Beyond the Border
This wide-ranging four-part investigative print and multimedia series examines the impact that the current immigration crisis has on those directly affected. Judges called “Beyond the Border” a “masterfully executed” series that takes an abstract issue like immigration policy and “makes it real,” portraying each character as the “complicated individuals that they are, not just the roles they occupy in this epic drama.” Originally published in The Texas Observer and The Guardian in August 2014.
Texas has become the deadliest state in the US for undocumented immigrants. In 2012, 271 migrants died while crossing through Texas, surpassing Arizona as the nation's most dangerous entry point. The majority of those deaths didn't occur at the Texas-Mexico border but in rural Brooks County, 70 miles north of the Rio Grande, where the US Border Patrol has a checkpoint. To circumvent the checkpoint, migrants must leave the highway and hike through the rugged ranchlands. Hundreds die each year on the trek, most from heat stroke. This four-part series looks at the lives impacted by the humanitarian crisis.
The smugglers dropped them on the side of a desolate highway at dusk. Exelina Hernandez hid in the brush with the others and waited for the guides to signal that it was time to begin their long walk. The sky was streaked orange and red, and darkness was slowly enveloping them.
The 24 men, women and children had formed into smaller groups with family members or others they'd met on the journey north. Indians from the highlands of Guatemala squatted next to mestizos from El Salvador and Honduras. Some were frightened, some hopeful, holding water jugs and backpacks close. After so many weeks of traveling, they had finally reached the United States. Now they only needed to walk a few more miles around an immigration checkpoint.
Exelina was looking forward to reuniting with her two young children, Ana and Javier, and her husband, Gustavo, whom she hadn't seen since her exile to El Salvador months before. She had returned to El Salvador in a desperate attempt to gain legal residency in the United States. But gangs in her San Salvador neighborhood proved too dangerous and Exelina was fleeing back to Texas. It was a seven-hour drive to her home in Irving from the spot where Exelina hunkered down in the South Texas brush. After weeks of traveling, she was on the last leg of her journey, but she was still a long way from home.
She knew the trip was risky; she knew that people sometimes died trying to reach their families in the United States, but death was difficult to comprehend. La muerte was a concern for the old and the infirm. She was just 31-years old, recently married and in love. A journey like this required hope, a positive outlook. It had taken her three weeks to arrive at the Texas border from San Salvador, and she spent another 11 days at a safe house in Brownsville. The privilege of being crammed into a windowless warehouse with several dozen unwashed strangers and being forced to hike for several hours through desolate ranches of thorn scrub and prickly pear would cost her $3,200.
At the warehouse in Brownsville, Exelina had gotten to know a woman in her late 50s, a devout Christian also from El Salvador, and a younger woman from Guatemala. Exelina was always making friends. She loved to tell jokes, and often chatted with the neighbors in Irving, much to her mother Elsy's dismay. "Don't be so friendly. You never know who a person really is," her mother often warned. Exelina would tease her. "You're like that, mamí, not me. I'm different."
Just 5-foot-2, Exelina was chubby with long, wavy, dark brown hair. The smugglers called her "gorda." They joked that she was too fat to endure hours of hiking through the brush to get around the Border Patrol checkpoint in Brooks County. But she insisted she could endure the hike. What choice did she have? Her children and her husband who were US citizens were waiting for her in Irving, as were her mother and stepfather. Every few days, a group would leave the Brownsville safe house for the journey north. But the smugglers refused to include her. Instead, they offered to smuggle her in a tractor-trailer for $5,000. Another traveler warned Exelina that it was a trick to extort more money from her family, which could scarcely afford the $3,200 in the first place. So she turned the offer down. After 11 days of insisting she could make the hike, and after they received half the smuggling fee, the men decided to let her make the trip. She left with a group of 20 men and boys and three other women, including her new friends, the Salvadoreña and the girl from Guatemala. The women stuck together, excited that they were finally on their way.
It was Friday, Nov. 1, 2013. They would walk all night and into the next day until they reached a highway north of the immigration checkpoint in Falfurrias. There, more SUVs would come for them and they would drive five hours northeast to Houston. Once they reached Houston, their families would pay the other half of the fee to the smugglers and then they'd be free. In Brownsville, the smugglers who had taken the initial payment made the trip sound routine. But, in fact, dozens die in Brooks County every year trying to hike around the Border Patrol checkpoint. The number of deaths began to climb after the checkpoint expanded and immigration policies were tightened in the mid-1990s. The death count rose even further in recent years with the exodus of Central Americans escaping violence at home. Many immigrants like Exelina feel they have no choice. If they want to reunite with their families in the United States, they must risk the walk through the Brooks County brush.
To circumvent the Falfurrias checkpoint, undocumented immigrants hike through harsh terrain covered in sand and thick brush with temperatures that can reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit in summer months. Above: an aerial shot of Brooks County, June 2014.
Darkness fell and the two guides beckoned them forward. La migra were all around them, the guides warned. They had helicopters, surveillance balloons and truck patrols looking for immigrants. There were also the ranchers who could shoot you on sight for trespassing, and there were wild animals, snakes and roving gang members who would rob and rape you in the brush. She'd heard these stories during her stay at the safe house in Brownsville. She'd prayed with the other women for safe passage. Exelina figured she had nothing to steal anyway—only a fake gold chain with a crucifix.
It was late in the fall, but the temperature that day reached a record 91 degrees. By the time the group started walking, the temperature had dipped to 85 degrees, but a tropical front rolling in from the Gulf of Mexico was pushing the humidity higher. The night air felt hot and close. Under a sliver of moon, the travelers tried to focus on the guides' flashlights. An occasional light from an oil rig or cell phone tower glimmered in the distance, but otherwise the night seemed impenetrable. And then there were the sounds: the mournful yips and howls of coyotes, a frightened animal rustling in the brush, their own nervous laughter when someone tripped or was startled by a noise.
The ground shifted beneath their feet—in some places the sand was nearly a foot deep and carpeted with burrs. Since the last Ice Age, westerly winds had been depositing great layers of coastal sand across the inland county. It felt as if they were walking along the bottom of a vast ocean, drowning in darkness. The sand seeped into Exelina's shoes and rubbed at her feet. Burrs covered her pants and socks, scratching her legs. Thorns tore at her arms through her thin gray hoodie. The only vegetation that thrived in Brooks County seemed designed to inflict misery: thorny mesquite, prickly pear, horse crippler cactus and cat's claw. Mile after mile they marched through the sand, the humidity rising and barely a breeze in the air.
Exelina wiped the sweat from her face with her sleeve. Her thighs cramped. Her feet became blistered and raw. She began to fall behind. One of the guides, still just a teenager, offered her a pill. "So you can endure it," he said. Exelina swallowed the pill. It was an old trick of the coyotes to give the pollos, as they called their clients, cheap over-the-counter diet pills, or amphetamines, to keep them alert so they could walk all night. But the amphetamines caused even greater thirst. By midnight it was 68 degrees but the humidity had climbed to 94 percent. The heat felt unbearable. Her head ached and throbbed. Growing dizzy, Exelina veered away from the trail, then stumbled to the ground. "I can't walk any farther," she said.
