December 14, 2022 730 PM
This article was published in partnership with Texas Monthly
FAR WEST TEXAS — In 2015, shortly after Jeff Davis County Justice of the Peace Mary Ann Luedecke took office, the body of a 14-year-old Guatemalan boy was found in her jurisdiction. He was alone in the desert, in the vast 2,265 square miles of remote terrain that Luedecke oversees, with no identification. Luedecke, tasked with handling his remains, ordered an autopsy — the cause of death was “exposure,” it found — and set out to give the child a proper burial.
After rallying the local funeral home and cemetery to donate their services, she commissioned a constituent performing community service to fashion a headstone for the grave; it read simply, “The Guatemalan Kid,” and his date of death, the day on which he was found. But the man who made the headstone died before he could place it. To this day the grave remains unmarked, a purple silk flower the only indication of the child’s burial site.
“We lowered him, we prayed over him and we closed it up. That’s the best we had to offer. We still have him. We don’t know who he is,” said Luedecke. “A week later, we found three more.”
Those three unidentified migrants — adults Luedecke named West Pasture A, B and C — were transported to the only available county medical examiner on the Texas-Mexico border: Dr. Corinne Stern, located in Webb County, more than seven hours away. They were held there for a couple of years until the facility called Luedecke to let her know they were overwhelmed and could no longer store the bodies.
“I didn’t know what to do with them. No one knew what to do with them,” said Luedecke. “There’s no way to determine who they are.”
For Luedecke, it was a crash course on a grim reality of her job: caring for the bodies of unidentified migrants who perish on their journeys to enter the country illegally. The number of deaths was beginning to climb when Luedecke was elected — and the tri-county area, consisting of Brewster, Jeff Davis and Presidio counties, lacks the infrastructure to handle the increase. For justices of the peace, or JPs, all along the border, the critical task has long come without clear direction or sufficient resources. Congress has passed legislation that aims to prevent migrant deaths, formalize identification processes and expand grant funding in an attempt to combat the humanitarian crisis. But the often underfunded and understaffed rural counties in far West Texas have yet to receive help in the form of funding or additional resources, and JPs vary widely in how they handle the bodies of deceased migrants.
Available burial plots are also scarce, and keeping track of where unidentified remains are interred is a recurring issue. In Presidio County, Marfa’s Cementerio de la Merced is at capacity. When former JP David Beebe buried two unidentified male migrants there during his tenure, it was thanks to a one-acre donation from a neighboring landowner. He recently installed metal crosses to ensure the plots were not re-sold by accident.
Luedecke has run up against these concerns in her county. “It got to the point where cemeteries can’t donate anymore; the funeral home isn’t going to donate their services anymore. Now this is becoming a real problem,” she said.
Migrant deaths along the border more than doubled between 2020 and 2021, with Customs and Border Protection reporting 557 deaths in 2021 compared to 247 in 2020. Fiscal year 2022 has proved to be the deadliest on record, with some national media outlets reporting upwards of 800 migrant deaths along the U.S.–Mexico border. CBP declined to share an exact number with The Big Bend Sentinel. Border Patrol Big Bend Sector, whose jurisdiction spans approximately one quarter of the Southwest Border of the United States, recorded a total of 39 deaths in 2021 and was aware of 31 deaths for fiscal year 2022, which ended September 30. Since many bodies are never found, available statistics are rough estimates and are likely undercounts.
There is no consolidated data for the state of Texas on what percentage of unidentified migrant remains end up being identified. Legally, each county is responsible for keeping its own inquest — or judicial death inquiry — records, though they are not always diligent about doing so, and a centralized public record system for counties to share data does not exist. (Other border states — including New Mexico, California and Arizona — operate on combination medical examiner-coroners or state medical examiner systems, and so offer comprehensive statewide coverage for death investigations.)
Besides Dr. Stern in Webb County, there is only one other medical examiner on the Texas-Mexico border, in El Paso (which does not contract with any other counties and exclusively handles its own county’s cases). Due to a national shortage of board-certified forensic pathologists, professionals retiring from the field are becoming harder and harder to replace.
Stern, who announced her retirement more than a year ago, has yet to find a replacement. This shortage, and Texas’ mixed system for dealing with unidentified migrant deaths, contributes to an overreliance on JPs, who aren’t required to have any formal medical training.
Of Texas’ 254 counties, only 15 have a county-run medical examiner’s office (there are also a number of privately run facilities where autopsies are conducted). In Uvalde, it was a JP who was called upon to identify children’s bodies in the wake of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary in May.
