5 days along the border: Migrant dreams run dry

A humanitarian crisis and a budget crisis converge in the heart of the human smuggling corridor in Texas


BROOKS COUNTY, Texas — It’s 8 a.m., 75 degrees and hazy.

Guatemalan Consul Allan Pérez has agreed to follow a rancher’s trail two miles through the desert. Hundreds of migrants have walked these sandy steps before. At least 19 have perished along the way — victims of sun, animals and the ruthlessness of smugglers who leave the weak behind.

That’s just a small fraction of the more than 400 bodies recovered in these deserts since 2009.

“I can feel my feet sinking even though these tennis shoes have thick soles,” said Pérez, dressed in a baseball cap, jeans and T-shirt. “It’s really hard to walk.”

To get a taste of the exhausting journey he often hears about from survivors, Guatemala Consul Allan Pérez walks the last two miles of a migrant trek through the Texas desert.
Al Jazeera America

The short trek is just a taste of the long and difficult migrant journey that too often ends in tragedy, as Pérez knows well. Since becoming consul in May, he estimated, he has made 15 to 20 calls to inform Guatemalan families their loved ones died in the desert. He also interviews survivors.

“It’s not the same when you sit down and listen to the people tell you, ‘We walked five hours in the desert, and we got lost, and they rescued us,’” he said. “[This] is an important experience for me because now I know what they’re talking about.”

By noon it will be more than 100 degrees. In these conditions, a person perspires as much as two quarts an hour.

“How do little children put up with this?” Pérez asked. “How do pregnant women put up with this? How do elderly men and women put up with this?”

A blue and red flag strapped to a fencepost indicates a water station where a sympathetic rancher has placed a plastic barrel labeled “agua.” It is the only water source for miles and is a lifeline for many migrants who may have already walked for eight hours or more.

The journey offers little relief and requires vital decisions. Do you go left or right when the trail forks? Do you walk in the heavy sand, which slows you down, or the grass, where you’re more likely to get bitten by a rattlesnake? Do you stop at a rare patch of shade to catch your breath and dump out your sand-filled sneakers or keep going to stay with your group?

And perhaps the most difficult decision: What do you do when someone — a stranger, a friend, a cousin — can’t keep up?

“What happens when you’re the first in line and they say, ‘Oh, somebody fell’?” Pérez wondered aloud. “Do you have the heart to turn back — ‘Oh, let’s wait.’ No. You have to keep going.”

The path is littered with reminders of those who have taken the journey. A pair of shredded pants are half-buried in the sand, likely worn by a migrant trying to jump over a barbed-wire fence nearby. Two twigs form a makeshift cross. A blue sleeping bag, half-zipped and remarkably intact, marks where a 28-year-old Guatemalan man was found dead in February. He left behind a wife and five children in his village.

“What was he thinking as he was walking? Was he thinking, “I’m going to give my family a better life”? And he just died here,” said Pérez.

Two hours into the walk, Pérez is tired, thirsty and gasping for breath. “I just want to stop in the shadow over there and wait for someone to pick me up,” he said. “Or for the worst to happen.”

Twenty minutes later, he gives up. It’s now 101 degrees.

“I can’t keep going,” he said.

Fortunately for Pérez, a pickup truck can carry him the last stretch to where the trail ends. There, close to the highway, clothes and bags hang from branches of mesquite trees. It’s where migrants shed what little they carried and summon a final burst of energy. As soon as a smuggler’s car arrives, they must sprint to the vehicle that will carry them farther north.

Those who make it this far are lucky. For the rest, their journey toward a new life ended before it ever really began.

Grassy fields that were once rich with oil are now flush with dead bodies.

It’s a costly humanitarian crisis for Brooks County, population 7,237, where a declining budget leaves the dwindling local law enforcement team overstretched and underpaid. Since Brooks County sits 80 miles from the border, it doesn’t qualify for federal funds available to counties along the border to deal with immigration.

“We’re not a border county, but I got the No. 1 checkpoint in the United States,” said Sheriff Rey Rodriguez, referring to the nearby Border Patrol highway checkpoint in Falfurrias. “I’m not a border county, but I get everything that comes through.”

He estimated 400 to 500 migrants pass through Brooks County each day. Smugglers, called coyotes, drop off migrants before the checkpoint to fan out across the brush.

Rodriguez, 67, is a law enforcement veteran whose career stretches back to 1976. His tenure as sheriff runs through 2016. Since being elected in 2009, he has watched his team of 12 deputies — who patrol 943 square miles — drop to four. Because of declining tax revenue as oil companies moved out, those who stayed took a 3 percent pay cut.

“If we had the money to pay them, these guys would love the area,” Rodriguez said. “There’s a lot of work here.”

As an elected official, Rodriguez’s pay was cut 10 percent this year. To supplement his $30,000 annual salary, he works a part-time private security job for a nearby ranch.

