Illegal immigrants take a deadly path around a border checkpoint
BROOKS COUNTY, Texas – Every week, Deputy Sheriff Don White travels to remote ranches to search for the bodies of illegal immigrants.
Brooks County is about 70 miles north of the US-Mexico border, but it’s also where most of the bodies end up.
The only way to get around the Border Patrol checkpoint on US Route 281 is to be dropped south, walk north on a private ranch, sometimes for days, then get picked up – the next destination. is usually Houston.
White said many illegal aliens who were trying to escape capture are dropped near the county line 12 miles south of the checkpoint.
So far, in 2021, 33 bodies have been cataloged in the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office “Book of Death”. The pages are filled with photos of bodies in different stages of decomposition, including skeletons.
With the warmer months to come, this is shaping up to be a busy year – tied with 2012, when 129 bodies were discovered. Last year, 34 bodies were found.
White, 68, donates his time and equipment to get the job done; he aims to spend about 100 days a year looking for the “lost,” as he calls them.
Ranchers, local law enforcement, and border patrol officers also find bodies, but White says, “I search areas that no one else is searching, to find areas that no one else is looking for.” “
For the past six years, White has obtained permission from local ranchers to search their land. The county covers an area of 944 square miles and it estimates it now has access to about two-thirds of it. It may be a year or two before White covers the same ground, but he will check the most popular flyers more frequently – along pipelines and power lines.
The busiest months are summer, as most people die from a combination of dehydration and hyperthermia. Water is scarce, it is not difficult to get lost, and smugglers will leave illegal immigrants behind if they are slow or injured.
Those who are not traveling with a courier will usually be assigned a location that they will try to reach by using their phone to navigate.
But it’s not always the smuggler who leaves someone behind.
“My first research was on a child left by his father when [Border Patrol] was getting closer. Dad called the sheriff when he got to a safe place. The child has never been found, ”White wrote recently on Facebook.
Sometimes it is assigned a search area after a 911 call arrives, but cell phone towers cannot always locate a location. Other times, a family member will know the vague area the person was traveling to as well as when they needed to be picked up.
Research is slow work on brushy terrain. White walks at just over half a mile per hour, usually in a loose zig-zag, looking for bones, traces, trash, or any sign of human presence.
“I’m looking, ‘Is a person’s gait normal?’ In other words, “are they feeling good?” They don’t drag their toes because of injury or environmental stress, ”he said. “Are their prints really deep and heavy in the heel, because they’re carrying a heavy drug backpack or something?” So many little things like that.
White must also constantly check for rattlesnakes and search even higher for feral pigs or anyone hiding from him.
“In years past that wasn’t much of a problem, they were just trying to hide from you,” he said. “Now some of these people will try to take your resources because they know you’re going to have a vehicle somewhere.”
They are also the ones who do not want to be captured – more than 42,600 in April alone along the entire southern border.
“You have a whole bunch of people who, no matter what, wouldn’t get American status,” White said. “People have already been convicted of murder, pedophilia, sexual assault, violence – all these serious crimes – and they are not among the groups that engage in this.”
To get lost
Once someone is lost, they can easily go further and be harder to find. Then, once the dehydration and hyperthermia are mixed together, it is common for them to act irrationally.
White pointed to a spot where he found a man last year, next to a ranch road less than a mile from Highway 281. He was a short walk from a large blue barrel that a group local humanitarian periodically refills with water.
“He actually left his phone in the middle of the road, 30 meters away, on the other side of the fence. He had taken off his shoes and T-shirt, pulled up his shoes and folded up his T-shirt. He died… trying to take his pants off. He was stressed. He was traveling alone because he still had his money and his IDs and everything, ”White said.
He said the man was from Tijuana, Mexico; he had been deported three times, the last time in 2015. It seems he was trying his luck by crossing Texas rather than California.
Most of the time, White is looking for bones. It is rare for him to find an intact skeleton, as animals have usually disarticulated a body and dragged parts. Once he finds a bone, he will do his best to discern if it’s human (some deer bones can look like humans, he says), then move in ever wider circles to locate the rest of the body.
He carries various types of body bags in his Jeep and has a rear bolted luggage rack for transportation. But if it’s small enough, or just a skeleton, it will move around in the backseat.
He can’t understand why he’s been drawn to his body’s recovery for so many years, but it may have come from working on homicide cases with the Bexar County Criminal Investigation Division – “seeing people suffer and I be able to do something, ”he said.
It may also have prepared her to face horrific scenes, like finding a woman tied to a windmill, left to die after being raped. Or another young woman who died under a “rape tree”, with her panties around her ankles. Rape trees are notorious places where smugglers and others rape women and leave their underwear on the tree as “trophies”.
As with other first responders and law enforcement, White maintains an emotional distance from what he encounters, and black humor is a way to cope.
“If you internalize everything, you’re a suicide statistic, basically,” he said.
His non-profit organization, Remote search and recovery of wild lands, raises enough money to cover the gasoline costs of the volunteers who help her find one weekend a month.
Finding a body is only the first step in a long process.
A body cannot be returned to the family until a death certificate has been issued, and a death certificate cannot be issued without the positive identification of the person.
White is typically found in males between the ages of 19 and 40 from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador.
Only about 30% of the bodies he finds have ID.
“Most of those I find don’t have ID because they broke down and someone else will take their ID,” he said.
“It’s heartless, because you just stopped a family from getting their loved one back.”
If a body is fresh or recently deceased, it is usually sent to Laredo’s medical examiner, who will send a bone sample for DNA testing to Texas State University’s “Body Farm,” a facility that studies the decomposition of the body. human body.
“The last recovery took place last week. His clothes, his boots, the time he was there, his location, it all indicated who he was, ”White said. “So he was transported to the state of Texas.”
It can take up to a year and a half to process the DNA for free, so in some cases the Argentine group Argentina’s Forensic Anthropology team will help pay for a faster DNA test and help locate families.
“If there’s someone we think we know for sure who it is, then they’ll step in and pay part of the cost or pay all of that to get it back in two months or sometimes three weeks.” It just depends, ”White said.
White has been recovering bodies for years – he spent 21 years as a recovery diver, before hanging up his oxygen cylinder last year to focus more fully on the ground in Brooks County.
It’s a thankless job in many ways, but “there is a certain level of satisfaction in knowing that a family will feel better because of my efforts,” he said.
“In Hispanic culture it is very important that they have the body of their loved one,” he said. “They celebrate the Day of the Dead and if they don’t have the body back, then there is no place they can go, to worship, to say their thanks, to express their love for the individual. It is just awful.
“So if I’m successful at what I’m doing, then they can sort out their world a bit.”