Before becoming the sole JP for Jeff Davis County, Luedecke worked primarily as a rancher. Such a pivot is not unusual among justices, who come from eclectic backgrounds and undergo formal training at the Texas Justice Court Training Center for their varied duties once elected. Thea Whalen, executive director of the center, said while all JPs handle a similar breadth of responsibilities, those in rural counties “have to be able to be a jack of all trades,” due to having fewer resources than their urban counterparts have.
For the most part, said Whalen, the border counties most overwhelmed by the issue of unidentified migrant deaths are those with the fewest resources. (According to U.S. census data, counties along the border are the poorest in the state of Texas.)
Historically, justices have often buried the remains of unidentified migrants themselves — and in many counties along the U.S.–Mexico border, that remains the case. While the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure urges those handling cases to gather DNA samples prior to burial, that measure is not always taken.
Coming into such a complex, disorganized system can be a learning curve for rural JPs who find themselves tasked with handling unidentified bodies for the first time. This was the case for Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace for Presidio County Dina Jo Losoya Marquez. On February 13, early in her tenure, she got a call from the sheriff’s office notifying her a landowner had discovered a dead man at his property on Pinto Canyon. The man, who had been squatting alone in a small housing structure on the property, did not have any form of identification with him.
Marquez traveled more than an hour to the scene to declare the man dead. His body was found intact, facedown, outside of the structure. He was not wearing any shoes and appeared to have been holding a walking stick, said Marquez. His belongings included food, water and medications that suggested underlying health conditions may have contributed to his death.
Initially unsure how to proceed, Marquez said she wanted to be thorough: she contacted consulates and Border Patrol to figure out next steps, keeping the man’s family members at the forefront of her mind. On a recommendation from the local funeral home, she sent the body to South Plains Forensic Pathology in Lubbock, almost five hours away, for an autopsy. Months later, the man was identified by his fingerprints to be Edy Pastor Ordoñez, a 35-year-old man from Guatemala. The consulate was able to make contact with his father, and his remains will be repatriated.
Months after the news of Ordoñez’s identification, Marquez finally received the autopsy report — a lengthy process often further delayed by the medical examiner shortage. The report determined the cause of death to be a lack of insulin — Ordoñez was a diabetic — and dehydration. She intends to pass off the results to the Guatemalan consulate, which will translate them into Spanish and send them to his family.
Such closure is not always possible in these cases, but Marquez sees the effort as a fundamental part of her job. “A parent, a loved one, somebody goes missing — they don’t stop. What if this was my brother or my son?” said Marquez. “We’re still going to treat them as if they were local.”
The inquests JPs conduct to determine cause and manner of death are just a few of their myriad duties, which include presiding over local court proceedings for non-jailable offenses, hearing civil and eviction cases, setting bail, performing marriages, and managing a host of administrative and magistrate duties. The role is an on-call, 24/7 position — JPs must always be ready to assist local law enforcement and Border Patrol agents in retrieving and processing dead bodies in emergency situations.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re cooking supper or standing in the shower; your phone will ring,” said Luedecke. “I’ve gotten up from the Thanksgiving dinner table to go do an inquest, and in fact, I got called out on Christmas Day on these migrants. Death does not recognize your personal life.”
Luedecke estimates she’s handled death cases for 25 to 30 migrants to date, the majority of whom were never identified, she said. Migrants can be found without identification for a number of reasons — human smugglers may seize forms of identification, traveling groups may take a deceased individual’s ID, or, in the case of found skeletal remains, an ID could have been strewn about with other belongings and lost. If only partial remains are discovered, collecting fingerprints or DNA samples can be more difficult, complicating the identification process.
The number of reported migrant deaths in the Big Bend region is relatively few compared to the numbers in other parts of the state. CBP data from 2020 shows only 15 out of a total of 247 migrant deaths occurred in the Big Bend Region, while South Texas areas like Laredo and the Rio Grande Valley experienced 50-plus migrant deaths. But the limited resources, broad expanse and low population density for the tri-county area lead officials to believe that many bodies are never found.
In the Big Bend, JPs get calls reporting dead migrants from cowboys, hunters and ranchers, who are sometimes tipped off to a body’s location due to circling vultures. Unknown bodies often appear in remote, difficult-to-reach places. Once, while sweeping an area with Border Patrol, Luedecke watched an agent fall chest-deep into a coyote den that turned out to contain human remains and shoes. Luedecke carries body bags and tags in her personal truck so she can be ready to collect remains at any time and pass them off to the funeral home. She recalled once sitting with a dead body for seven hours while waiting for law enforcement to return with transportation. “Literally, I’ve hauled them in my own truck. I’ve hauled them in a four wheeler. I’ve sat there with them in my lap and hauled them out to the pavement because the funeral home can’t get down there,” said Luedecke.