It was Sunday morning, and Elsy was at home in Irving getting ready for church when her husband Salvador's cell phone rang. Elsy was planning to ask the congregation to pray for her daughter Exelina's safe arrival. Finally, she thought. It had been nearly unbearable waiting so many days for a phone call from her daughter, saying she was okay and waiting for them in Houston. The cell phone showed that it was a private caller. "This could be her," Salvador said to Elsy, answering the phone.
"Is this Exelina's father?" a woman asked.
"Yes, I am her stepfather," Salvador said.
"We prayed with your daughter," the woman said. He could tell she was Salvadoran by her accent. She sounded older than Exelina. "I told her, ‘Don't give up. Think of your children. They are waiting for you.'"
"I don't understand. Where is she?" Salvador said. Hearing his words, Elsy felt panic rise in her chest.
"The men carried her on their backs," the woman said. "Even one of the smugglers carried her for a while. They didn't want to leave her, but they just couldn't carry her anymore, and she couldn't walk. She couldn't do her part."
"Where is she?" Salvador asked again.
"We prayed with your daughter that she could walk again," the woman continued. "We poured water over her forehead, her hair. She had stripped off her shirt and her sweater. She told us to leave her. She was starting to foam at the mouth."
"But where did you leave her?" he asked.
"We left water for her," the woman said. "The guide said she was 40 minutes from a ranch, so she could get help, or immigration would fly over in a helicopter and see her there and rescue her."
They had left Exelina at 7:30 in the morning, the woman explained, and walked all day until they reached the highway north of the immigration checkpoint. They were picked up by men in trucks and driven to Houston. They arrived that Saturday around 9 p.m. "I am a woman in my late 50s, a grandmother," she told Salvador. "There aren't any words to explain how difficult it was." But somehow everyone had made it to Houston—everyone except Exelina.
The ranch was near a town called Falfurrias, the woman offered. But the guides would give her no further information.
"I am praying that God delivers your daughter safely to you," the woman said, and then hung up. Salvador stared at his phone for a moment, then turned to look at his wife. The color had drained from her face. "What has happened to Exelina?" she said. "Where is my daughter?"
Like her daughter, 47-year-old Elsy Hernandez had once hired smugglers to bring her to the United States. She had arrived in Texas in 1995. For most of her life, Elsy had been hiding from one faction or another of the Salvadoran civil war that lasted until 1992. For more than 12 years, the US government invested heavily in El Salvador's right-wing military as part of its Cold War strategy, certain that the country's military dictatorship would root out the leftist guerrillas, whose ranks consisted mostly of campesinos, or peasant farmers, from the impoverished countryside.
Elsy grew up in Carolina, a rural town on the Honduran border where her family grew corn, beans and sesame. Because of the war the schools were often closed, so she had little chance for an education. At 15, Elsy became pregnant with Exelina, and three years later she had Walther, her son. One day the children's father disappeared. In those days, men were always disappearing in El Salvador. Perhaps he'd been forcibly recruited into the guerrillas or killed by government soldiers for being poor and, therefore, suspect. Or maybe he'd slipped across the border into Honduras to escape the horrors at home. In the year Exelina was born, 1982, government forces killed more than 14,000 campesinos, using scorched-earth tactics to wipe out whole villages, and torturing survivors to ensure the ranks of guerrilla sympathizers didn't grow.
To feed her children, Elsy wove palm leaves into sleeping mats and sold them on the side of the road. But it was never enough money. When she thought about the future, she couldn't envision how her family would thrive. After many months of contemplation, she decided the only hope for her children was for her to leave. But the United States didn't allow just anyone to migrate. If you came from a poor country, you had to have property, money and an education to obtain a US visa. Elsy had none of those things. So she left Exelina, 13, and Walther, 10, with her parents in Carolina, hired a smuggler and headed north.
In Dallas, Elsy found a job cleaning office buildings at night. Every month she sent money back home to her parents and children. She met and fell in love with Salvador, a streetwise mechanic, who, like her, had fled the war-torn shambles of El Salvador for Texas. The two married, and they had a son, Ernesto, in 1999.
The years passed, and Exelina, still at her grandparents' house in Carolina, desperately missed her mother. She begged to come to Texas. So in 2001, a smuggler brought 19-year-old Exelina to the United States. The Border Patrol caught her in Eagle Pass, and she was put in a detention facility. Elsy posted $10,000 in bail and took her daughter home to Irving. Before she left, Exelina was given an order to appear in US immigration court. Eventually, a judge issued an order for her deportation.
Salvador and Elsy had been luckier with US immigration law. Salvador became a citizen after the US Congress and President Ronald Reagan granted amnesty in the 1980s to nearly three million undocumented immigrants. After Elsy married Salvador, she became a legal resident, she says. But because Exelina had been caught entering the country illegally and been given a deportation order, they were told, it would be nearly impossible to fix her immigration status.
In the meantime, Exelina had fallen in love and become pregnant. Elsy was furious. "I told Exelina, ‘I brought you here so you could have an education and get ahead in life.'" Exelina decided to ignore the deportation order and remain in Texas illegally. The bail bondsman demanded that Elsy pay the $10,000 in forfeited bail money. Elsy stopped speaking to her daughter.
Exelina found work cleaning office buildings at night and caring for other people's children during the day. She worked hard and raised her daughter Ana. In 2009, she had her son, Javier, but a year later she split with the children's father, whom she had never married. Elsy adored her two grandchildren, and through them she began to repair her complicated relationship with her daughter. In 2011, Exelina met and fell in love with Gustavo, the son of Salvadoran immigrants. Gustavo had been born in the US, so he was a citizen. The two were married in January 2012.
The family hoped that Exelina, now married to a US citizen, could finally fix her immigration status. But again, Exelina wasn't so lucky. US immigration laws had changed in an overhaul under President Clinton in 1996. The only way for Exelina to live in the United States legally was to return to El Salvador and petition for entry, a process that could take several years.
They hired an immigration attorney to help Exelina remain in the country. But the attorney discovered her 2001 deportation order still on file with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The attorney advised her to return to El Salvador and apply to enter the United States. But he was candid about her prospects: Even though her husband and children were US citizens, she had little chance of being admitted. The penalty for having entered the United States illegally and ignored a deportation order was a ban from the US of 10 years or more.
The meeting with the attorney was devastating. Exelina debated for several weeks what to do next. Gustavo didn't want to live in El Salvador. Since the war had ended, violence and poverty has continued to plague the country, and it has one of the highest murder rates in Latin America. Gang violence has become epidemic. Salvadoran gangs such as the Barrio 18 and MS-13 traced their origins back to Los Angeles, where young war refugees in the '80s formed gangs as protection from other inner-city street gangs. After the civil war ended, the US began deporting thousands of those gang members to El Salvador, where they carved up the country into fiefdoms. The government, plagued by corruption and a lack of resources, seemed powerless to contain the spiraling violence. It wasn't uncommon for someone to be killed just because he was from a neighborhood controlled by a different gang. Gustavo, who had tattoos, worried he'd be mistaken in El Salvador for a gang member and would be killed either by government forces or by gang members.
