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The Dead In The Desert: Christian's Journey Home

Year after year the death toll continues to climb from migrants who succumb to the harsh elements during their unauthorized journey into the United States. Humanitarian efforts are underway to save lives. But it’s not enough. Operation I.D. looks to recover and identify the remains of those who don’t make it out of the South Texas desert alive.

Walking into the Operation ID storage area at Texas State University it’s easy to be overwhelmed.  There are more than 260 brown sturdy cardboard boxes stacked neatly in rows. In each one are what remains of a migrant recovered from South Texas. They are labeled with a number but not a name, which is why they are here. These are the nameless.

“There are a lot of skeletons in here,” said Kate Spradley, a forensic anthropologist at Texas State University and director of Operation ID

“I want all of them to be identified and go back to their loved ones,” she said.

Spradley’s team of faculty and college students literally unearthed these remains in the border area. And she says this isn’t half of the number of migrants who died in South Texas.

“I think this is an extremely low percentage, and I don't know the percentage because we don't have an accurate number of how many people have died. Everything is an underestimation. Since 2009 almost 900 people have died in Brooks County alone. And we have 260 plus in here — the majority from Brooks County. So this is just a small number, but still overwhelming,” said Spradley.

Spradley pulls a box from the shelf and opens it. Inside there’s a skull and bones. In brown paper bags are the personal items.

“A lot of the personal effects are clothing, but occasionally people have other things. This person had a stuffed lion, a small child’s toy, and a luchador mask,” she said.

Operation ID does post photographs of these personal items on the NamUS website - The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System operated by the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification. And that’s how Zaira Gonzalez found out what happened to her brother Christian.

“Even after I found the case with the NamUS situation, it's like a part of me still hoped that it wasn't my brother,” Zaria couldn’t finish the sentence.

Credit David Martin Davies / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Zaira Gonzalez shows the tattoo of the GPS coordinates of where her brother died in Brooks County

I met Zaira at a coffee shop in Palestine in East Texas. This is the town where she and her older brother Christian grew up living the all American dream. But they were in the country illegally, having been brought here by their parents from Mexico.

“My brother was seven or eight years old and I was three and we have a younger brother as well who was one. We were brought here to Palestine, and we lived here pretty much all our lives.  He went to school here. Graduated in 2007. He played sports, soccer, cross country. Graduated with honors,” Zaira said.

She said Christian was the kind of guy that people were drawn to. He was an outgoing trickster who volunteered at his church.  His friends called him Buda.

“He did stuff at ranches and people paid him cash since that’s all pretty much he could do since he didn’t have a way of actually having a physical job,” Zaira explained.

But one day there was an accident with a pellet gun and he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault. That caught the attention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Christian was deported to Mexico. Christian did not fit in well in Mexico. Also once he arrived his uncle was kidnapped by a cartel and was never seen again.

“He got deported in May of 2012 and by August he already wanted to come home, that same year,” she said.

Christian’s father made arrangements for him to come back to Palestine with a Coyote.

“He got a bus from Monterrey to the border through Reynosa. He stayed there for a few days and then walked a whole day to McAllen. He stayed in McAllen for a few days. And then from there they continued to walk. The last place where he was seen at was in Falfurrias, Texas, which is not far away from the last checkpoint, but that was the last time we heard from him,” she said.

Credit David Martin Davies / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Zaira Gonzalez looks at her brother Christian's grave stone.

Christian was in the desert and was dehydrated and exhausted. The coyote called Christian’s father and said he needed to motivate his son to keep walking or else he was going to be left behind. On the phone Christian was disoriented.

“My dad actually talked to my brother and he just told him, 'I'm tired. I can't do this anymore'... so my dad got back on the phone with the guy that was crossing them over and told them, okay, put him on the side of the road where somebody can see him. Immigration, a person, it don't matter — as long as somebody sees him. But he didn't do that. He just left him in the middle of the desert.”

This experience has taken a toll on the Gonzalez family. Zaira says her parents haven’t recovered. She traveled to Brooks County and was shown the exact spot where her brother died. And she has those GPS coordinates tattooed on her forearm.

Credit David Martin Davies / Texas Public Radio
Texas Public Radio
Christian Gonzales's headstone in Palestine Texas

Operation ID had recovered Christian’s remains. His DNA was entered into the database. Photos of his belongings were put on NamUS. Years later while hunting for information online Zaira found him. Eventually his remains were brought to Palestine and he was given a funeral and buried with a headstone.

At the grave site there’s a photograph of Christian in his cross country uniform. There’s a small soccer ball, statue of Buda and a bottle of water.

David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi