Mass graves of unidentified migrants found in South Texas

Lori Baker, an associate professor of forensic anthropology at Baylor University, inventories human remains recovered last month on a South Texas ranch. Baker and other researchers recently discovered a series of mass immigrant graves in a Brooks County, Texas, cemetery.
(Molly Hennessy-Fiske / Los Angeles Times)

A series of mass graves filled with remains of unidentified migrants has been discovered in a South Texas cemetery.

Anthropology researchers exhumed bodies from 52 plots in the Brooks County-owned Sacred Heart Burial Park Falfurrias earlier this month. One plot contained three bodies stuffed inside a single body bag, and another had at least five people in body bags and other small garbage bags. Other plots contained skulls and skeletal remains in biohazard bags.

The total number of people buried was unclear because the remains had been intermingled.

“I was pretty upset at the end, because this isn’t the way to be interred,” Baylor University anthropologist Lori Baker said Saturday. “The idea that all along the border there are these people buried anonymously is horrible. This isn’t even the worst we’ve seen, and it has to stop.”


Brooks County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Benny Martinez said he would meet with the county judge and commissioners Tuesday in Austin to investigate what happened with the burials.

“I’m trying to get a grasp as to why that occurred,” he said.

Martinez said he doesn’t foresee any criminal charges for the funeral home, Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams, that the county pays to take care of bodies after sheriff’s officials recover them.

“We have always been under budget constraints,” he said. “Maybe there was no money to facilitate burying the bodies.”

Brooks County Judge Raul Ramirez told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times that for 16 years the county had been paying the funeral home to handle bodies.

A spokeswoman for Service Corporation International, which owns the funeral home, said in an emailed statement: “No matter if this is one of our client families we serve on a traditional basis or a migrant family’s loved one we are serving and we do not have identification of the loved one, it is our policy to treat the decedent with care, to treat them just like we would treat anyone else.”

The researchers who exhumed the bodies include professors and students from Baylor and the University of Indianapolis who are working on the Reuniting Families project. That multiyear effort attempts to identify the bodies of the hundreds of illegal immigrants who have died while crossing the Texas-Mexico border over the last few years.


Brooks County has a high number of immigrant deaths. It has recorded 33 so far this year. Last year, 87 bodies were recovered, and 129 the year before that, Martinez said. The county has a Border Patrol checkpoint on the main highway north, which many immigrants and their smugglers try to avoid by crossing nearby ranchland. Bodies are often found in the unforgiving terrain.

The exhumed bodies were buried between 2005 and 2009, Baker estimated.

When the researchers discussed the matter with the funeral home before the excavation, Baker said, they were told that Sacred Heart didn’t have maps or lists to help figure out where the bodies were buried or who they belonged to. When they asked for the materials the funeral home used for the burials, they were shown fiberboard coffins, Baker said.

“But we are yet to find any burials using those,” she said.

Because the county is 70 miles from the border, it doesn’t receive federal funding to help with immigration issues.

“They’re so overworked,” Baker said. “Trying to keep people alive who are in distress is the county’s No. 1 priority, so they haven’t been able to make the remains one.”

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