After several weeks of agonizing, Exelina decided that she wanted to set things right, rectify her immigration status and live in the United States legally. She would return to El Salvador, and she would take her children Ana and Javier with her, as soon as school ended in June 2012. It was a risky choice. She had lived illegally in the US for more than a decade and remained safe, working and raising her kids. Now, to comply with US law, she would have to put herself and her family in danger.
Gustavo would stay in Texas and help support Exelina in El Salvador until they could fix her papers. Salvador and Elsy had a house in a working-class neighborhood in the capital, San Salvador, where Exelina and the children could live. The day they left, Elsy drove her daughter and grandchildren to the Dallas airport. They cried at the airport, but they took some comfort—despite the odds—in the idea that Exelina could apply for legal reentry to the United States. "I told my daughter, ‘Be patient and it will all work out,'" Elsy says.
At the airport, Elsy warned Exelina, as she always did, not to be so friendly in El Salvador and not to tell the neighbors or anyone else about her family in the United States. Elsy says, "I told her, ‘Mija, when I send you money, I don't want you to tell anyone. When you speak to the neighbors only say, "Good day, how are you?" and that's it.'"
In the years Exelina had been away, life in El Salvador had grown more difficult. The violent Barrio 18 gang controlled the San Salvador neighborhood where Exelina would live, extorting residents and businesses with impunity. Anyone with relatives in the United States was ripe for extortion.
But it wasn't long before Exelina was gossiping with her neighbors in San Salvador, sharing stories about how much she missed her new husband and her family in Texas. Within weeks, gang members began to target Exelina. They demanded money, and threatened to kidnap and kill her children. At first, the monthly extortion was $200. Every month Elsy and Salvador sent money to pay off the gang. "She would call me in tears, saying she didn't want to live there anymore," Elsy says. "But I would tell her, ‘Be patient. Wait for your immigration papers to come through.'"
Still, Exelina and her husband found the US immigration system difficult to navigate. Months passed and Exelina's request for residency seemed to stall with no explanation. Her 3-year-old son, Javier, became sick, and she decided he should return to Irving to get treatment. In Texas, he would also be safe from the gangs. Her stepfather flew to El Salvador and took the boy home. A few months later, the gang members raised their extortion demand to $500 a month or they would kidnap her 10-year-old daughter. "I sent the money three months in a row," Elsy says. But the threats continued. One night, Exelina called and asked her mother to come for the girl. In September 2013, Salvador flew to the capital again and picked up his granddaughter. "Exelina must have been thinking about leaving then," Salvador says. "But she never mentioned it."
A few days later, Exelina locked the front gate of her home in San Salvador, leaving almost all of her possessions behind, and boarded a bus headed north.
The town of Falfurrias has found itself at the center of a humanitarian crisis in south Texas. Many migrants, like Exelina, trek through the brush of surrounding ranchlands to circumvent the Border Patrol checkpoint 13 miles south of town.
The first thing Elsy noticed about Falfurrias when she arrived in December 2013 to look for her daughter was its size. "There was hardly anything there," she says. The town that weighed so heavily on her mind was little more than a few stoplights. Brooks County, with its 944 square miles, has little more than 7,000 residents—the majority of them in Falfurrias. The county sits 70 miles north of the border and hugs Highway 281, which runs south to the Rio Grande Valley and north to Canada.
After the Salvadoran woman called, Elsy phoned ICE hoping her daughter had been detained, as she had in 2001. But ICE officials said they didn't have Exelina. Elsy then found a contact for a volunteer humanitarian search-and-rescue group, which warned her about the rugged conditions on the private ranches in Brooks County. They told her they would put together a search party, but it never materialized. So, the day after Christmas, Elsy, Salvador and a friend who speaks English arrived in Falfurrias with photos of Exelina.
Like hundreds of other families, the first place they went was the Brooks County Sheriff's Office in Falfurrias. Elsy met with Chief Deputy Benny Martinez, who asked about the details of Exelina's journey, when she went missing and whether they had information on any landmarks to help locate her. "Honestly, he was the first official who treated me with respect," Elsy says. At the sheriff's office, she was shocked to see so many stacks of thick binders with photos of the dead listed by year and by month. Martinez explained that 87 bodies had been found in 2013, and 129 the year before, and that many of the dead were from her country, or Honduras or Guatemala. Brooks County was a graveyard for Central Americans.
Martinez asked whether Elsy could bear looking through these binders for her daughter. She nodded, and began with November 2013. There were photos of skeletal remains and more recently found bodies, blackened and bloated. Only a favorite shirt, wallet or other personal items hinted at their identities. But none of them was her daughter. When she left the sheriff's office, Martinez warned that it would be unwise to enter the private ranches and try to find Exelina. Elsy and Salvador visited the two mortuaries in town where bodies found on the ranches were sometimes taken, but no one recognized the photo of her daughter. The next morning, they drove home.
Elsy Hernandez holds a portrait of her daughter, Exelina, who was left behind by smugglers in the Brooks County brush last November. "In my heart, I feel that my daughter is alive," she says.
Nine months have passed since Exelina disappeared. These days, Brooks County is often in the news. Each night in Irving, Elsy watches the Spanish-language news, which tells her about the tens of thousands of Central Americans coming to Texas, many of them just children, who, like her, tried to imagine a future at home but saw nothing but poverty and violence. But what she is really looking for is her daughter. She hopes to catch a glimpse of Exelina on TV in one of the many stash-house raids or in the news of another smuggling ring dismantled in south Texas. "In my heart, I feel that my daughter is alive," she tells me. "I think she may have been kidnapped in Brooks County. Every day I ask God to touch the heart of the people who have her, so that they release her to me."
Elsy is standing in her kitchen, clutching her cell phone to her chest. "A mother knows these things," she says. Exelina's daughter, Ana, turned 11 in May. And every night her 4-year-old son, Javier, asks Elsy when his mother will kiss him goodnight. Elsy doesn't know what to tell him anymore. Most nights she doesn't sleep. Instead, she stares at her cell phone waiting for a call that never comes, and thinks of her daughter lost somewhere in the wilderness.
With migrants streaming through south Texas, landowners are caught between protecting their property and saving lives.
Presnall Cage was driving the outskirts of his ranch when he saw the black tennis shoes. The sight of them up ahead, neatly arranged in a rut of the sandy road, filled him with dread. Several vultures perched in a sprawling live oak tree near the road, and two more flew in lazy circles. He already knew what he would find underneath the tree.
