Investigators at the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office have noted a sharp increase in the number of bodies discovered, said Chief Deputy Urbino “Benny” Martinez.

In 2010, deputies found 22 bodies. That figure had nearly tripled by 2011, when they found 64 bodies. But those numbers pale in comparison to the 95 bodies found so far this year.

Deputies find bodies at all stages of decomposition, including corpses that have been reduced to skeletal remains.

“This is a very sad case because these individuals are placed in the trust of unscrupulous individuals who will not hesitate to leave them to their fate,” Martinez said.

An additional danger is the predatory nature of the coyotes — guides — who sometimes sexually assault the women they’ve been paid to smuggle north, Martinez said, adding that his department is investigating five such cases.

“What makes it difficult to investigate is that many times all we have to go on is a nickname or a tattoo,” Martinez said. “The victim doesn’t know who that individual really is.”

Smugglers sometimes force illegal immigrants to carry drugs, leaving them exposed to federal prosecution.

“For the most part, they are hardworking people,” Martinez said. “The best choice would be for governments to have some way to fix this immigration problem so these individuals can travel in a humane fashion.”

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