Who will claim the bodies of unknown immigrants?

Forensic scientists are working to identify thousands of anonymous corpses along the U.S.-Mexico border

Topics: Pacific Standard, Mexico, Immigration, illegal immigration, Latinos,

Who will claim the bodies of unknown immigrants? (Credit: Brendan Borrell)
This piece originally appeared on Pacific Standard.

Pacific Standard At the bottom of a freshly opened grave, two young women use brushes and dustpans to sweep the last traces of powdery south Texas soil off the coffin. It’s a little before 8 a.m. on a cloudless May morning, and the punishing sun will soon push the temperature into the 90s. Up on ground level, the excavation’s super​visor, a sprightly forensic archaeologist named Lori Baker, snaps photos of the work. All around them, granite headstones display the names of the dead buried here in the city of Del Rio’s Westlawn Cemetery—Connor, Pennington, Ramirez. Baker has come here from Baylor University in Waco, Texas, to determine the identity of the others, the ones without headstones or whose resting places bear a single word: Unknown. Many of them, she believes, are illegal immigrants who drowned in the Rio Grande or died from heat exhaustion—and whose families have no idea what became of them. “It doesn’t matter if they disappeared in the 1990s,” Baker says. “People don’t stop searching.”

Baker’s team soon gathers around the grave, and two students pry open the coffin with hammers. Inside lies a woman’s body, partially mummified. A clump of hair rests alone, like a bird’s nest, on the pillow. “Where’s the head?” someone asks. Then they spot it. Her head lies at the foot of the coffin, next to two cotton slippers—a final indignity for a woman buried without a name. The cemetery’s gravedigger says the head must have fallen off and rolled there years ago, when the coffin was dug up and moved to make room for another grave.

The decapitated woman’s exhumation is the first of many in Baker’s efforts to identify anonymous immigrants’ corpses in Texas. She will provide samples of DNA extracted from the bodies’ bones to match against databases compiled by the Mexican and U.S. governments. Her painstaking work, she hopes, will give closure to families who don’t know whether a vanished relative has died, been kidnapped, or is simply out of touch.



The number of undocumented immigrants caught by the U.S. Border Patrol has plummeted from a peak of 1.2 million in 2005 to 340,252 last year. But the number of deaths has not fallen apace; hundreds of corpses are still found every year. In 2011, 42 percent of the 357 deaths reported by the Border Patrol were in Texas, where many of the bodies are recovered from the thorny scrub of ranches. And that’s only the bodies the patrol found. My visits to county offices and graveyards, together with surveys by government officials, suggest that thousands of anonymous corpses have been buried in Texas over the last 20 years. A statewide law directs officials to collect DNA samples from unidentified corpses, but both funeral directors and law-enforcement officers tell me that doesn’t always happen. After all, only one of the 15 border counties in Texas has a fully equipped medical examiner’s office.

It’s a long-standing problem all along the border. Several years ago, Bruce Anderson of Arizona’s Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner was facing a surge in unidentified deaths, from an average of just a dozen a year to 200. “We had 100 bone samples in our freezers,” he recalls. He contacted Baker for help, knowing she had used genetics to study ancient American migrations. Baker paid her own way to Pima County and started taking DNA samples. She soon cracked her first case, identifying the remains of a mother of two who twisted her ankle while crossing into Arizona and was abandoned by her companions. The woman’s family broke into tears when television reporters interviewed them about the discovery.

The Mexican government soon gave Baker grants to sequence the DNA of 250 more bodies, yielding about 70 matches. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Justice began paying for the sequencing of the roughly 4,000 unidentified remains recovered on U.S. soil each year, wherever they’re found. By now, Anderson has identified 65 percent of the 2,000 anonymous cadavers found in Arizona over the past decade.

Baker, meanwhile, has shifted her modest lab’s focus to long-buried bodies. In addition to looking at DNA, she’s also analyzing trace elements found in the remains. The elements can show evidence of the person’s diet, which can help separate foreigners from locals.

Last spring’s trip to Del Rio proved how grueling her project will be. She first tried the city’s San Felipe Cemetery, but the aging groundskeeper couldn’t recall where he had buried unidentified bodies. So she moved on to Westlawn Cemetery, several miles away, which seemed to have better records. One team of her students, however, spent four days digging in the 100-degree heat before they uncovered a corpse clasping a plastic-wrapped Bible—from the Retama Manor Nursing Center. Not an unknown body after all. Baker had already spent an afternoon in the emergency room with a serious bout of heatstroke and was not pleased with one more frustration.

After 10 days of work, the group packed six bodies into the back of its trailer and headed north to begin the laboratory work. Just a few days later, a call came in to a nearby sheriff’s office. A body had been found on a remote ranch. It was going to be a long summer.

Brendan Borrell reported this story with the support of a freelance grant from Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>