This time it was a young man – what was left of him – his body already decomposing in the heat. In his pockets were US credit cards and an ID. It was always a sad thing to witness, yet another life lost on his land. Like hundreds of others in the past decade, the man had died in Brooks County, Texas, trying to circumvent an immigration checkpoint two miles south of Cage's ranch. He called the sheriff's department. By now he had the phone number memorized.
Signs of life, as well as death, can be found on many Brooks County ranches. Migrants leave behind water bottles, food, clothes, and other personal items as they make their way across the hot, rugged terrain.
Two years later, Cage, now 69, remembers the young man – and all the others. His ranch has one of the highest death counts in Brooks County, because it is so vast at 46,000 acres and close to the immigration checkpoint. The US Border Patrol established the permanent checkpoint on US Highway 281 outside the town of Falfurrias – 70 miles north of the border – in 1994 to search for undocumented immigrants and for drugs. It's the Border Patrol's last line of defense. Many migrants leave the road and hike through the rugged ranchland, hoping to reconnect with the highway north of the checkpoint. Hundreds die every year on the ranches, most from the heat.
In the past decade, Cage estimates, he's found at least 100 bodies – enough to make him anxious anytime he sees vultures circling on the horizon. The man with the black tennis shoes was one of 16 bodies he'd discovered in 2012. It was a brutal, unrelenting summer, with temperatures in the triple digits, and it became the worst year for deaths in Brooks County. Sheriff's deputies recovered 129 bodies in Brooks County, and Texas surpassed Arizona as the deadliest state in the nation for undocumented immigrants. The next year, 2013, the weather had been more merciful, and he'd discovered seven of the county's 87 bodies. But as of May, Cage had already found four bodies and the hottest months hadn't even begun yet. "I expect I'll find more than last year," he says.
Rancher Presnall Cage has come across numerous migrants on his land in need of help. "Last Thanksgiving we had a very pregnant woman knock on my daughter-in-law's door. She'd been left behind by the smuggler," he says.
Not counting his time in the air force, Cage has, like his father before him and his grandfather before that, lived his entire life on his family's sprawling south Texas ranch. He's seen migration through his land ebb and flow, but he's never seen so much desperate humanity coming through as in the past few years.
Like many ranchers in Brooks County, Cage's political views are conservative, and he takes a hard-line stance on immigration. "The illegals broke the law when they decided to come here," he says. "But the politicians can't be honest about it."
Cage believes the Obama administration is allowing the current influx of unaccompanied children and families from Central America to come across the border to help the Democratic party. "They need new recruits who will vote Democratic," he says. But while his feelings about illegal immigration frustrate and even anger him at times, when he encounters people on his ranch who need help, he can't help but feel sympathy for them.
"Last Thanksgiving, we had a very pregnant woman knock on my daughter-in-law's door. She'd been left behind by the smuggler," Cage says. "We helped another woman – all she had was a T-shirt wrapped around her like a skirt. She'd been raped in the brush. And we had a baby born on the ranch. When you see a pregnant woman or a lost 14-year-old, your first instinct is to help. I may be a conservative, but I'm a human being, too."
Most of the people who knock on his door these days come from Central America, a significant change from just five years ago, when 90% of the migrants passing through south Texas were from Mexico, according to Border Patrol apprehension figures. In 2012, US government data showed that for the first time in 40 years, net migration from Mexico had reached zero. But apprehensions of Central Americans coming across the south Texas border have tripled since 2011. The southernmost tip of the Texas-Mexico border is the shortest distance from Central America to the United States and the most traveled route.
Very few of the migrants come through his land without a guide, Cage says. Everyone must pay the cartels and organized crime at some point to make the journey. Most tell Cage they've paid anywhere from $7,000 to $9,000 to get to Houston from Central America. "They think the lights of Falfurrias are Houston," he says. "That's what the guides tell them – that they'll only have to walk a couple of hours to get to Houston. When I tell them it's a four-hour drive they get very disappointed."
It's been tough to adjust to the influx, he says, and hard not to feel resentment. In Texas, private property rights are sacrosanct, and they are fiercely protected in Brooks County, where nearly all the land is privately owned. What Cage wants most is a return to the days when people didn't routinely venture across his land, he says. Ranchers covet their quiet way of life, governed by a set of rules they call "ranch etiquette," he says. "You don't ask a man how many acres he owns because it's like asking to look at his bank account. You don't enter someone's land without asking permission first." That way of life is slipping away.
It's not just the trespassing migrants who are exerting pressure on traditional ranch life. Now many of Cage's neighbors are absentee landowners – hedge fund managers or oil and gas millionaires who live in Houston or California. Cage is one of the last members of the old ranching families in Brooks County still living and working on his own land. "Women don't want to live out here," he says. "And it's a tough place to raise your kids." His children, now grown, have moved to Dallas and San Antonio. But Cage won't leave, he says. "I love every acre."
Every morning, Cage steers his white Chevy truck around the ranch, taking stock of what needs to be repaired or replaced. He employs a dozen cowboys and ranch hands to help him. "I keep things in pretty neat shape," he says. When he was young, he remembers, hardy men from Mexico walking alone or in pairs would stop at the ranch to ask for work and a place to stay. "We would give them work and they'd live at the ranch. It wasn't illegal back then to hire them," he says. "They worked hard." These days, Cage says, he doesn't hire anyone who isn't a US citizen, and it's a struggle to find workers he can rely on. "We're almost always looking for someone. It's tough to find anyone who isn't on probation."
In the springtime, his ranch is verdant with cactus blooming with vibrant yellow flowers. Heart's delight, a rich fuchsia-colored flower that grows only in this region, dots the green pastures where his cattle graze. Cage points to an old live oak tree, which he calls "Will's tree," after his youngest son. "He was 12, and we let him go out hunting by himself. But he got lost after tracking a deer and then the sun set. He couldn't find his way back in the dark. We were worried sick about him all night and set up search parties. We found him in that tree there the next morning." Cage laughs about it now. "He'd spent the whole night in that tree."
Farther down the road is a small pond. A white egret poised on its stilt-like legs surveys the shallows. "This pond is named after my son Grady," Cage says. It had always been his eldest son's dream and his dream too that Grady take over the ranch when Cage retired. "That was the plan since he was little," Cage says. But Grady died in 2012 at the age of 34, from cancer. "He fought it for 13 years," he says, looking out at the pond.
Cage, a third generation rancher in south Texas, says ranchers protect their privacy through "ranch etiquette." "You don't ask a man how many acres he owns because it's like asking to look at his bank account. You don't enter someone's land without asking permission first," he says.
After a moment he puts the truck in drive and heads toward a wire fence that marks his property's boundary. A pink and black backpack hangs from the barbed wire at the top of the fence. Beneath it the wire is bent upward and the sand dug away where people have crawled underneath. "I'd say I spend about $20,000 a year repairing the damage that's been done," Cage says. "At least they didn't cut the wire this time."
