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Immigrant woman found dead on South Texas ranch

Authorities continue to grapple with increased migrant deaths

Borer Pastrol agents carry a stretcher with a deceased female immigrant in Eagle Pass, Texas. Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

Immigrant woman found dead on South Texas ranch

Border Patrol agents found the body of an undocumented female immigrant on Tuesday at a ranch about 25 miles outside of Eagle Pass, Texas—a recent hot spot for illegal border crossings. Sgt. Aaron Horta from the Maverick County Sheriff’s Department responded to a border agent’s call. He contacted Memorial Funeral Chapels as he drove down Highway 481, rain splattering the windshield of his pickup truck.

Horta arrived at a ranch about 45 minutes later. The caravan of funeral home and law enforcement vehicles jolted about eight miles down a narrow dirt road onto the adjacent property, La Paloma Ranch, where the body was located. Horta has made several trips to the ranch, a popular illegal crossing point. “It had been there for days,” Horta sighed. “The smell. Thank God it wasn’t hot.” The body of a heavy-set female likely in her mid-20s was face down on the other side of a cattle fence.

Though crossings fell after President Joe Biden’s immigration policy changes in January, the death is the latest in a series of tragedies showcasing the unresolved crisis straining local law enforcement and their border communities.

Border authorities encountered a record 2.76 million immigrants last fiscal year. Over 850 immigrants—a record high—died crossing the U.S.-Mexico border last year. Immigrants drowned as rains swelled the Rio Grande and dehydrated in desert ranch lands and wilderness. In June, 53 immigrants suffocated in the back of a tractor trailer in San Antonio.

A series of policy changes and court challenges added to the chaos. The pandemic no-entry policy, Title 42, which allows officials to expel immigrants before they can ask for asylum, is set to end with the COVID-19 public emergency in May. Local law enforcement officers expect crossings to increase after the administration rolls back the policy.

On Friday, the Uvalde Police Department said two undocumented immigrants died in a stifling train car near Knippa, Texas, in Uvalde County. At least 10 more immigrants needed medical attention. The next day, Maverick County Sgt. Carlos Martinez found another 12 undocumented immigrants in a box car in Eagle Pass. An adult male later identified as Jaime Martell Cruz died in the car, according to Martinez’s report. One of the immigrants claimed a coyote, a person who smuggles immigrants across the border, placed them in the car on the U.S. side of the border around 7 a.m. that morning.

Last summer, Memorial Funeral Chapels buried dozens of unidentified immigrants, their graves marked only by small white crosses, in the Maverick County Cemetery. “It was just too much at a time,” said Valentin Guerra, a cemetery employee in a neon vest and dirt-splattered jeans who helped dig the graves. He pointed to the left-over piles of dirt behind the crosses.

White crosses marking the graves of unidentified immigrants in Eagle Pass, Texas

White crosses marking the graves of unidentified immigrants in Eagle Pass, Texas Photo by Bonnie Pritchett

Forensic anthropology students from Texas State University exhumed 26 bodies and took them to San Marcos to identify them. Thirteen more still need to be exhumed, according to Guerra. One will remain—a premature baby commemorated as “Baby Doe” on a white sign.

La Paloma Ranch is thick with mesquite trees. Barbed wire cattle fences and thorny vegetation impede immigrants trying to cross through the area. Border Patrol agents also apprehended an adult male immigrant found wandering around the ranch. He huddled in a shiny, mylar blanket until a beige transport van arrived. Agents gave him water and confiscated his shoelaces. “Imagine walking for miles and miles with no water and no food,” said Horta. “I don’t understand. … There’s too many risks they’re taking.”

Horta, 34, joined the sheriff’s department 13 years ago. He responded to immigrant deaths about once every six months until last year’s influx, when the department began receiving calls weekly, sometimes multiple times a day. Last summer, he responded to five back-to-back calls in one day. It’s become almost normal, he said, but not any less horrific. He responded to 69 deaths in 2022, Horta said.

Horta grew up in Eagle Pass, population almost 29,000, and visited his father’s family in the Mexican sister city of Piedras Negras often. His family shopped for groceries on the other side of the Rio Grande. But as area cartels grew stronger and the border crisis worsened, Horta stopped going back. It’s been 10 years since his last visit, and he’s never taken his 9-year-old or twin 7-year-old daughters. “Nowadays … it’s different,” he said. “It’s not like it was before.”

The rain stopped while the group gathered around the body. A Border Patrol agent handed Polo Vargas, the funeral home employee, a pair of blue plastic gloves. He zipped the body into a gray bag. Agents cut the fence. They helped him slide the body through to the other side and load it onto a stretcher, then into the back of his truck. The seven Border Patrol agents declined to comment because they didn’t have clearance at the time.

Horta and Vargas took photos and searched through the woman’s black backpack for an ID, finding only a half-empty bottle of water and a small bag of Doritos. Missing IDs aren’t uncommon. Authorities say immigrants often discard them once they reach the U.S. side of the river to avoid being identified and deported. “Her family is probably looking for her,” Horta said.

As he left the ranch, Horta called Justice of the Peace Kina Mancha who declared the woman’s unknown time of death to be 2:05 p.m.—the same time as their phone call. Horta noted the time of death on a torn piece of yellow note paper.

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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