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Operation Identification Helps Repatriate Remains Of Migrants Who Don't Make It


A 16-year-old Guatemalan boy has died at a Border Patrol station in South Texas, becoming the fifth migrant child to die after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border since December. Officials say he had been treated for the flu, though the cause of death is unknown.


Many people coming from Central America are weak or sick by the time they get here. The journey is especially dangerous for those who don't turn themselves in but instead hike through sweltering ranch country to avoid federal agents. Some don't survive. NPR's John Burnett reports from South Texas on a project that identifies remains and sends them home. And a warning - this story contains descriptions of death that may not be appropriate for all listeners.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: A Border Patrol all-terrain buggy plows through dense brush on the historic King Ranch. The agents are looking for a human skeleton.


BURNETT: They spotted the bones earlier in the day when they were chasing a group of migrants through this pasture. Now they're returning with a sheriff's deputy.

UNIDENTIFIED BORDER PATROL AGENT: Go straight ahead - to the left.

BURNETT: Then they spot it - next to a patch of orange wildflowers, in the shade of a mesquite tree, the bones have been scattered asunder - a vertebra, part of a pelvis, a jaw.

BIANCA MORA: The animals just get to them, and they just tear them apart.

BURNETT: In the two years that Deputy Bianca Mora has been with the Brooks County Sheriff's Department (ph), this has become a regular part of her job. How many bodies has she collected?

MORA: I'd say maybe like 20 to 30, if not more.

BURNETT: She gathers up the bones along with other items found in the clearing - a blue shirt, a pair of jeans and a weathered cellphone. She zips them all into a white body bag. The deputy slings the bag over her shoulder, walks back to the bush buggy and sets it between her feet.


MORA: Yeah.

BURNETT: This is no country for old or young men, with its sandy ground, spiny plants and punishing sun. Dehydration is a grim death. First come leg cramps and headache, then dizziness, delirium and finally unconsciousness as low blood pressure disables organs.

BENNY MARTINEZ: They're not equipped for the walk. They don't bring enough water.

BURNETT: Benny Martinez is the sheriff of Brooks County.

MARTINEZ: And for some reason they get hurt or they get sick, they're going to be left behind because they're on a timeline to get him to a certain location to get picked up further north.

BURNETT: His county is situated on a major human smuggling route that goes from the Rio Grande to the interior of the United States. Coyotes and their migrant clients slog through these vast cattle ranches for days to avoid a busy Border Patrol checkpoint on the highway. Last year, the government counted 283 migrant deaths along the southwest border. The numbers are trending down, but the bodies keep turning up. In just one county, Brooks, they've found nine dead migrants this year. That brings the total to nearly 650 over the past 10 years. Sheriff Martinez fights the urge to regard them as routine.

MARTINEZ: You know what we don't want to do - what I don't do is desensitize myself from this. They are humans. They belong to someone.

BURNETT: So who do they belong to? That's what they try to find out in a discreet laboratory in the hill country southwest of Austin that's part of Texas State University. It is here where they seek the story of the bones.

Operation Identification attempts to locate, identify and repatriate the migrants who die namelessly in the Texas borderlands. Inside this white-tiled lab, skeletons repose on steel tables. An air exchanger filters the potent odors. Intense graduate students in gloves and blue biohazard smocks are preparing for an intake.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: The zipper might be broken. You can probably break it along the zipper. Also, it might splatter.

BURNETT: They cut open a black body bag that has hardened over time. This is not the migrant found on the King Ranch. This individual was found somewhere in the outback of Brooks County in 2005. He was buried in Sacred Heart Cemetery in the county seat of Falfurrias.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So unknown male, 2-21-05.

BURNETT: The body is in an advanced state of decomposition. After 14 years in a plastic bag, the tissue is the consistency of wet clay and unrecognizable. The student volunteers are detectives practicing forensic anthropology. They analyze the skeleton to determine age, gender, height and physical abnormalities.

COURTNEY SIEGERT: So right now what they're trying to do is take the cranium out of the body bag...

BURNETT: Courtney Siegert is a 30-year-old doctoral research assistant who works in the lab.

SIEGERT: ...And put the remains into this kettle that's right next to us where basically they - remains can be sanitized. And then once the skeleton's cleaned, we will do a full anthropological analysis.

BURNETT: Identification is challenging. Since the program began in 2013, it has taken in 287 individuals and made only 31 positive IDs. Most of them, like these remains, were exhumed at the cemetery in Brooks County. Sometimes it's not the bones that help identify a decedent but the items found with the body such as a crucifix, a stuffed animal, a baseball or distinctive clothing. The students opened a plastic sack that was buried with the body bag.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Oh, definitely personal effects.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Same thing. Let me get a photo of it.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: So yeah. These are shoes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's a shirt or a jacket.

BURNETT: At the end of the process, everything they've learned about the migrant, including a DNA sample and photos of personal effects, are sent to NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Systems. It's a database located at the University of North Texas. Dr. Kate Spradley is an anthropology professor and director of Operation Identification. Her motto - I work with the dead for the living.

KATE SPRADLEY: Families will receive a picture from the person migrating with the technology of cellphones, and it will have what that person was wearing the day they were migrating. So if we're washing these clothes and putting the photos online, families will recognize those clothes sometimes.

BURNETT: And sometimes it's the sneakers. Zaira Gonzalez recognized one pair she spotted on the NamUs website.

ZAIRA GONZALEZ: There was a pair of shoes, blue Nikes that were found with that body that matched a picture of my brother that I have that had those Nike shoes.

BURNETT: For five years, Zaira Gonzalez feared the worst. The last time her family heard from her brother, Christian, He was with a smuggler trekking through ranchland in Brooks County. He called their father and said he was tired and didn't want to walk any longer. That was on September 9, 2012.

GONZALEZ: The end of September, I kept telling my parents, something ain't right. We haven't heard anything from him. The human trafficker, we haven't heard from him. He just went missing, like, completely.

BURNETT: The Gonzalez family from Mexico had been living in the quiet East Texas town of Palestine. Christian, who was undocumented, got picked up by immigration agents and deported. After a few unhappy months in Reynosa, Mexico, he crossed the Rio Grande and started for home in Palestine. He'd just turned 23.

His body was found by border agents. He was buried like the others as John Doe in the Sacred Heart Cemetery. His remains eventually made it to Operation Identification. Last year, a DNA test confirmed it was Christian.

GONZALEZ: Part of me was telling me that hopefully it's not him. But at one time I was actually relieved that it was him because now I knew where he was at, taken care of by those students.

BURNETT: The Gonzalez family was able to give him a proper funeral last April. His gravesite is decorated with soccer balls, his favorite sport. But few relatives of missing migrants get this kind of closure. The South Texas Human Rights Center reports that 280 families are actively looking for a loved one who disappeared somewhere on the journey north. John Burnett, NPR News, Falfurrias, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.