Cage has had the flotation devices that trigger the water pumps for his cattle troughs ripped out by people looking for water, and sometimes migrants leave the gates open and cattle get lost. Then there are the hundreds of pounds of litter left behind every year on his ranch – everything from discarded water bottles and cans to backpacks, toothbrushes and cell phones. In the winter months, his cowboys do trash duty, scouring popular hiding places and migrant drop-off points for the detritus left behind.
Cage blames the checkpoint for all of the traffic on his land. "That's the squeeze point," he says. "The McAllen ranch south of here doesn't have the same problems we do." The US government built the checkpoint without any consultation with local ranchers or townspeople, he says. In the next decade, the US government plans to double the checkpoint's size from four to eight lanes and add several more agents.
But none of the growth will help Brooks County, or the town of Falfurrias, where most of the county's 7,200 residents live. As the checkpoint expanded over the years, becoming the second busiest on the southern border for narcotic seizures and immigrant apprehensions, Falfurrias declined in population. Prospectors had struck oil and gas but, as in so many other Texas towns, the bounty flowed for only a couple of decades before becoming tapped out. The last of the town's heyday was the 1960s. Now at least 40% of the population lives in poverty. "The town's become pretty pathetic," Cage says. When he was young, the town had five car dealerships, a hospital and two or three tractor dealerships, but now they're all gone. In the past two decades, the number of Border Patrol agents stationed in Brooks County has grown from nine to more than 250, but it's rare that any of them live in town. "Twenty years ago I knew every one of the agents," Cage says. "Now I don't know any of them, and none of them live here."
Though many of those who pass through Brooks County are undocumented migrants, drug smugglers also pass through the ranches. A Border Patrol bust on Cage's ranch this June brought in seven large bales of marijuana. Five men were detained; two escaped.
Migrants aren't the only traffic Cage sees on his ranch. "A few months ago we were building a fence and saw a bunch of dopers drop 250lbs of marijuana," he says. Some of the drug smugglers are migrants coerced by the cartels into carrying backpacks of marijuana, while others are members of the Gulf Cartel, which runs the Mexican side of the border in that region. In the past, Cage says, the ranch had always felt like a refuge for his family. There was no need even for locked doors. But last Christmas he gave his wife, Stephanie, a pistol because she no longer felt safe on her daily walks. "I never carried a gun in my life," she says. "But now I do. The other day I was walking the dogs on our private roadway and saw a Border Patrol helicopter flying overhead and suddenly a car came speeding toward me. I was five miles from nowhere on our property, and I'm in the middle of a raid."
Some ranchers have taken up arms. Dr Mike Vickers, a rancher and local veterinarian, formed a citizens' militia in 2006. Called the Texas Border Volunteers, it patrols the county, rounding up undocumented migrants and handing them over to Border Patrol. Members of the group, which consists of ranchers, retired military and other volunteers from across the US wear military fatigues. They go out heavily armed. Cage hasn't joined Vickers' group, but he allows it to patrol his land.
A number of politicians have come to Brooks County for meetings and photo ops, especially since President Obama declared that the thousands of unaccompanied children coming across the border from Central America constitute a humanitarian crisis.
"They keep coming down to look at the situation but nothing here has changed," he says. "I don't really know what the solution is, but I would like to see it stop. I saw enough dead bodies fighting in Vietnam."
What especially angers Cage and other landowners is a wrongful death lawsuit filed against a neighbor. In 2007, a security guard on the ranch stopped a carload of undocumented migrants being driven through the property to circumvent the checkpoint. The vehicle fled and was pursued by the security guard. The chase ended in a rollover, and a Mexican couple and their seven-year-old daughter died. Relatives of the deceased in Mexico filed the wrongful death suit against the landowner. The case reached the Texas supreme court, which recently sided with the landowner, a result that hasn't calmed Cage's fears. "The biggest fear I have these days is litigation," he says. "Whether it's warranted or not."
Still, Cage doesn't want outsiders to think that he and other ranchers are heartless. When he first started finding bodies more than a decade ago, he installed faucets along his water lines, marked with bright blue railroad ties so they can be spotted from a distance. Recently, he was approached by Eddie Canales, who opened the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias last year, about installing 55-gallon barrels filled with jugs of water on his ranch. Canales, a newcomer from Corpus Christi, 80 miles away, has had difficulty making inroads with local landowners, who are suspicious of an outsider. "You have to be careful about who you allow on your property, because it's a liability," Cage says. "You can get in trouble if you're too sympathetic." Even so, he's allowed Canales to install two of the water stations on his land, which helped Canales gain credibility in the eyes of other landowners, so he could install more water stations and save lives.
Some days now it all feels like it's too much to handle. "Pretty soon I'll be 70," Cage says, shaking his head. "I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm getting too old to keep up the place." But he says he'll keep the ranch in the family somehow. "This is our life," he says. "This is our home."
A Guatemalan diplomat struggles to save her countrymen in south Texas and nearly loses herself.
It was the phone calls to Guatemala that Alba Caceres dreaded most. For a moment, when the family saw the number was from the United States, they would be certain it was their loved one calling to say everything was fine, and their spirits would be lifted. Then they would hear the news.
"Some mothers in the moment become faint, they scream, they cry," Caceres says. "Others simply say, 'okay, thank you.' Someone else has to take the phone because the mother can't talk anymore. She's in shock. And then there are others that say, 'Tell me. You tell me and I will deal with it, but tell me the truth' – because we mothers are like that. We have to know."
Every call was painful, but they had to be made. As the Guatemalan consul closest to Brooks County, it was Caceres' duty to make sure the bodies of the undocumented migrants who died trying to cross through south Texas made it home to their families.
"I remember one woman, a mother searching for her son," Caceres says. "She would call my cell phone morning, noon and night." Smugglers had left the woman's teenage son behind on a ranch somewhere near Falfurrias. The woman was convinced that he was still alive. Caceres, with three children of her own, could imagine her agony.
The woman gave Caceres a street name and a location on the outskirts of Falfurrias. Caceres called the Border Patrol, but they were unable to locate him. Frustrated, she decided to look for him herself – a decision that violated consular protocol. She drove to Falfurrias, to the place where the smugglers told the woman they'd left her son. "The directions the woman had given me did not match and I couldn't find him," Caceres says. "You start to think, how many lies will a smuggler tell someone just so they can calm her down?" A rancher found the boy's skeletal remains two months later, she says.
At least she could take some comfort in telling the woman the truth, in giving her closure and a body to bury at home. The worst were the missing people who had disappeared without a trace. Maybe they were on a ranch in south Texas' Brooks County, yet to be found, or buried in the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias and yet to be identified. She had no information to give these families, and that was the saddest feeling. There was no mourning period, no closure, and the lack of certainty could unravel a family. Their grieving was like a wound that never healed.
On a sweltering June day in 2013, Caceres watched as a group of college students lifted white body bags one by one from graves at Sacred Heart Cemetery. She felt lightheaded from the heat and the smell of damp earth, but she couldn't leave. Some of the bones being unearthed belonged to her countrymen. Over the last two decades they had died in Brooks County, felled by thirst and heat, bad health or bad luck, as they hiked through rugged ranchland to circumvent the immigration checkpoint south of Falfurrias.
