'Floaters': Death in the Rio Grande

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The body of John Doe No. 95-036751, one of 14 undocumented migrants to wash up along this short stretch of the Rio Grande last year, was clad only in beige underwear with thin, red, checkered stripes.

His trim, 20ish frame was bloated. His lips and eyelids had been devoured by turtles. Other than a dark oval birthmark on the right side of his chest, there was no way to identify him--no wallet, no jewelry, no tattoos--not even enough skin on his fingers from which to draw prints.

Being a "floater," as the river's victims are commonly known, no autopsy was performed. A funeral home stored him for two days in its garage. Fewer than 48 hours after being fished out, the corpse was placed in a plywood box and planted in an unmarked plot at El Jardin, a pauper's cemetery that, until recently, allowed goats to graze atop the graves to cut down on mowing costs.

"I'm sure that somewhere he has loved ones who have never heard back from him," said Danny Besteiro, co-manager of Delta Funeral Directors, which handled the body last May. "It's sad, really. They're probably still wondering if he ever made it."

John Doe No. 95-036751 is among the disappeared of the Rio Grande, the narrow, deceptively tranquil ribbon of water that separates Mexico from Texas--and all the promise that life in the north is imagined to hold.

Illegally crossing any portion of the U.S. border is fraught with risks, of course, a gamble that every undocumented immigrant knowingly takes. But no obstacle is more hazardous or less forgiving than the Rio Grande, which is uniquely situated to erase any record of the fate of those who die trying to cross.

Many come from small villages or ranches, never having learned to swim. Most remove their clothing and identification, ferrying them in plastic bags above their heads. If they slip or panic, warm waters and carnivorous aquatic life quickly deform their features. When their bodies surface, it is upon the shores of some of the poorest counties in America, ill-equipped to handle the human detritus of an international migration crisis.

"They're virtually a forgotten people," said Jacqueline Hagan, a sociologist at the University of Houston's Center for Immigration Research. "Their existence is eradicated."

In a landmark study released earlier this month, the university estimated that as many as 270 would-be immigrants drown every year while illegally crossing the Texas-Mexico border. Many of them never are identified, the study found, blaming the "cursory and informal" procedures of South Texas authorities for hampering the identification process.

Because of limited funds, only one of the 14 Texas border counties has its own coroner, thus requiring a justice of the peace with no medical training to rule on the cause of death. If there are obvious signs of foul play, a justice sometimes will contract with a pathologist. But the study found that most apparent drowning victims, presumed to be illegal immigrants, almost never are afforded the same priority.

No coroner also means no morgue. The burden usually falls on local funeral homes, which may be paid as little as $70 to handle a body. Again, the study found, lack of resources impeded the chances of identification. Although state law requires an unclaimed body to be held for at least 72 hours, most funeral directors told the researchers that they were unwilling to store a decomposing corpse for more than a day or two before shipping it to a pauper's grave.

"The villain here isn't a person, but a system . . . one that doesn't weigh the human costs of immigration policy," said Nestor Rodriguez, the University of Houston sociologist who directed the project. "It's an issue of respect and humane treatment of the deceased."

Although the report was released with an eye toward the current immigration debate in Congress, the Rio Grande was claiming lives long before there was even a Border Patrol standing sentry over its muddy banks. A serpentine, 1,200-mile-long moat, it is the one inexorable hurdle that all illegal immigrants must scale before setting foot in Texas--a hazard that fails to deter the hundreds of thousands who attempt it each year.

"If they've come this far, they're not going to let that river stop them," said Norma Cortez-Lopez, a supervisor at the Border Patrol's Brownsville station. "Rail, hail, sleet, snow--they've come determined to get across."

What invariably surprises most first-time visitors is the shallow, almost pathetic trickle that the Rio Grande has become in places. Despite looming large in the mythology of the Southwest, its flow has been sapped by urban sprawl, industry and agriculture. During dry spells, as the last few months have been, the water level at some bends is not even knee-deep.

Yet bodies still wash up. Between 1993 and 1994, 52 were fished out just in Cameron County, the southernmost tip of Texas, which includes the city of Brownsville. Fire officials, who use a rescue boat equipped with trawling hooks to recover the corpses, speculate that most victims lose their footing during hasty late-night crossings. Already tired and confused, they get pulled under by unpredictable currents.

