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Brooks County sheriff looks to protect migrant lives days after a man was found hanging from a tree

Loren Elliott
Brooks County Sheriff's Deputy Elias Pompa searches for signs of undocumented people near Falfurrias, Texas, U.S., August 14, 2018.

On Sept. 30 law enforcement in Brooks County discovered the decomposed body of a migrant hanging from a tree. The victim was a male Mexican national. His clothing and IDs were scattered around the scene, and investigators found little else to go by.

People on social media responded with shock and outrage. Congressman Joaquin Castro called for an investigation by the FBI. He tweeted, “This appears to be a lynching of a Mexican man in South Texas. The dangerous, dehumanizing rhetoric of ‘invasion’ used by right-wing politicians to describe asylum seekers must stop.” Castro’s office did not respond to TPR's requests for comment.

Brooks County Sheriff Urbino “Benny” Martinez asked the Texas Rangers to begin an investigation. They are jointly handling the incident as a homicide. Dr. Corinne Stern, the Webb County medical examiner who helps several counties in the region with migrant cases, was expected to complete an autopsy of the victim by early next week. While department officials said they have a working theory of events, they don’t have enough evidence to come forward with anything publicly.

Investigators said a heavy rainstorm that blew through the scene before it was discovered washed away any signs of movement or debris that might have shed some light on what actually transpired. The sheriff’s office hoped witnesses might come forward anonymously, though they anticipated that anyone traveling with the victim may fear an examination of their citizenship status. Martinez said that, in this case, he would not screen for that.

“The issue we’re going to have here is finding witnesses,” Martinez said. “If he was with a group, the group is gone. I'm hoping there's witnesses out there that come forward because as far as I'm concerned, I'm not going to really be worried about the status. I'll be worried more about what happened to this young man as he was walking through the brush here in Brooks County.”

Authorities identified the victim but his name will not be released until the Mexican consulate can contact the family.

Brooks County recorded 98 migrant deaths this year, nearly triple the number from 2020. This week, the bodies of more than two dozen migrants who died as they attempted to travel north through Brooks County were in a temporary mobile morgue.

Martinez met with Gov. Greg Abbott during his visit to the border city of Mission this week, and he requested additional support from the state.

“He asked me what I needed. I said, ‘I need assets on the brush. I need to save lives. I need a triage because a triage will help us get the medical attention they need as soon as we find them,’” Martinez recalled. “Because of all the strain that’s going on down South, all the medics and border tech units that are in this particular area, they’re out there also helping process (migrants).”

Brooks County confirmed it will receive resources and support to open a new migrant processing center within 45 days and also receive medical supplies and staff for triage of migrants.

Jurisdictions across the border are now seeing upticks in the number of migrant deaths due not just to a higher number of individuals crossing the border, but also because of higher temperatures. However, Brooks County has historically reported higher numbers than most counties.

As Texas now leads all U.S. states in migrant deaths; 2,000 migrants are estimated to have died in Brooks County since 2008. The county is also currently seeing the highest increase in these cases — something for which county officials are receiving criticism.

The recently released documentary “Missing In Brooks County” is the latest to criticize the high-tech Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias for pushing migrants out into dangerous terrain. The “prevention through deterrence” border security strategy that originally concentrated Border Patrol resources on major corridors in the 1990s resulted in a sharp increase in deaths, but not less migration.

However, Martinez attributes the recent increase in deaths to a different element that may have something to do with the investigation at hand.

“The issue here is those controlling organizations that cross them through the river, and then take them to stash houses and pile them up, and then drive them this way, and then (drop them off) to circumvent the checkpoint (on foot). They're being told what to do and when to do it. If they get hurt, they get left behind. If they get sick, they get left behind. And guess what? They die,” Martinez said.

He added that his office will continue to increasingly focus on saving lives, but acknowledges that the situation will require a change in legislation apart from the resources and support required to process migrants.

"Let’s get this done, and get it done right so they can come in and work. You know they’re seasonal workers. A lot of them are. Until we have some type of immigration reform, where both parties and all these independents agree, this is going to continue to happen."

Texas Public Radio is supported by contributors to the Border and Immigration News Desk, including the Catena Foundation and Texas Mutual Insurance Company.

Pablo De La Rosa is a freelance journalist reporting statewide with Texas Public Radio and nationally with NPR from the Texas-Mexico border in the Rio Grande Valley, from where he originates. He’s the host of the daily Spanish-language newscast TPR Noticias Al Día.