She imagined they'd been filled with hope that in the United States they would find work and reunite with loved ones. Instead they had been buried here among the hundreds of graves under markers that read "unknown." The least she could do was bear witness to the tragedy that had befallen them so far from home. As a Guatemalan, and a representative of her country, she felt she owed them that much.
Not even county officials knew exactly how many bodies of nameless migrants had been buried in Sacred Heart Cemetery over the decades. No one had paid much attention.
At first, the unidentified bodies were buried in cheap particleboard coffins, but as the number of deaths climbed, bodies were buried in shopping bags, even trash bags. Local funeral homes placed the migrants' clothing, jewelry and other personal items in plastic Ziploc bags alongside their bodies. Until recently, the county kept no record of the items, or of anything else that might be used to identify the bodies later. They were simply buried and forgotten.
Under Texas law, counties are required to conduct DNA testing and autopsies on unidentified remains, but Brooks County, one of the poorest counties in the nation, can't afford the tests. So until 2013, when a professor from Baylor University and her students volunteered to exhume the bodies and do the DNA testing for free, no official effort was being made by authorities to find out who these migrants were, or to get them back to their families.
Caceres had come to watch the first phase of the exhumations, which would take three summers or more to complete. Many of the Guatemalan migrants who died in Brooks County came from impoverished, isolated mountain communities; many of their relatives didn't speak Spanish, but one of the more than 20 indigenous languages in Guatemala. Caceres, the daughter of a community leader in a small town in one of Guatemala's coffee-growing regions, knew how the news of a death would ripple through such small communities, touching everyone.
"We hold a vigil when a person dies," she says. "It is our custom to have an open coffin, to see the body. I've met so many mothers who've said, 'I sent my son in one piece, and I told him not to go.' How do you tell a mother that these bones you are sending her are her son?"
Caceres first heard of Brooks County in 2010, as it became evident that her homeland was undergoing a crisis. Spillover from Mexico's drug war, poverty and the growing number of gangs and organized crime groups were pushing people to make the dangerous journey north. Increasingly, officials in Houston, the closest Guatemalan Consulate to the border, found themselves in South Texas dealing with the collateral damage from the crisis. At the Houston consulate, Caceres had a reputation for solving tough problems: a boy who needed a heart transplant, a migrant terminally ill with cancer who wanted to return to his remote village. She was also known for defying protocol to get results. She loathed bureaucracy. "If my boss can't solve the problem, I'm going to the person above him," she says. "I become impatient, because I want to resolve things like that," she says, snapping her fingers.
Caceres had always felt an affinity for her countrymen seeking a better life abroad. In her twenties, she'd been an undocumented worker in Spain, working three jobs for poverty wages. In Madrid she'd been sexually harassed and exploited by her bosses. Her brother, who had accompanied her to Madrid, had been robbed in the street. "There I came to understand what immigrants have to go through, how they suffer," she says.
But Caceres was luckier than most undocumented Guatemalans. She had a family with political connections, and a university education, which gave her options back home. When she returned to Guatemala, a friend introduced her to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who suggested she work at a consulate in the United States. "He told me, 'I think you'd do a great job because you were an immigrant. You understand the need. Why don't you try it?'"
After three years working for consulates in Atlanta and Houston, Caceres was promoted from assistant in the legal department to consul. In November 2011, she opened the first Guatemalan consulate on the Texas border, a small office in downtown McAllen with just three employees. Only 31 years old and with the face of a college student and a fondness for bright floral dresses and spiked heels, she was often mistaken for a receptionist at the new consulate.
Right away, the need was almost overwhelming. "The missing people, the dead bodies in the river, the sexual violations, human trafficking, human rights violations, deportations – it's a lot of things happening at once, and you just can't stop," she says. Her biggest shock, she says, was discovering how many people from Guatemala were dying in Brooks County.
By 2012, the flow of migrants through Brooks County had begun to escalate, and so had the deaths. Poverty and violence in Central America drove many people northward, and a record-setting heat wave in South Texas wreaked havoc on migrants traveling through the area. That year, 129 bodies were recovered – the most in the county's history. In California, Rafael Hernandez, director of Desert Angels, a volunteer search and rescue group, began receiving frantic phone calls from families looking for missing relatives. In their pleas for help, they all mentioned the same place: a Border Patrol checkpoint outside a town called Falfurrias in Texas. Caceres had begun receiving similar calls.
When Hernandez arrived in Falfurrias in the summer of 2012, he, like Caceres, was horrified by the county's haphazard response to the wave of immigrant deaths. Hernandez had a list of more than 400 families looking for missing relatives and Brooks County had a cemetery full of unidentified bodies. Together with the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project, Hernandez and other advocates held protests in Falfurrias, and made it known that county officials needed to follow the law and provide DNA testing for the unidentified remains.
The protests, press conferences and growing media attention had an impact on the county's elected officials, who promised to remedy the situation. It would cost the county at least $2,000 per body, however, to perform DNA tests, which it couldn't afford.
In May 2013, Dr Lori Baker, a professor and forensic anthropologist at Baylor University, offered to exhume the bodies at Sacred Heart Cemetery and test them with help from her students. The University of Indianapolis and Texas State University also pledged to help and, like Baker and her students, volunteered to do the work for free. Baker and others plan to list the information on national missing persons databases so that families from Guatemala and other countries can find their relatives. Caceres began working with an Argentinian forensic anthropologist in Guatemala to collect DNA and compile a list of families with missing relatives to share with Baker and the others working in Falfurrias.
For Caceres, who received so many desperate pleas for help, it was difficult to understand why some of the ranchers wouldn't allow search and rescue operations for migrants on their land. "They've saved a lot of people," she says of Hernandez's group. "His work really moves me, because he works on donations. He drives all the way to Falfurrias from California. He sleeps in the parking lot at Walmart because he can't afford a hotel. Yet they've run him out of the ranches," she says.
Frustrated by the lack of access to the ranches, Caceres asked to ride along with Border Patrol agents on their rounds, hoping to understand what her countrymen endured on their hikes through the rugged terrain. Having grown up in a rural village, she thought she would be prepared.
"I thought, 'I'm from the countryside, I can walk through this land and I can handle the heat,'" she says. "But it was unbelievable. We walked for two miles. It's sandy; it's hard to walk. And the sun! Then I understood our people die here because they think the terrain is the same as home, but it's completely different," she says.
Eventually, Caceres felt the weight of her job pushing her downward into depression. "A pastor told me, 'You have to have strength. You can't let yourself feel sad,'" she says. But the phone calls didn't stop, even in the middle of the night, and Caceres often had to leave her family to attend to whatever crisis arose. "Every call is urgent. Someone's family member is missing, or someone died, or somebody is looking for a child." In 2013 alone, she had sent 48 bodies back to Guatemala from South Texas.