Brooks County Sheriff Rey Rodriguez auctions vehicles seized in smuggling operations to finance his cash-strapped department.
Al Jazeera America

Salaries aside, he said the sheriff’s office annual budget of $1.3 million doesn’t come close to meeting the needs of the county. His office has recorded 47 migrant deaths so far this year. Harsh desert conditions and fatal car crashes are the typical culprits. Each body costs the county $1,800 to recover and process — an economic burden that totaled $156,000 last year.

Then there are the 911 calls from residents that come in throughout the day. “We got dead illegals. Or we got illegals knocking on doors. We got somebody stole a truck. It’s always something,” Rodriguez said.

In order to meet its budget shortfall, the department got permission from the attorney general to auction vehicles seized from smugglers — some who were carrying drugs but mostly people.

About 200 vehicles sit in a lot next to the sheriff’s office. Forty will be auctioned this month. Rodriguez said the sales earn the department $400,000 to $500,000 per year.

An SUV that he said was used by a coyote still contains a Bible, family photos, some DVDs and bills.

Each car has a story, but too often it’s a tragedy.

He points out a silver truck that was transporting a family from El Salvador when it hit a mesquite tree head on during a 90-mph police chase. Five of the 13 passengers were killed, including a 9-year-old boy.

Rodriguez said he has grown accustomed to dealing with dead bodies.

“People say, ‘Well, why don’t you just retire, man?’ I say, ‘Well, when I ran for this office, I promised people that I was going to work here, and that’s what I’m doing,’” he said. “I’m going to hang it out till we get somewhere.”

Lavoyger Durham, 70, is used to the morbid discoveries. In the two decades he’s managed El Tule Ranch at the edge of the Brooks County desert, more than 20 bodies have turned up on his 13,000 acres. 

“When you find somebody dead, you’re extremely lucky to find him in the first place,” he said. “Why? Because the buzzards, the Mexican eagles, the coyotes, the wild hogs — everybody eats on it and spreads the bone all over the place. So you might not even find any, you know.”

The gruesome findings are sometimes all that remain of the migrants who crossed the U.S.-Mexico border only to die of dehydration under the 100-degree sun.

The local sheriff’s office has recovered more than 400 bodies in six years. There’s no telling how many more are undiscovered.

“Anytime you find one, you’re missing maybe five,” said Benny Martinez, chief deputy for Brooks County.

Texas rancher Lavoyger Durham leaves jugs of water so that migrants crossing his ranch don't die of dehydration.
Eric Gay / AP

After seeing so much death, Durham, who’s half Mexican, is determined to try to keep all those who set foot on his ranch alive. So he leaves plastic gallons of water in a blue barrel along a popular migrant path.

“I fill this thing up with about 10 or 15 jugs every other week,” he said, peering into the barrel. “And we’ve got seven in there.”

Migrants will pick up the full containers and leave their empty ones, so as not to leave a trail. Durham said some get too nervous to take the water, believing a camera is recording them. Others are just too thirsty to refuse it.

Migrants who reach Durham’s porch — sometimes crawling — also receive food and an invitation to share their stories.

He shares a video recording of an interview with a 17-year-old boy from El Salvador who followed the lights to Durham’s home after a smuggler abandoned him and 17 or so other migrants in the desert. The boy said he’d been walking for three days.

After giving him food and water, Durham called Border Patrol to pick the boy up. The fate of the others remains unknown. 

Durham said he wants more border security because the fewer migrants who cross, the fewer deaths on his land.

“I’d put more boots on the ground, more technology, drones, fence,” he said. “They say the fence doesn’t work. It does work.”

Though sympathetic to their plight, he said migrants who cross the border illegally are breaking the law, and he often alerts law enforcement.

“If I see a bunch I’d turn them in, yeah,” he said. “But at the same time if I can save somebody’s life I’m going to.”

There are times, though, when Durham can do nothing but call the coroner. He discovered the body of a young Guatemalan man in February. The Guatemalan consulate said the man had planned to work in New York for five years, then return to his wife and five children, who live in poverty.

Durham often sympathizes with the family members left behind, especially when bodies are never identified.

“They lost a loved one and they don’t even know it,” he said. “They might not ever know it.”

But he knows even deadly conditions won’t stop the flow of desperate migrants heading north.

“They’re going to keep on coming. This thing’s going to keep on happening,” Durham said. “You have to accept it as a way of life, try to save and help people as much as you can. “

And as long as they keep coming to his doorstep, he’ll keep lending a hand.

“The good Lord and I know what I’m doing,” he said. “I don’t care what anybody else says. I really don’t. As far as aiding and abetting, I don’t have the heart to just let somebody die.”

The phone at the South Texas Human Rights Center has been ringing every morning for the past week.

Eddie Canales answers the call. As he expects, the caller is a Guatemalan father whose 20-year-old son, Julio, disappeared in the South Texas desert a month ago.

“Basically he’s saying, 'Eddie, I know I’m bothering you but I want to know if you know anything about my son,'” said Canales. “He’s very sad, very anguished about the disappearance of his son, has no clue what has happened to him."

The young man had been making his way to Minnesota to reunite with the father he hadn’t seen for 10 years. Julio had set out on his trip on June 9. He’d stayed in touch with his father during the trip. Then suddenly — more than a month later — there was no more communication.  