That migrants opt to traverse treacherous desert landscapes is, in part, attributable to federal policy. Border Patrol’s 1994 Strategic Plan, under President Bill Clinton, detailed an immigration enforcement strategy called “Prevention Through Deterrence,” designed to increase Border Patrol presence along traditional entries and routes, which the agency acknowledged would force migrants into more “hostile terrain,” placing them in “mortal danger.”
“What is happening on the border in terms of people dying — they are not dying circumstantially, they are dying because of our policy, because of our strategy, because of our vision of the border, and because of complete disregard to the lives of immigrants and immigrant families,” said Fernando García, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, an immigration reform and human rights advocacy organization operating for the past 24 years out of El Paso.
García argued that because of Border Patrol’s policy to deviate migration flows into remote desert and mountainous terrain, a formal process for finding and identifying bodies needs to be developed, with each Border Patrol sector actively searching for missing people and working to identify bodies. But mass governmental reform would be required to institute such efforts, he said. “To identify remains, to look for remains, to process them, it will mean a major endeavor in Congress and this administration,” said García.
On the county level, without that federal assistance, Luedecke said she has reached a breaking point with the financial strain. Until recently, she was driving her own truck and paying for gas out of pocket while on unidentified migrant inquests. “Counties are strapped. There is no more money; there never was money,” said Luedecke. “Applications fall dead. Paperwork falls through the cracks. We still have people coming across by the hundreds. It doesn’t matter if it’s El Paso or Laredo, or some spans in between — we get no help.”
Jeff Davis County, as well as neighboring Presidio and Brewster counties, allocate money for indigent burials, autopsies and inquests every year but do not have specific budget line items for unidentified migrant remains. According to the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, JPs are not required to order autopsies, but they may do so in order to “determine or confirm the nature and cause of death.” But the hefty price tag of an average autopsy and the shortage of nearby medical examiners make ordering an autopsy burdensome on county finances.
According to a 2020 report on migrant deaths conducted by the University of Texas at Austin’s Strauss Center for International Security and Law, costs “can reach more than $13,100 per deceased individual, with counties paying $2,000 on average just to remove the bodies from the scene and obtain an autopsy.” Luedecke said she will order an autopsy if needed, but for the most part she rules the cause of death as exposure, especially if only skeletal remains are found. If foul play is suspected, the local sheriff’s department, police department or the Texas Rangers will take over the death investigation.
Luedecke’s only lifeline for the issue has come from her collaboration with Dr. Kate Spradley, of Texas State’s Operation Identification (OpID) program, a forensic laboratory that stores skeletal remains of unidentified migrants and retrieves DNA samples from the deceased, which Luedecke started working with in 2017. Information is uploaded to U.S. government databases CODIS and NamUS — the Combined DNA Index System and National Missing and Unidentified Persons System — with the intent that one day the decedents will be identified through DNA-matching technology and their remains repatriated to their families and countries of origin.
OpID has been an invaluable solution for JPs like Luedecke, who can send remains at just the cost of transportation. Unlike a traditional burial, in which a body, if later identified, would need to be found and exhumed at the cost of the county, the consulate or a state-funded university program, OpID allows for a more straightforward repatriation process. In addition to the more practical aspects, a number of JPs said the solution felt the most hopeful — and the most humane.
“I thank God for Dr. Kate Spradley and the program that she has initiated, to give us a place to go with these people to hopefully bring some kind of closure to the families that are missing their loved ones,” said Luedecke. “And in the meantime, God bless them all. But I’m done with footing the bill for it.”
Spradley’s efforts are now being incorporated into JP training. With her help, the Texas Justice Court Training Center, out of Austin — where all new Texas JPs undergo 80 hours of training and existing JPs undergo 20 hours of training annually — is enhancing its focus on the processing of unidentified migrants’ bodies.
Because the current process of handling remains is spread across entities, once a body gets sent to a funeral home, an individual can easily become “lost in this bureaucratic shuffle,” said Spradley — something OpID and new JP training initiatives aim to amend. “It’s just crazy that there’s no real tracking system,” she said.
A 2021 law, House Bill 1419, made it compulsory for JPs or their designees to input missing persons into the publicly available NamUS in an effort to expedite identifications of unknown persons. Spradley said the law was a step in the right direction, but border counties experiencing the highest numbers of deceased and missing migrants often lack the knowledge and time to utilize the NamUS platform.