"Brooks County is a cemetery for our people," Caceres says. "If I could tell all of the stories it wouldn't be possible to finish. I've seen fathers with their sons in their arms, dead because the coyotes [smugglers] abandoned them. I've seen women being rescued naked because people start to take their clothes off before they die. I used to cry when I would take the testimonies of the women who had been raped or the children who'd been abandoned by smugglers, children four or five years old, and when they speak with their mothers on the phone – ay, my God. My husband gets angry because some months my cell phone bill is as high as $750. The government pays a certain amount, but they don't say, 'Yes, call the whole world.' But I can't tell someone, 'Hang up now because this call is expensive and they only pay me a certain amount for my phone bill.'"
By the spring of 2014, she doubted she could continue. Caceres hadn't had a vacation in six years, and she rarely saw her family. "Every day was more and more exhausting," she says. "I made mistakes." She'd never been good with the paperwork or accounting at the consulate. She hated sitting in an office. "I'm not a diplomatic person – that's my major problem. I'm more compassionate than diplomatic. I can't be asking for permission from the entire world to do something that I think needs to be done."
After much agonizing, she presented her resignation letter to the Guatemalan government in May. "It was very hard to make the decision, because my work was everything to me," she says. "I was passionate about it."
Since Caceres' resignation, an even larger influx of unaccompanied children and families from Central America has arrived in South Texas, with many migrants surrendering themselves to immigration authorities in a bid for asylum. Caceres is almost as busy now as before she left the consulate, volunteering at a temporary shelter run by a Catholic church in McAllen to make sure such families receive food and clothing. Freed of diplomatic protocol, she says she's happier now because she can help Hondurans and Salvadorans as well as Guatemalans. She hopes to start an international program to prevent more Central Americans from coming and risking their lives, she says.
What continues to trouble her are the people she doesn't see at the shelters along the border, the thousands who will make the dangerous journey through Brooks County this year.
"People always ask, 'Why do they cross if they know they are going to suffer?' The necessity to work is what makes them come here," she says. "That and the violence. The growth of the gangs in our country is unbelievable, and it's sad. The government has taken some measures, but it's impossible to stop something like that in a year or two years. You can't solve a 20-year problem in just one day. It's impossible. I think things will get worse, and we need to be prepared."
Her greatest desire, she says, is to inform Guatemalans about the risks, about the cemetery with the anonymous graves in Falfurrias, and about the ranches in Brooks County where so many have been lost, and may never be found.
"It's impossible for me to go back to my country and forget about what's happening here," she says. "I have to let people know."
A south Texas sheriff's department with dwindling resources struggles to cope with a growing immigration crisis.
Recovering human remains in the heat of a South Texas summer is not for the faint-hearted. The sight and smell of the dead can linger with you for days. It can give you nightmares if you let it.
Whenever ranchers in rural Brooks County, 70 miles north of the Mexican border, find a body, which is often these days, they call the Brooks County Sheriff's Office. Chief Deputy Urbino “Benny” Martinez and his deputies are tasked with recovering the growing number of dead, and placing them in Department of Homeland Security-issued body bags – black bags for the recently dead, white for skeletal remains.
The 57-year-old Martinez has been in law enforcement for 35 years. He isn’t squeamish. But the images of the dozens of bodies he’s recovered in the ranchland haunt him. “You don’t ever become accustomed to it,” he says.
It can take hours just to reach the bodies through the deep sand, the cactus and the thorny mesquite. Often, cowboys or hunters find bodies in remote corners of the county because migrants and their smugglers take great pains to avoid detection as they walk around the nearby Border Patrol checkpoint. Martinez and his men often have to trek to the sites on foot because their county-issued vehicles can’t handle the terrain.
“One night we went out and picked up a body at 1am,” Martinez says. “We had to backpack out there. We stayed until sunrise because it was too dark to figure out where we were, and how to get the vehicle in there and the body out.”
In 2009, Martinez took the job as chief deputy with the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office. He’d recently retired after 29 years as a Texas state trooper, and he hoped to lead a quiet life in Falfurrias, the small town where he had grown up. “I just wanted to wind things down a bit,” he says. He never imagined, when he took the job, that he’d be sitting across a desk from so many grieving mothers looking for their children. He never imagined the stack of thick binders documenting by year and by month the hundreds of bodies he and his deputies have recovered on the surrounding ranches.
For many desperate families searching for missing relatives, Martinez is one of the few law enforcement officials they’ll ever meet who will genuinely listen. Despite his department’s lack of resources, despite having to skimp on gas for the patrol cars, despite working more than 50 hours a week to make up for the deputies he’s lost to budget cuts, he’ll still do everything possible to find their loved ones. “On a personal note, it’s always difficult,” he says of meeting with the families. “I can see their pain in just talking to them, I can see they feel hopeless. I want to reassure them we’re doing everything we can. They’re here illegally but they’re human beings too.”
It took Martinez a couple of years to come to terms with what was happening in his hometown, he says. Then in the summer of 2012, with the region deep in drought and suffering through a heat wave, the migrant deaths in his county became a full-blown humanitarian crisis. “Things started popping, and I knew with the terrain here and this busy immigration corridor it wasn’t going to be easy,” he says. “We didn’t have the personnel to begin with.”
That year, Martinez and his men recovered 129 bodies from the surrounding ranches, a record for the rural county and the first year that Texas eclipsed Arizona as the deadliest state in the nation for undocumented migrants.
It’s early June, and Martinez, wearing a black cowboy hat and dark sunglasses, is steering his silver Volkswagen SUV through downtown Falfurrias toward Sacred Heart Cemetery, on the outskirts of town. Half of the buildings on downtown’s main street are boarded up, but there’s a busy Whataburger drive-through and two large truck stops that depend on customers from US Highway 281.
It’s the highway, which runs north from the border all the way to Canada, that draws migrants and smugglers to Brooks County. Martinez says Falfurrias has always been a corridor for immigrants. “Growing up, I remember we’d have people from Mexico walking along the little creek bed that went past my bedroom window.” Usually they were men walking alone or in pairs, looking for work. “Sometimes they would ask for a drink of water, then they’d move on.” Martinez and others in town didn’t feel threatened by the people passing through, he says.
Most of the migrants he’s talked to over the years have jobs waiting for them in the United States. “I call them ‘the do-ers,’” he says. “They’re here to work and send whatever money they can back home.” When a do-er dies in Brooks County, it’s a tragedy that ripples through families and communities on both sides of the border. “There are a lot of people out there relying on these do-ers to help them,” he says. “We have to put value on these lives.”
In the past decade, however, the occasional walker passing through from Mexico has turned into hundreds of migrants a day, Martinez estimates – many of them from Central America or countries as far away as China and Bangladesh who are fleeing poverty and sometimes violence. The tolerant feeling toward the migrants in Falfurrias has also changed to one of fear and sometimes resentment. “The migrants coming through are more aggressive because they have to be,” Martinez says. “The smuggling business has been taken over by organized crime. And they use the migrants. They rape them or make them carry drugs. They take away any human value they have. They’re just merchandise.”
