After high water brings increase in drowning deaths, body of migrant found in Big Bend National Park

BREWSTER COUNTY — On September 7, National Park Service rangers retrieved a body from the extremely remote Mariscal Canyon area of the park. The night before, the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office alerted the park of a sighting of the body in Lajitas around 8 p.m. “It passed us right quick and ended up in the park,” said Sheriff Ronny Dodson. 

Dodson has had plenty of experience with bodies recovered from the river — it’s happened “numerous times” in his career, especially as water levels rise. The river hit a crest — or high water mark — on September 3, and dropped to lower levels for the next few days until rising again to flood stage on the day the body was spotted in Lajitas. 

Migrant deaths due to drowning at high water have made national headlines in the past few weeks as a collision between a tropical storm and a cold front brought weeks of heavy rainfall to the region. On September 1, the bodies of 8 migrants were recovered from the river near Del Rio and Eagle Pass; earlier this year, a National Guardsman was killed attempting to rescue migrants from drowning in the same area. 

Stephen Crump, a spokesperson for Big Bend Sector Border Patrol, said that these types of drowning deaths are not that common in the region because the river tends to be lower. “This is not something that’s typical for the Big Bend area,” he said. “The Del Rio area is seeing rescues daily — they have a rescue boat out there as well as swiftwater rescue training [for the agents].” 

Crump said that Border Patrol was “notified” of the body recovery, but that the Park Service and the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office were the only agencies involved in the investigation. “The recovered individual was an adult male with no obvious form of identification on his person,” said Tom VandenBerg, chief of interpretation and visitor services at Big Bend National Park. 

VandenBerg said that the body had been sent to the coroner, and the coroner’s office had subsequently notified the Park Service that the body was a 19-year-old Venezuelan male. Brewster County — where Big Bend National Park is located — does not have a coroner’s office. The Brewster County Sheriff’s Office indicated that the body had been sent to South Plains Forensic Pathology, a private lab in Lubbock. The lab declined to comment on the matter.

Precinct 2 Justice of the Peace Jim Burr is currently awaiting autopsy results. “There’s a whole lot of parts to this,” he explained. He thought authorities may have found relatives of the person found in the river but couldn’t say for sure. 

Identified remains of migrants are typically returned to their home country, but diplomatic relations between the United States and Venezuela are complicating this particular case. Typically the local consulate will handle communication between the family of the deceased and American authorities — in 2019, Venezuelan President Nicólas Maduro, whose legitimacy as a leader is the subject of ongoing dispute, cut off all diplomatic ties with the U.S. 

The process has been frustrating and time-consuming for Burr. “When a foreign national dies, we are mandated by law to contact the consulate of wherever their citizenship is,” he said. “That’s not possible in Venezuela. We’re dealing a little bit with the Mexican consulate, but there’s no real contact between Venezuela and Mexico either.” 

Burr still considers the case a blank slate. “I have no idea who they are or where they’re from, until I’ve seen something different.”