“Laws are merely suggestions until they’re enforced, and there’s no enforcement of this,” said Spradley. (In April, Spradley helped lead a training workshop that instructed JPs on, among other things, inputting missing persons into NamUS.)
Spradley said that, nearly 10 years after its establishment, OpID seems to be handling higher numbers of recently deceased migrants found in counties across the Texas-Mexico border and working with more JPs who are requesting rapid identification and repatriation. OpID employs one full-time lab manager and one part-time Ph.D. student and relies heavily on the volunteer efforts of Spradley and students. Spradley said their team of one and a half has already received 78 migrants this year to date.
In order to properly manage bodies of unknown migrants — from discovery to identification and repatriation — a centralized facility with trained staff who oversee each case needs to be created, said Spradley.
“You can check all of those boxes,” she said. “You can get an autopsy, you can send a DNA sample, you can bury the remains, but you still may never get an identification if you’re not managing that case, and if you’re not really seeing it through until the end, and that’s too much to ask of [JPs].”
The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure requires that any collected DNA samples of unidentified human remains be sent to the Center for Human Identification at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, which performs forensic DNA testing, for placement into CODIS. At OpID, Spradley and her team often submit the right fifth metatarsal, a foot bone, for DNA analysis, because it is relatively non-invasive, keeping the skeletons looking fully intact. In order for unidentified migrants to be identified through DNA analysis, their families have to come forward and submit DNA samples.
For families inside of the U.S., samples have to be taken in the presence of law enforcement — a requirement that prohibits many undocumented residents within the U.S. from ever coming forward. Similarly, outside of the U.S., law enforcement or an official government agency has to be present for a DNA sample.
OpID works closely with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, an NGO which helps collect DNA from families in search of missing loved ones in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico. To help facilitate identifications, the Argentine forensic group has agreements with Latin American federal governments to allow for the collection and sharing of DNA samples for comparison with samples collected by labs like OpID. Spradley said more than half of OpID’s identifications are a result of its partnerships with NGOs such as the Argentine forensic group.
The transnational collaboration through privately run DNA labs often leads to faster identifications compared to the federal system, said Spradley. The U.S. government does not currently allow for large-scale national genetic comparisons between unidentified missing persons in CODIS and the DNA collected from families by NGOs in other countries.
“We have it all. We have missing persons information and unidentified persons information. We have DNA from the unidentified, we have DNA from the families, but we still can’t make identifications,” said Spradley. “We have it all except the political will from the U.S. government.”
In 2005, Adolfo Agramonte, who was born in the Dominican Republic, went missing in South Texas during an attempt to cross the U.S.–Mexico border. He had previously lived illegally in the United States, where he married a U.S. citizen and had a daughter, Christina. Despite having a family in the United States, Adolfo failed his green card interview and was deported. Christina, who was eight years old when her father went missing, remembers the uncertainty. Was he in jail, unable to contact anyone? Had he been killed or left for dead by the coyotes who led him across the border?
For the families of individuals who have gone missing or died crossing the border, the process of determining their loved one’s fate and laying them to rest is often one of overwhelming confusion and heartbreak. They encounter a disjointed system that requires them to seek answers from various entities and often leaves them with a flurry of unanswered phone calls and little resolution.
Christina felt she had no choice but to start investigating her father’s case on her own. She said many people she talked to, including law enforcement officers, urged her to move on and forget about her father’s fate. She was frustrated by what she felt was a lack of compassion and respect. “He’s illegal, but he’s still human,” she said.
In 2018, Christina submitted a DNA sample to see if any unknown deceased migrants could be Adolfo. Four years later, in the summer of 2022, she got a call from a woman she’d spoken with years prior from the Colibrí Center for Human Rights — an organization that works with disappeared migrants’ families — offering her condolences. “I just broke down,” said Christina. She’d been waiting 17 years for the news, but its delivery was abrupt and from an unexpected source.
Adolfo had been found dead on a ranch in Falfurrias, Texas, about an hour north of the border, in July 2005 and was buried in an unmarked grave at Sacred Heart Burial Park. Spradley exhumed his body in 2017 with OpID. When Christina reached out in 2022, Spradley shared a helpful, if incomplete, case folder on Adolfo and let her know the DNA match had in fact happened three years earlier, but no one ever reached out to Christina or her mother to notify them. “That, to me, really shocked me. I was sick to my stomach. I said, ‘How can this even be possible?’” said Christina.
