Brooks County, TEXAS – Operation Lone Star has helped fund the miles of concertina wire and militarization along the U.S. border. But how are funds invested in communities more than 80 miles north of the border? Reporter Alicia Barrera and photojournalist Sal Salazar visit Brooks County for a closer look.
Smuggling routes in Brooks County
Large ranches help make up Brooks County’s nearly 950 square miles. The Texas county is south of Corpus Christi off US Highway 281 and slightly over an hour from the U.S. border. It’s also known to be the busiest corridor for undocumented immigrants and an area where many die.
“The volume of people coming in is so high that just they cannot keep up with it,” said Brooks County Sheriff Benny Martínez.
Martínez’s agency keeps a close eye on the routes smugglers use to avoid tracking cameras and being detained by local, state and federal authorities.
According to Martínez, groups of migrants are dropped off south of the Falfurrias Border Patrol Checkpoint and instructed by smugglers to tread in the sand through the dense brush.
“We have a lot of placards that can be utilized for specific locations where they can get identified or actually get, you know, rescued,” Martínez said. “But they just don’t stay there. They move. And it’s a hard death because they know they’re dying.”
More funding needed
Historically, Brooks County is one of the poorest counties in Texas.
“We’ve been asking for federal funds for several years now, maybe 10 years,” Martínez said.
The constant traffic and deaths of migrants in Brooks County led to over $1 million in funds from Operation Lone Star — money that Martínez said is desperately needed as their agency is understaffed with only five patrol deputies.
Other Brooks County Sheriff’s Office employees, such as Commander George Estrada, take on multiple roles, including searching for migrants lost or in distress. Estrada and his team work quickly to answer each call that comes in, no matter the hour. However, the terrain is relentless and difficult to navigate on foot and in a vehicle.
“The terrain doesn’t allow vehicles to get in there, you know, and then it’s so dry you don’t want to create a fire,” Martínez said.
Bodies recovered in the brush
Several thousand dollars were invested in purchasing two 4X4 trucks.
One of the vehicles’ features is a built-in gurney in the truck bed to safely transport a migrant or the body of one that has succumbed to the elements.
So far this year, Brooks County Sheriff’s Office reports 65 bodies were recovered and placed in its new and permanent morgue, also funded by Operation Lone Star.
“The bodies recovered that we get in a brush, it’s gotten really difficult to transport (them) over to other agencies or counties, (and the) funeral home here (in Falfurrias) does not have the capacity to hold the bodies,” Estrada said.
Migrant identification process
The identification process of the bodies begins at the morgue.
“I have about 15 (bodies) that are identified, and we’re just waiting for the consulates to get ahold of the family,” Estrada said.
Currently, only three of the 35 spots in the morgue remain available. However, partnerships with federal agencies help expedite the identification process.
“Through the assistance of (the Missing Migrant Program) MMP that Border Patrol initiated because of all the body counts we have, we’re able to identify these folks through fingerprints,” Martínez said.
The form of obtaining the fingerprint depends on the body’s state of decomposition. Tougher cases with severe dehydration will require the use of macrophotography.
“We’re just using a specialized lens that can pick up the fingerprints on a person,” Estrada said. “(We) send those up for analysis, and once (Border Patrol’s) analyst starts looking at it, they either get a positive (identification) or can confirm (a) match (in their database).”
Estrada has also learned a new technique to rehydrate a person’s finger, opening the door for more positive identifications.
“I just learned (the process) back in November, so I’m still working on (a body),” Estrada said. “I haven’t gotten the ID confirmed yet, but we were able to go from kind of leathery, weathered and hard fingerprints to a lot better details.”
Those are details that could soon lead to a closed case.
“So we can bring closure to their family and let them know,” Estrada said.
Improving communication in the area
One of the biggest barriers is communication due to cellular dead zones throughout Brooks County.
Martínez said he plans to use the remainder of the funds to build a new communications tower south of the Border Patrol checkpoint. Plans are still pending approval. However, it could be built within the next 24 months.