[Nov. 1, 2019] QUETZALTENANGO, Guatemala — Every week, Wendy Griselda DeLeon Morales goes to a cemetery in the hills of southern Guatemala and leaves flowers on the grave of a woman who may or may not be her mother.

“Only God knows if that’s really her,” Morales says.

The body, purportedly that of 41-year-old Thelma Morales, has been buried since October 2016. It was found face up in a field near U.S. Highway 83 in South Texas, three miles north of the Rio Grande. A smuggler had taken Thelma across the border; her fate after that is unclear. There were few clues other than a garbled call from a woman using Thelma’s phone.

“I don’t think that she died,” Wendy Morales says. “They never let us open her casket or returned any of her personal items.”

For Morales and many others, science could provide certainty. A simple swab of the inside of her cheek would collect the cells necessary to run a computerized DNA comparison that looks for genetic links to a sample taken from the body. But the systems in place to recover, identify and return migrants to their home countries are broken, a failing made more poignant as Latin American countries mark the Day of the Dead, a multiday commemoration of the departed.

More than 2,000 unidentified bodies — most of which were in pieces after being devoured by vultures or other wild animals — have been recovered north of the U.S.-Mexico border since 1998, according to an analysis of data from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs), a free, online database funded by the U.S. Department of Justice.

South of the border, nongovernmental organizations and migrants’ rights groups have gathered more than 4,000 DNA samples from family members of the missing. But the dots aren’t being connected, and people like Wendy Morales are left to wonder if any of the bodies found on the U.S. side could be those of their loved ones.

More than 600 migrants have died in the Americas so far in 2019 — the highest total since the International Organization for Migration, part of the United Nations, began tracking deaths using official and media reports in 2014. Half perished on the U.S.-Mexico border. Some — perhaps most — of those 300 bodies will go unidentified.

“We are currently experiencing a global migrant crisis,” says Kate Spradley, a forensic anthropologist from Texas State University leading an international effort to identify the remains of migrants found on the border. “If the U.S. can’t find a way to compare these DNA datasets, there is no hope for the rest of the world.”


Spradley is a member of the Forensic Border Coalition, a cross-border consortium formed in response to what both the American Civil Liberties Union and Mexico’s National Commission on Human Rights have deemed a “humanitarian crisis” of migrant deaths on the border. Since the 1990s, the U.S. government’s approach to border security has been to fortify populated points of entry, pushing migrants into more remote and treacherous routes in Texas and Arizona.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection receives thousands of missing-migrant reports every year. But CBP officials say they are strapped for resources and must prioritize rescuing people who are alive. As a result, most migrant bodies or remains in South Texas, the deadliest stretch of the border since 2014, are found by cattle ranchers. These ranchers can deny federal agents access to their land to conduct warrantless searches.

When a body is recovered, it usually goes to a medical examiner, where a federally mandated DNA sample is taken for the purpose of identification. But cash-strapped counties in Texas often contract out this work to funeral homes or independent pathologists known to bury migrants in unmarked graves without proper paperwork, according to a 2016 article co-authored by Spradley in the Academic Forensic Pathology Journal.

If by luck a body is recovered with some form of identification, it’s the responsibility of the migrant’s home country to notify relatives and help collect DNA samples from them for matching with the deceased. More often, however, bodies are returned to families without genetic verification. They sometimes learn of their loved ones’ deaths from news reports.

The Trump administration didn’t help matters when, in December, it opposed the UN’s first Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The compact called for the creation of DNA databases that could be shared among countries with high immigration rates to help the identification and repatriation of the dead.

In a statement at the time, the U.S. Mission to the U.N. wrote, “While the United States honors the contributions of the many immigrants who helped build our nation, we cannot support a ‘Compact’ or process that imposes or has the potential to impose international guidelines, standards, expectations, or commitments that might constrain our ability to make decisions in the best interests of our nation and citizens.”

Henry Perez of San Marcos, Guatemala, is among the 4,000 or so people who have provided DNA samples to try to ascertain the fate of loved ones. Perez, 35, has been searching nearly a decade for his younger brother, Luis; the two last spoke in July 2010, when Luis, then 21, called Henry from Reynosa, Mexico, across the river from McAllen, Texas. He’d trekked more than 1,000 miles on foot and by bus across some of Mexico’s most dangerous migrant routes, controlled by drug cartels.

On the phone from Reynosa, Luis sounded uncharacteristically worried.

“He said he could spend weeks at a safehouse waiting to be smuggled across the border, but he stopped calling, and we don’t know if that time ever came,” Henry Perez recalled, his hand shaking as he picked up a mug of hot cinnamon tea. “I’m not sure if we ever will.”

Surrounding Perez in a small church cafeteria sat dozens of mothers, wives and children of other missing migrants from across Guatemala, part of an annual pilgrimage to petition the Mexican consulate in Quetzaltenango for updates. Some had spent more than 10 hours on a bus to get there.

The next morning the families were joined by members of the Fundacion Para La Justicia y El Estado Democratico De Derecho — the Foundation for Justice and the Democratic Rule of Law — a human-rights organization that represents relatives of 93 missing migrants from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Together they went to the consulate, where they met with state officials and law enforcement for an update on the search for their loved ones. Perez walked out of the 12-hour meeting feeling spent.

“They said they’ve been working on Luis’s case, but they don’t have any new leads,” he said. “It’s the same thing they’ve told me every year.

“Honestly, I’m not sure he’s still alive. But my family and I need to know what happened so we can start the grieving process.”

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Kristian Hernández