Spradley told Christina she’d been unsuccessful in obtaining a death certificate from the county or the autopsy report from the medical examiner’s office. The news of her father’s identification, which she long imagined would give her a sense of closure, left her feeling the opposite. “I have more questions than I’ve ever had in my whole entire life in regards to my father,” she said.
From the point at which his body was found in Brooks County in 2005, Adolfo passed through the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office and the Nueces County Medical Examiner’s Office, in Corpus Christi, before being buried back in Falfurrias, while a missing-persons report was filed with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office. His remains were exhumed by OpID and taken to San Marcos in 2017. He was given at least four different case numbers throughout the time period.
After Christina was notified of his death, Adolfo’s body was released to a funeral home in San Antonio. But Christina was unable to pay the thousands of dollars required to relocate him to Florida, where she and her mother live, so she chose to place his remains back into Spradley’s care for the time being. “I don’t have funds right now to bury him, sadly, and it hurts,” said Christina.
Christina said she’s left with the burden of knowing that her father died a “cruel death” — even if he died of natural causes — and that America’s immigration and Texas’ death investigation systems let her family down.
“If they die in the desert, they still died in the most inhumane way. They died of thirst, they died in the heat — I don’t know how you can find closure in that,” said Christina. “I don’t know how you can have closure when the system is one that failed in the first place.”
CBP, for its part, claims to be making strides toward reducing the number of migrant deaths occurring along the U.S.–Mexico Border. In 2017, the agency established the Missing Migrant Program (MMP), an initiative implemented across all nine Southwest border sectors, with each sector containing one main coordinator who may work with the local medical examiner or JP to help identify unknown deceased migrants. In the same Government Accountability Office report that recommended more comprehensive data collections for migrant deaths, officials also called for the establishment of a plan to review the MMP, which was lacking oversight.
Spradley said, in her experience, there appeared to be poor communication across Border Patrol sectors, which seem to vary in how they operate (CBP told The Big Bend Sentinel the MMP is run according to standard operating procedure). Luedecke told the Sentinel she was not aware of an MMP coordinator assigned to her jurisdiction; Marquez said she was working directly with Border Patrol.
Chief of Border Patrol Big Bend Sector Sean McGoffin told The Big Bend Sentinel counties typically handle interment and identification processes for deceased migrants, but Border Patrol may share information or help JPs coordinate with other entities.
Last summer, Border Patrol Big Bend Sector implemented a new program designed to assist distressed migrants by placing “rescue beacons” along remote routes and 9-1-1 placards in areas with a cell phone signal. There were 37 rescues in fiscal year 2022 as a result of the beacon deployment in the area, according to CBP.
Unlike in the Rio Grande Valley and states such as Arizona, the Big Bend region does not currently have any active volunteer groups that go out in search of missing or deceased migrants. Fernando García, executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, said his organization is in the early stages of assessing what such a program might look like for the Big Bend region. His staff has received more messages recently from families seeking information on their loved ones who they believed crossed the border into the tri-county area.
It’s not just the area’s remoteness that poses a challenge in responding to migrant deaths — the fact that many of those deaths occur on private land has also proven an obstacle to search-and-rescue missions. García said landowner cooperation, while difficult to achieve, would be paramount in implementing a volunteer program in the Big Bend region. He hopes to be able to work with ranchers to set up refillable water stations, for example, and urged bipartisan support to improve humanitarian efforts.
Spradley — along with the Forensic Border Coalition, of which she is a founder, and the South Texas Human Rights Center — was part of the team that worked for years to pass the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act of 2019, which said it would provide additional resources to CBP for migrant rescues and make more grant funding available to “improve the transportation, processing, identification, and reporting of missing persons and unidentified remains, including migrants.” Spradley said the bill was meaningful, in part, because it was the first acknowledgment of migrant deaths since Border Patrol’s prevention-through-deterrence strategy was implemented in the nineties.
Three years later, this past summer, funding from the Department of Justice was announced, with OpID one of two statewide agencies across the country selected this month to receive $1 million worth of grant funding spread out over three years. OpID intends to use the funds to hire more employees and increase their capacity for intaking and storing unidentified migrant remains. The University of North Texas Center for Human Identification was also awarded $1 million in federal funding.
Luedecke said she is grateful for those willing to take on the responsibility of ensuring the bodies of deceased migrants are handled with care and respect. She sees Spradley and OpID as her centralized facility — and a much-needed source of hope, providing some level of assurance that the bodies in the desert, otherwise forgotten, might be named and returned to their homes.
“Initially there were lots of sleepless nights. Because you see those faces, you see those people, and they haunt you,” said Luedecke. “There is some form of peace within when you place them.”