Immigrant Deaths Turn Sheriff Into Homespun Humanitarian

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The sheriff knows them all. Not by name but by their tattered clothes, their thirst, the way their eyes roll back when the heat sets in.

He’s watched them shred shirts off their chests. He’s seen the skin slough off the feet of a woman who walked all the way from Mexico in sneakers that didn’t fit.

He’s seen them dying and dead and buried. He’s even seen a few blink back to life after their hearts stopped beating.


“It makes you pray when you don’t know how,” says Rafael Cuellar Jr., squinting into the desert sun.

Cuellar was born on this dirt. He’s been sheriff for eight years, a lawman more than 30. His rolling belly laugh startles quail from the brush. He’s half deaf, walks with a cane, battles diabetes and depression.

The 61-year-old sheriff retires at the end of the year. He leaves behind a scarred desk, a legacy of homespun humanitarian work and an immigrant cemetery blessed with the coo of doves.

“Maybe now we’ll get to spend a little time with him,” says Cuellar’s son, Rafael III. “My dad gets up when it’s dark and works until it’s still dark.”

Under Cuellar’s watch, the Mexican and American governments declared his territory one of the three deadliest immigrant passages along the border. In the last four years, 62 migrants have lain down and died in Kenedy County. And those were just the bodies that were found.

But Cuellar wasn’t about to let death rule his county--not without a fight. He came back fierce, using his weekends, his imagination, his pocket money to battle the desert tragedies.


Somewhere out on the desolate coastal plains, he’ll keep fighting. He’ll fight until his bones are buried beside his grandfather’s, his father’s and those of the immigrants he couldn’t save. Truth is, retirement or not, he doesn’t know how to quit trying.

Skirting the Border Patrol

Everyone in South Texas knows, if you’re out in Kenedy County, you’d best have a full tank of gas and an empty bladder.

The county is bigger than Rhode Island--1,700 square miles--but home to just 460 souls.

In Sarita, the county seat, a single stoplight blinks bleakly over the highway. There’s a courthouse, a Roman Catholic church and Cuellar’s office. Nothing to buy but a postage stamp or a can of Coke, old-timers cackle.

“It’s a nice little town--everybody’s related, all cousins,” Cuellar says. “You go out and barbecue at night, get into a fight and then go to church together the next day.”

But Kenedy County is remarkable not for what it is but for where it is. One hundred miles north of Mexico, 270 miles south of Houston. One lone federal highway, U.S. 77, quivers in the heat. In the middle, 100 miles north of the border, the Border Patrol roadblock awaits northbound travelers. The guards sit behind their sunglasses, stretch out their hands for paperwork.

Most immigrants don’t take the chance.

It’s easier, they believe, to get dropped off south of the checkpoint, to skirt the Border Patrol by hiking 20 or 30 miles through the desert.


Seeking Anonymity in the Big City

Footprint upon footprint, they trudge through wild olive, purple sage and mesquite, past the cattle, over the scattered white sand dunes that fool the eye and gulp the foot up to the ankle.

If they make it back to the road, a smuggler’s car awaits. They can motor on, hair streaming, and let the desert slip off behind them. They can step into the anonymous sprawl of Houston, into crumbling apartment complexes and factories where bosses and landlords know better than to ask for papers.

There will be a chance--if they make it.

“They’re sick, weak, hungry, thirsty,” Cuellar says. A Santa Fe freight screams by, the only motion in a stifling afternoon. “They don’t know where they are.”

Cuellar scans the skies for buzzards. It’s noon, and the cows are nosing around for shade. On the dashboard of his pickup, keys to every gate in the county jangle on an old ring.

The sheriff stocks pills and liniment and ice packs. He stashes countless sacks of chewing tobacco and foil packs of Swisher Sweet cigars. Wedges of melon, if the immigrants are hungry. Blankets, if they’re cold. Rubber gloves and a camera, if it’s too late.

“I never forget the body or the spot we find it,” Cuellar says, shaking his head.

‘All I Can See Is to Save Lives’

This particular dappled grove of live oak is a stone’s throw from the highway. The earth vibrates when the big rigs pass, hauling oranges and bluejeans and camera parts from Mexico to Houston.


A 21-year-old woman died of dehydration here, her face turned toward the whistle and shush of passing cars.

“She was right there.”

Cuellar limps from the driver’s seat and squats. He studies the dirt.

“She almost made it.”

Back over this way, a 12-year-old boy died. Stumbled down that desert dune, curled beneath a clump of wild grapevines, tried to escape the sun. Crazed. Lost.