"We've had kids and women and grown men and grandpas," said Brownsville Fire Lt. Jose Puente, a 21-year veteran. "We're right at the end of the river, so everything floats on down to us."

In each case, local authorities summon a justice of the peace, an elected magistrate who generally handles minor disputes and civil marriages. Although state law requires an inquest into the cause of all suspicious or unattended deaths, most justices rarely seek an autopsy to make that determination. If the body is fully clothed, they might order further investigation. But if it is naked, they usually presume it is another migrant drowning--a call made on the riverbanks.

"We try to check for foul play," said Tony Torres, a justice of the peace who rules on many of Brownsville's river cases. "But imagine what we'd pay if we started ordering autopsies for every Tom, Dick and Harry. We'd have the county coming after us."

By comparison, the medical examiner's office in San Diego County routinely performs autopsies on unidentified bodies, including those of undocumented migrants who die while crossing the border from Tijuana. Fingerprints, dental work, X-rays and surgical scars all are recorded, said chief investigator Cal Vine, estimating that such bodies are generally held for three to six months--sometimes even years--before being buried as John Does.

But in South Texas, the decision to forgo an autopsy effectively ends the investigative trail. Delta Funeral Directors, one of the Rio Grande Valley's few family-run mortuaries, picks up many of the bodies with a rust-specked trailer and hauls them to a stainless-steel cooler in its garage. Even though the corpses can be chilled to below-freezing, some are so putrid that the stench is inescapable.

"If they're decomposed beyond belief, we just have to do something with them," said Aly Besteiro, whose family is paid $500 by the county to process each body.

In Brownsville, that means a quickie burial at El Jardin--The Garden--a small, anonymous plot surrounded by a chain-link fence and barbed wire. Created in the mid-1980s by then-owner Morris Boughton, the graveyard is home to more than 200 bodies--about half of which he estimates were plucked from the Rio Grande. Until he sold it to corporate interests in 1994, Boughton allowed his goats to roam the cemetery, both trimming and fertilizing the yard.

"We used to eat cabrito about once a month," said Boughton, referring to the grilled goat meat popular in South Texas.

Even if more formal procedures were followed, however, the environmental reality of the river still would make identification impossible in many cases.

After drowning, a body can sink for 24 to 48 hours, depending on water temperature. It rises, becoming a "floater," only after the decomposition process has filled the corpse with natural gas. In the meantime, catfish, turtles and other riparian wildlife can feed on the soft tissue.

"It's just a horrible, gross, medieval scene from hell," said Steve Walker, a naturalist and outdoorsman who conducts bird-watching tours of river habitats for the University of Texas at Brownsville. "You become part of the food chain immediately. That's where a human being loses his dignity."

Brownsville police photograph the bodies, recording as many identifying characteristics as they can. But that still leaves precious little to go on when families show up seeking information about a lost loved one. Unless a unique description is supplied or the date of disappearance can be pinpointed, detectives generally are reluctant to allow grieving relatives to view post-mortem photos.

"If it's too gruesome, we're not going to show it," said Sgt. Henry Etheridge, flipping through a file of hideous, full-color snapshots. "What's the point if the picture has no identification value, anyway?"

For Zenia Finn, a Guatemalan native whose brother, Raul Berduo, disappeared while preparing to cross the Rio Grande into Brownsville, not knowing has been the hardest part.

Berduo, then 26, left Guatemala City in April 1990, accompanied by his brother-in-law. After an arduous, monthlong journey during which they were robbed, Berduo called Finn in Houston on May 10 to say that they were in the Mexican border city of Matamoros and planned to ford the rain-swollen river that night.

"We were waiting and waiting and waiting," said Finn, 31, a preschool teacher who immigrated legally a year before her brother. "But he never arrived."

Eventually, Finn learned that her brother and some other would-be migrants had been assessing the waters when Mexican police suddenly raided the Matamoros riverbank. Shots were fired. In the pandemonium, some people ran. Others hurled themselves into the Rio Grande.

The brother-in-law was arrested and deported to Guatemala. Berduo was never seen again. Although the family reported his disappearance to Mexican authorities, nothing has ever been learned of his fate.

"We'd feel better if we knew he was dead," said Finn, sounding almost surprised to hear herself make such an admission. "It would be horrible, but at least we'd know. At least it would put our pain to rest."

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