Some photos are artful, such as a skull amid crawling vines, a kind of meditation; or a young man's figure with legs softly bent, his head thrown back against a bush with the arc of a ballet dancer's neck -- only a close-up of the face, mouth open and vacant eyes, speaks death. Some remains are partially clothed. There is a condition that comes with too much sun: judgment wanes, and the affected person mistakenly believes stripping will assuage the heat inside. Many found dead from dehydration have jugs of water lying nearby; the inexperienced trekker -- especially when lost -- will save water instead of sipping it periodically, until a line is crossed in the brain and the person no longer feels thirst even as he is expiring from it. Among the pictures are corpses bloated so grievously they look ready to pop. The body of one young woman is not badly swollen, lying with face and torso intact, but her legs have been gnawed down to the long bones by a feral pig.
Luis M. Lopez Moreno, Mexico's consul in McAllen, said since the border has become so difficult to cross, working men who moved back and forth annually are now stuck in the north, and family members unaccustomed to the trek are "trying to reunite" by traveling to the States. More women travel, sometimes with children. Young migrants are likely to be better educated and more urban now, less aware of how to manage themselves under extreme conditions.
"Hank," a guide for high-end hunters who doesn't want his real name used, thinks he saves lives. Unobtrusively, he turns hunters' blinds away from nearby trails so the "illegals" don't get shot by accident. This is also an attempt "to protect the psychological state of the hunters." They may be men fearless in high finance and politics -- Washington figures including both Bush presidents have hunted here, with Air Force One parked incongruously on the county airstrip -- but surprized in the wild by local human traffic, they can quake. "Especially if it's something like a group of 30 coming through," Hank explained. Guides have begun giving hunters two-way radios to use if they feel endangered.
Hank once discovered a man lying on his back, one hand on his forehead, knee up, as if he were resting. He had been cooked in place. Another body fallen in the middle of a trail had a path worn around it, where migrants stepped to avoid the corpse.
Policy makers have "no idea" of the local situation, said Sheriff Balde Lozano. "Worst is the deaths. We get there and sometimes they've been dead minutes, sometimes months. Some I'm sure are never found." There is "more money in aliens" than drugs now, said the sheriff.
Trevino-Cantu still calls them "travelers." When passing migrants asked for food, Trevino's mother once distributed a stack of tortillas. "If it was the immigrants of old there'd be no fear; you'd live and let live. Before, they were humble, polite. Now they come in packs. They're desperate, bold. A lot of them are pretty well dressed, and everyone seems to want to go to Houston. It's a completely different element."
Analysts and townspeople agree the vast majority of migrants are Mexicans who are very poor, or slightly less than poor and looking for a better job, or attempting to reach family. According to Sheriff Lozano, however, the first identified MS-13 gang member among the migrants was caught in Brooks County. Coyotes often have criminal records. One woman described the call of a man standing with a Bible, asking for food. "When I turned around, 20 people with him came out of the woods," she said. "My life's changed. I don't want to get raped. I'm afraid." Some ranchers report spending $50,000 a year to repair destroyed fences and clean up litter from the migrants.
Ninety-two percent of the population of Brooks County is Hispanic, and even most blue-eyed Anglos are bilingual from childhood. It's a culture that used to feel more connected to those coming through, documented or not, or at least not feel alien to them. As Police Chief Eden Garcia put it, "A lot of our families came the same route." But the greater number, and a suspected criminal element that has slipped in among them, is straining that culture.
The four-year old Texas Border Volunteers, a local Minuteman-type group that sees itself as aiding the Border Patrol, fan out armed at night in camouflage ATVs to track migrants and coyotes. They're better equipped than local lawmen, with the latest thermal imaging and night vision equipment, partly funded by ranchers, they say. Their founder, Mike Vickers, is a well-regarded local veterinarian with some national fame: he isolated the "Ames" strain of Bacillus anthracis used in the deadly anthrax attacks of 2001. He says the "Volunteers" disrupt coyotes' deliveries of human beings, save lives by finding the lost and straggling, and are on the spot to receive anyone who wants to "surrender" because they can't go any farther.
Falfurrias Justice of the Peace Loretta G. Cabrera arrives at the site of remains in high boots to methodically note time and location. Clothing. To oversee collection of parts if the body is not intact. "The Lord gives you strength," said Cabrera, a small woman. "Someone has to do it."
This routine of logging the dead was repeated 56 times in Brooks County last year. In total, the Border Patrol recorded 453 border deaths. A General Accounting Office report said recorded border deaths have doubled since 1995. It also said the Border Patrol may be producing an undercount. No one knows, of course, how many die without leaving recoverable remains.
At the Mexican consulate, a computer is connected to an international public access system that anyone can check for details of found remains. "We try to be sensitive to the people," said Vice-consul Sandra Mendoza. When she calls a village telephone to inform relatives about confirming a picture of the dead, she cautions, "Don't send a father or mother."
The mortuary's field director, Angel Rangel, said he usually kept just two "disaster bags" in stock, used when remains must be carried to the coroner in pieces; today he orders cases of six to 12 bags at a time. Rangel uses the term "loved one" for migrants, not "aliens," "illegals," or even, when they're dead, "deceased."
"Well, they're someone's loved ones," he said. Like other locals, Rangel opines that as long as Mexicans need work and families want to be together, people will continue to risk the journey. Meanwhile there is a logistics problem emerging with regard to the unidentified dead, he said. The section allotted for them in the local cemetery is running out of room.
The seduction of easy money -- $1500 for a quick trip to Houston with an undocumented passenger, and no checkpoints to cross -- has been too tempting for some residents of Falfurrias, Texas. "Bill," 43, a heavy equipment operator with a wife and daughter, became a criminal two years ago, an accidental coyote. Someone offered him big money to take an illegal immigrant who had just made it through the desert for a no-risk ride -- he'd start from north of the last Border Patrol checkpoint here, a full 70 miles from the border itself. The extra cash became a habit.
Recently Bill started working with a more serious, deliberate coyote, now running him down to the border town of Mission twice a week for $700 each time -- again no risk, since Border Patrol isn't likely to stop a car traveling south. There are probably fewer than a dozen such local coyotes in town, lawmen and Bill say, and probably half of them would be doing something illegal anyway, running small amounts of dope, for instance. Others like Bill have been criminalized partly by choice, but also by how immigration policy operates, and an accident of geography that puts Falfurrias, with just some 5000 residents, in the middle of the migrant stream.
Bill had never been in jail in his life, except for a few hours in high school for speeding. He's not one of the despicable coyotes who lie and would just as soon leave someone to die rather than be squeezed off schedule. "I was trying to start a septic tank business. If I do it seven more months I think I can start."
But the extra cash has helped Bill revive an old cocaine habit. And when a cop stopped him for an out-of-date tag and found an undocumented person in the car, Bill was warned and released but it went on his record, so he lost his good regular job and has settled for one that pays less. Starting the septic tank business may take more time than he thought.
He should quit or be extra careful; if he's caught again he goes to jail. But now he's a little afraid, just as some townspeople are cautious about local coyotes, lest they be connected to mean ones. "They should be afraid," suggests Bill. Not of him, he insists, of others. "We each work with a chain and if you steal someone off another one's chain or do something else they don't like they say, ÔThe mafia will take care of you.' That's the Mexican mafia."
Bill doesn't think he'd make it in prison. "I'm not the prison type," he said.
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Albion Monitor June
21, 2007 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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