Along the U.S.-Mexico Border

FALFURRIAS, Tex. – It’s about an hour-and-a-half drive from the nearest border crossing to the town of Falfurrias, the seat of Brooks County, Tex.

[As the president fights to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, the journalists Azam Ahmed and Meridith Kohut are driving along the approximately 1,900-mile border and sending dispatches.]

From the highway, Texas unfurls in wide sheets of scrubland, dense understories of small trees and thorny brush that rise in gnarled stands along the sandy plains. Patches of mesquite, blackbrush and huisache crowd the horizon.

Like the border itself, which lies some 80 miles away, it is an unwelcoming place for migrants.

More than 700 have perished in transit through Brooks County over the last 15 years, claimed by heat and dehydration while trying to find their way along the parched tracts of ranchland. The real number is surely higher. The local sheriff, Benny Martinez, thinks only one in five is ever found.

Migrants disperse here after crossing into the United States, avoiding a border patrol checkpoint. They trek through the dried-out terrain, seeking shade under the boughs of live oaks. Hunters occasionally stumble across hats, empty water jugs and leathered remains banked against trees.

In spite of the risk, migrants continue to make the journey through the wilds of Brooks County year after year, carried along by hope. And every year, dozens die. No one believes his or her journey will end like this. They can’t. Here, the dead do not teach the living.

For years, the remains were conveyed to the county cemetery in Falfurrias, then interred in the open space along its peripheries, often in plots too small or poorly located to sell.

No one is quite sure how many were buried; until 2013, the county kept no records.

But Eddie Canales, the founder of the South Texas Human Rights Center, has forced the remains into the open, hoping to rescue them from anonymity.

Since 2013, anthropologists have been coming with their students to exhume the bodies and extract DNA samples. With no maps or records, they dig narrow trenches guided by the memories of local gravediggers. The samples are then cross-referenced with missing person databases.

Of the more than 150 remains unearthed in this cemetery, 30 have been identified.

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Azam Ahmed and Meridith Kohut