Lately there’s been a problem, he says, with smugglers leading migrants trying to evade the Border Patrol across the busy Highway 281 and to their deaths. In May, a semi struck and killed a woman from El Salvador and her teenage daughter who were darting across the highway with a group of 30. “Her 13-year-old son witnessed the whole thing,” Martinez says. “I had to call the father in New York and tell him what had happened. So much senseless death.”
Martinez pulls into the long drive that leads to Sacred Heart Cemetery. He’s there to check in with Dr Lori Baker, a Baylor University anthropology professor, and her students. Baker and the students have volunteered to exhume the bodies of hundreds of unidentified migrants so that DNA and forensic tests can be performed on the remains in an effort to return them to their families.
Martinez scans the cemetery for signs of Dr Baker and her students, but a cemetery caretaker tells him that, because of the triple-digit heat, they’ve already gone back to the hotel for the day. Not far from where the team is digging lies the Martinez family plot, where three generations are buried.
Martinez steps out of his SUV and walks to his parents’ graves. His father was a World War II veteran who became partially paralyzed from a stroke after he returned from war, and his mother was a homemaker. Together they raised 10 children. When he was 11, he says, Martinez watched Hurricane Beulah wash their house away. “The water took everything but my parents took it in stride,” he says. With a loan from the federal government they built a small brick home that had electricity but no indoor plumbing. “We did OK for ourselves,” he says. “We didn’t have money, but we never felt poor, if that makes sense.”
The community, predominantly Latino and working class, was always supportive of Martinez and his siblings when he was growing up. “We excelled in running. We were all runners, and my brothers built a dirt track next to the house. You would have to go around it 20 times to make a mile,” he says, smiling at the memory. Martinez had a passion for long-distance running. He’d often run 20 miles a day on the dirt track next to the house. “I was drawn to it because it was self initiated. It took discipline and commitment.”
That commitment won him a track scholarship to Baylor University and pulled him away from his hometown. After college he became a state trooper and worked for years in other parts of Texas. But he always knew he would return home. “At the end of the day, this is a good solid community,” he says. “We just happen to be right smack in the middle of this immigration corridor, and we got nowhere to go. So we’ve got to deal with it.”
After deep budget cuts, officers from outside Brooks County – like Daniel Walden and Cameron Coleman, pictured at right – have volunteered to help the sheriff’s department. Elias Pompa (left) is one of the few remaining deputies on staff. "This office should have 20 to 25 deputies on the road right now, but we're a long way from it," Martinez says.
Martinez and the sheriff were doing what they could, but there were too many demands for a small department to tackle on a daily basis, especially in a rural, 944-square-mile county: a growing number of sexual assaults of migrant women by smugglers, deaths on Highway 281 and gang-affiliated groups from Houston and other cities moving into the area to set up stash houses and prey on the thousands of migrants being moved through the county.
There were also the high-speed chases with smugglers who drive recklessly through town in SUVs packed with migrants trying to elude deputies and Border Patrol. The pursuits often end in tragedy. “In one vehicle recently there were five deaths. They hit a tree,” Martinez says. “Another time a vehicle went right through a woman’s house and killed her. We try to take one issue at a time because that’s all we can handle.”
Then, in January 2014, a bomb dropped.
County officials announced they would have to cut their $4 million budget by half. The oil and gas wells Brooks County depended on for tax revenue were nearly tapped out. The first thing to go for the sheriff’s department would be health insurance for Martinez’s deputies and their families that had been one of the biggest benefits of a job with an average annual salary of $23,000. Martinez, who made $26,000 last year, took a pay cut; because he’d retired from the Texas Department of Public Safety, he still had health insurance through the state. His deputies were not so lucky. “Most of them are just starting their careers and their families,” he says. “So they had to move on.” Martinez had eight deputies last year. This year he has four.
The department spends nearly half its annual budget on body recovery, autopsies and transportation of corpses. Martinez added up the department’s expenditures on recoveries from 2009 to 2013 and came up with $628,000. “That’s a pretty significant amount for a poor county like this,” he says. This year, the department received $152,000 in state funding for the first time to help offset the costs, but the department receives no federal money, unlike border counties, because it is 70 miles north of the international border.
“I get real confused about why this county isn’t a ‘border’ county, despite the fact we have all these immigration issues and a federal checkpoint,” Martinez says. And Brooks County’s border issues are going to get only worse. The federal government announced plans this year to expand its four-lane checkpoint on the highway south of Falfurrias to eight lanes. To Martinez, this means more drug felonies to process, more traffic deaths and more people dying as they hike around the checkpoint. “This is already the second-busiest checkpoint in the country and it’s going to get bigger.”
They would rather be saving lives than recovering bodies, he says. In the past year his department has received more than 600 emergency 911 calls from migrants hurt or dying on isolated ranches. With only a handful of deputies available to respond, Martinez relies on Border Patrol personnel stationed in the area to rescue many of the migrants, who suffer from dehydration and heat stroke. Last year, they rescued more than 350.
Yet the average time for Border Patrol to respond to distress calls on the ranches is two hours or more, according to a recent investigation for Telemundo and The Weather Channel by John Carlos Frey, a reporting fellow for the Investigative Fund. In August, after the broadcast aired, Border Patrol deployed a Search Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) team to Brooks County. “Now we’re seeing response times of 10 minutes or less,” Martinez says. “When we have resources like this, it makes a difference.” But if history is any indicator, the BORSTAR team, which has been dispatched to Brooks County before, won’t stay for long.
There has recently been help from other sources, though. After the media reported that the sheriff’s department had lost half its workforce, law enforcement personnel from the more populated border cities south of Brooks County contacted Martinez with offers to volunteer. Now he has 15 reserve deputies helping in their spare time.
Martinez would like to have them all patrolling the county at once, but he can deploy only six deputies at a time, because he has just six vehicles. Still, “We have them out there 24-7, and they’re helping us tremendously,” he says. “Response times are quicker and the reports are getting done. The community is happy because they see department personnel out on the streets.”
Driving back into town from the cemetery, Martinez contemplates the future of his hometown. Despite the psychic toll of the crisis and all the other setbacks – the budget cuts, the lawmakers who refuse to send aid to Brooks County – he won’t lose hope. He learned that from his parents a long time ago, after the hurricane took everything they owned. “It’s been a challenge,” he says. “The best thing to do is to learn from it.”
Martinez says he’ll stick with the department even through these bad times. “At the end of the day, I like my job because I know I’ve done something right. Maybe I helped a mom or recovered a body or rescued some people in the brush,” he says. “If you’re here for the hoorays or a pat on the back, then you’re in the wrong business. As a public servant I have to find that from within. It’s just you doing what you got to do, and making it home safe.”
Work for this series was supported by a 2014-2015 Lannan Fellowship, awarded by The Investigative Fund, a project of The Nation Institute."