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Death at the border Part 1: Unidentified

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WORLD Radio - Death at the border Part 1: Unidentified

Border communities seek to dignify the remains of migrants who do not survive crossing illegally into the United States


Sgt. Aaron Horta Photo by Bonne Pritchett

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, July 18th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day.

Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

Coming next on The World and Everything in It: death on the border.

A quick listener note: this story may be too heavy for younger listeners, so a warning to parents. The details are going to be coming here pretty quickly.

For the past two years, southern border communities have struggled to handle the massive influx of illegal immigrants.

EICHER: But not all migrants make it across the border. It’s often a dangerous crossing, and many die on the way.

When their remains are found, most have fake identification or none at all.

WORLD correspondent Bonnie Pritchett paid a visit to the border to find out about the people trying to restore dignity to the dead. It’s a three-part story, and we begin today with part one.

SGT. AARON HORTA: We're going here on Highway 57. We’re going to respond to a call in reference to a deceased person. So, we’re in route to the to make contact with Border Patrol. Okay?

BONNIE PRITCHETT, REPORTER: Aaron Horta is Maverick County’s Deputy Sergeant. And the body he’s going to see he suspects that it belongs to another migrant. When we met Horta in late March, officials had already responded to about 20 migrant deaths this year. As of July 11, that number is 44.

SOUND: [TRUCK STARTING, DOOR SHUTTING, WARNING DINGS]

Horta climbs into his black Chevy truck and calls Border Patrol.

HORTA: This is from the Maverick Sheriff's officer. This is Sergeant Horta. I received a call reference to a deceased person. Where is it located at, sir?

Dark gray clouds shroud the sun as Horta pulls away from the Sheriff’s Office in Eagle Pass, Texas. He’s heading toward the 17,000-acre ranch where Border Patrol agents discovered the body.

HORTA: Before this before the border crisis once every Blue Moons we went to a ranch on a call in reference to a deceased person. Now, last last year, we responded every every week, every day. One time I responded five times to a deceased person in the day. Five times.

About 25 miles of scrubland later, Horta turns off the two-lane highway at a ranch gate. Border Patrol officers are waiting. Soon after, a Memorial Funeral Services employee arrives, tasked with collecting the remains.

The procession moves slowly along a deeply pitted dirt road. Eight miles into the ranch, the lead truck’s brake lights signal we’ve arrived.

HORTA: It's a female. Female deceased. The smell. Thank God it wasn’t hot. The smell was…

A few feet from the road, on the other side of a rusty barbed wire fence, lie the woman’s remains. She’s lying face down in the dirt and tall dry grass. Beside her is a black backpack.

But its contents reveal little about its owner.

HORTA: She only had like a water bottle like halfway. Just one. And some chips, some Doritos chips. But no I.D.

With no identification, she’ll be known by her Maverick County case number. Or, more commonly, Jane Doe.

In 2022, a record 853 immigrants died crossing the US southern border. That’s according to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.

OWENS: When they get to the border, they cross a dangerous and treacherous river.

That’s Jason Owens, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol. In April, he was chief agent for the Del Rio Sector. That includes Maverick County. He spoke during a Border Patrol rescue demonstration in Eagle Pass. Behind him flowed the Rio Grande.

OWENS: When they make it across the river, they are in some of the most remote, austere terrain, desert with extreme temperatures, no water, no vegetation. And if they can't keep up with the smugglers or they can't follow the instructions of smugglers they're simply abandoned to die.

The dead become the responsibility of county officials. And, like most of its neighbors, Maverick has no medical examiner. So, officials pay local funeral homes to collect the bodies.

Until March, that was Rito Valdez’s job.

He grew up working in the family business, Memorial Funeral Services in Eagle Pass. He said migrant deaths are part of life in this border town. But not like the last two years.

VALDEZ: But then, you know, when they started coming the immigrant from different countries, Cuba, Africa, Venezuelan, Costa Rican, not a lot of Mexicans. It was It was strange, but it came up to seven a day. Cases. So that's something that we were like, wow.

In the Del Rio Sector, where Valdez works, 256 migrants died during fiscal year 2022.

Local funeral homes had limited or no storage facilities. And last fall, a portable morgue provided by the State of Texas reached capacity.

Valdez saw only one solution.

VALDEZ: That's why I was I was I got to a point for us to to decide to bury them, because that's something more dignified for them. For that person.

That well-meaning decision would later prove problematic.

At the ranch, Jane Doe is sealed inside a silver body bag. Four Border Patrol agents help pull the woman from the field and onto a stretcher, then slide it into the bed of the funeral home pickup. She’ll be delivered to her next resting place.

Before leaving the ranch, Sergeant Aaron Horta stops to call Judge Kina Mancha. She’s the Justice of the Peace on duty.

SOUND: [PHONE RINGS]

SOUND: [INDISCERNABLE VOICE]

HORTA: Hello, Judge. I'm here by the Paloma ranch. We have a deceased person.

MANCHA: Do you have it already?

HORTA: Yes. The funeral service, they already took custody of the body.

MANCHA: Okay, do you have the information?

HORTA: Yes.

MANCHA: I'll send you or text you all the information, the case number and everything.

HORTA: Okay. Do we have a time of death?

MANCHA: Two-o-five.

HORTA: Two-o-five. Perfect.

With no witnesses to her death and no autopsy, Jane Doe’s time of death is set as the time the Justice of the Peace is notified. Horta scribbles the time on a scrap of yellow note paper. He’ll add the information to his report.

Gray clouds still linger as Horta drives off the ranch and turns south onto the highway toward town.

HORTA: That person that passed away, their family’s probably looking for her and they don't know where she’s at. So that's some things that that that I like think about, Like, why do people put themselves in danger like that, like, risk crossing over here? [HORTA SIGHS]

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Bonnie Pritchett, in South Texas.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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