All around the sheriff, all the time, the United States is struggling to pull shut its back door--but Cuellar doesn’t waste much thought on politics.

“I’m so deep into this I don’t even know right or wrong anymore,” he says. “All I can see is to save lives.”

A drunken driver here, a petty drug bust there. Kenedy County never had much crime.

“There wasn’t any pressure to actually do any work,” recalls James Scarborough, a former deputy who lost the sheriff’s seat to Cuellar by five votes. Hard feelings melt fast in the Texas sun--the two men remain close friends.

But Cuellar doesn’t rest. Pulls himself from bed on black mornings, makes his first rounds as the sun spills over the brown earth.


He drives two hours to visit Brownsville migrant shelters. He begs them not to risk it. It takes hours to die of dehydration, he warns them. In the end, you will think you’ve caught on fire. You will rip your clothes from your body, knowing death has caught you at last. He speaks of the bones he finds, of the backhoe that digs the graves.

“The main job Junior has is to stop those poor people from killing themselves,” Jack Turquotte says. “That’s how he perceives his job--and he’s right.”

The county’s 70-year-old treasurer has known the sheriff for decades, ever since “Junior” took Turquotte’s Roman Catholic catechism class. Back then, Cuellar couldn’t speak English.

Generations in an Unforgiving Land

His grandfather drifted north from a little town just north of the border when he was 16. He ended up at Kenedy Ranch, where he worked as a ranch hand until he was 80. Cuellar’s dad was a foreman at the ranch for half a century. The young Cuellar trotted on horseback beside his old man on the long drives inland from the Gulf of Mexico. They nudged the herds across the harsh land, slowly, so the cattle wouldn’t lose weight.

“He was accustomed to doing it the rough way,” Cuellar recalls with a laugh. “The horse way. But he didn’t want us to have a rough life like that.”

Cuellar’s own son, Rafael III, will soon be a Border Patrol agent. Cowboys, lawman, federal agent: Their family line sketches the slow drag of time on Kenedy County.


The decades have aged these lands. Even the illegal immigrants were different 20, 30, 40 years ago, longtime resident Scarborough believes--harder, and somehow smarter.

“They were campesinos, they were tough people coming up to work. They knew their way, and they’d prepare for the trip,” he says. “These illegals now, they come up desperate from the cities, and they don’t know what they’re getting into and. . . .”

He thinks for a minute.

“And they die.”

One day Cuellar looked at a corpse and knew he couldn’t dig another unmarked grave.

He asked no one’s permission, just summoned a funeral director and bought a grave marker for a dead pilgrim.

Since that day 11 years ago, the county has paid at least $100,000 for immigrant autopsies and burials--and nobody complains.

“Around here, just about everybody’s had hard knocks, or at least seen somebody who works for ‘em go through a tough time,” Scarborough says. “People here understand how it is.”

Besides, as Kenedy residents sometimes boast, the county has a lot of money and nothing to buy. Crisp corporate checks flow into the coffers regular as spring. Most of the taxes--98%--come from oil companies with mineral rights to the deep pools of black gold.


“We don’t have taxpayers,” Turquotte says, laughing. “Not the way you mean it.”

A Procession That Never Ends

This nation never wanted them here. Didn’t want their coffee eyes or their hardened hands. If the migrants had been caught alive, they would have been kicked out.

But they died mean deaths in their ill-fated journeys north--and so these immigrants can stay. They have earned a scrap of U.S. soil. As if life were a venom, as though death had sucked all the harm out of them.

Their names are etched in pounded tin, sunk in mounds of earth cracked by drought. Jefry Guardado, 14. Espiridion Rosales, 58.

Female unknown. Unknown male. Unknown skeletal remains.

It was Cuellar who did this.

When there’s no way to identify the bones, when the family can’t be found or doesn’t want the body or can’t afford to come, the sheriff calls a priest. He stands silent at the funerals, hammy hands slack at his sides.

Cuellar’s father is buried here, beneath perfumed lilies, within shouting distance of the immigrants’ graves.

Cuellar likes the graveyard, goes there to think. Some afternoons, doves alight on the cemetery’s wire fence. They sing while the sun seeps away.


Cuellar is fascinated by the call of the doves. He often thinks he should record their song.

Maybe once he’s retired, he’ll have time.

“I’m tired. I’m tired in my bones,” he says. “It takes something away from you, feeling sorry for all these people all the time. . . .”

He trails off. Looks at the graves, the sky, the endless fields and the dirt road stretching back to town.

Out in the desert, the ragged procession is trudging north, pressing on, weak and weary.

Cuellar knows they’re there. He knows some will live, some will die.

He’s seen them before.