Border Patrol is swamped — the Brooks County immigration checkpoint is the busiest in the country. And the sheriff’s office has only four deputies.

That leaves the South Texas Human Rights Center, with its staff of two full-time volunteer investigators, as the last hope for migrants’ families looking for lost loved ones.

“The center here is the only voice or advocate he has,” said Canales.

Canales, a retired union leader, opened the center in November. Pam Buganski, a Catholic nun from Ohio, arrived three weeks ago to help.

“I’m scanning using Google Earth, which I haven’t used in a long time,” said Buganski, who was trying to locate a body of water — a lagoon, a creek, a trough, a pit filled with water.

Another migrant told Julio’s father his son had fainted from exhaustion. The companion said he left Julio under a tree, close to some hills and a water source.

That was a month ago.

“It’s simply trying to go back and put together the little pieces we have in a huge terrain of nothingness,” said Buganski, who slipped on a pair of boots.

She and Canales hit the road in Canales’ truck to retrace Julio’s last known steps. 

“This was the intersection where they got out of the car,” said Buganski, pointing to a road sign rising from a landscape of dry grass, sand and mesquite trees.

Based on the fellow migrant’s story, Julio and the group walked more than 20 miles in the desert before they met a smuggler’s car on the highway. But the car sputtered, caught the attention of a police officer, and the migrants took off on foot. Julio ran for an hour until he collapsed somewhere in the endless scrub.

Sister Pam Buganski spends the day combing the brush for a young Guatemalan migrant's body.

“Careful where you step, Sister,” said Canales, as he maneuvered the truck next to a barbed wired fence on a desolate stretch of the highway. The two trudge through calf-high grass littered with empty water bottles, food wrappers, shredded clothing and a discarded cell phone discolored from the sun. All are signs of passing migrants.

“What am I looking for, Eddie?” she asked.

“You just want to be careful where you step,” he answered. “And you just want to keep your sense of smell.”

The pair spent the afternoon combing through the terrain, but there’s no trace of Julio. They stumble upon a pile of bones that turn out to be cattle remains.

Of the twentysome cases Canales and Buganski have received this summer, they've found only two bodies. They have never found anyone alive.

But the duo say they never call off a search.

“If you were dead, your parents, your husband would be looking for you until the day of their death,” said Buganski. “We simply want to ease their burdens, ease their hearts and make it right.”

FALFURRIAS, Texas — Smuggling migrants is a thriving business in this small city 70 miles north of the border, and Brooks County Sheriff’s Deputy Jorge Esparza had just been dispatched to chase down a suspicious black Land Rover. A fellow motorist called in the license plate number after reportedly seeing the driver unload a group of migrants.

“Driver, roll down the back window. Roll down the back window. Let me see your hands,” he commanded.

The backseat of the SUV had been removed — to make room for a washing machine, the driver said. Footprints marked the floorboard.

“I’m not stupid, OK? I got people who called in with your license plate, that you dropped off illegals,” Esparza said. “Get out of my county.”

He was fairly certain he had a human smuggler — called a coyote — on his hands, but he didn’t have proof to make an arrest.

“Unless we find some illegals and they put him as the driver, that’s about the only thing,” he said.

Brooks County Sheriff Rey Rodriguez acknowledged that coyotes hide right under his nose. He estimates only 5 percent of coyotes operating in his county are arrested and prosecuted.

“We’ll go to the coffee shop, and you sit down with them there. You never know who’s [a smuggler]. You get up one morning, and they say, ‘We got this guy.’ Wow, I didn’t know he was a, you know …”

Next to the sheriff’s office is evidence of the problem’s scope: a lot filled with impounded vehicles from coyotes who abandoned them during police chases. One SUV still contained the smuggler’s belongings — a bible, family pictures showing smiling children, bills.

“[They look] like your neighbor. You never know,” Rodriguez said.

But these are neighbors who leave people to die.

Deputy sheriffs discovered this stash house in Brooks County, Texas, earlier this year.
Al Jazeera America

Coyotes not only drive migrants north but also lead migrants on foot through the desert. The sheriff’s department picks up two to three bodies a week — the remains of migrants who couldn’t keep up with the smugglers’ pace. 

“If they twist their ankle, if they fall down, if they rest and fall asleep and they don’t wake up in time to go with the group, they leave them behind,” said Esparza.

Herded like livestock through the desert, many migrants wear adult diapers so they are not left behind during a bathroom break. They also bring toothbrushes and deodorant — attempts to hold on to some dignity.

But there’s nothing dignified about the stash house that deputies discovered behind a trampled gate along the highway.

A dirt path leads to the building, roughly the size of a barn. Inside its rusting metal shell, the stench is overwhelming. There are filthy mattresses, cans of rotten tuna, evidence of rats. Here migrants are made to live like animals — without food, water or electricity — while they catch their breath before the last leg of their journey. Deputies found migrants here earlier in the year and suspect the stash house remains in frequent use.

“I feel sympathy for the people that are coming out, but the smugglers I have no sympathy for,” Esparza said. “If I can get every single one — it’s a long hard road, but hopefully we can.”