Texas county at center of border fight is overwhelmed by migrant deaths

EAGLE PASS, Tex. — The undertaker lighted a cigarette and held it between his latex-gloved fingers as he stood over the bloated body bag lying in the bed of his battered pickup truck.

The woman had been fished out of the Rio Grande minutes earlier. Now, her body lay stiff as mortician Jesus “Chuy” Gonzalez drove away from the muddy boat ramp and toward an overcrowded freezer, passing mobile homes and a casino along the way.

Maverick County purchased the trailer during the pandemic to handle covid-19 victims. It was designed to hold 20 bodies but on this day held 28 — the putrefied remains testifying to two dozen shattered dreams of reaching the United States. Only half had names.

Gonzalez didn’t flinch as he swung the freezer’s doors open. He has been around so much death that the stench of decomposition no longer bothers him. A large silver Virgen de Guadalupe dangled from his chest as he maneuvered the woman into a wooden barrack.

Nearby lay the body of a man whose arms were frozen as if he were blocking a blow. His jeans and shoes were still covered in river mud and his face marbled with sickly discoloration. Several members of a Venezuelan family who drowned together were also scattered inside the trailer. They had been there since mid-November.

Record-level migration has brought record-breaking death to Maverick County, a border community that is ground zero in the feud between Texas and the Biden administration over migration. Whereas in a typical month years ago, officials here might have recovered one or two bodies from the river, more recently they have handled that amount in a single day. While border crossings draw the most attention in the national debate about immigration, the rising number of deaths in the Rio Grande has gone largely unnoticed.

First responders have run out of body bags and burial plots. Their rescue boats and recovery trucks are covered in dents and scratches, scars from navigating through the brush to retrieve floating bodies. County officials say they don’t have the training or supplies to collect DNA samples of each unidentified migrant as required by state law, meaning bodies are sometimes left in fridges for months or even buried with scant attempt to identify them.

At one point in 2022 as the body count rose, officials buried migrants in a potter’s field, their graves marked with crosses made out of PVC pipes. Over the past month, the number of deaths has dropped as migrant crossings dip, but officials are still girding themselves for another increase later this spring. To prepare, they are creating a new space to bury unidentified migrants, the boundaries already demarcated with wooden sticks spray-painted red and lodged into the dirt.

Maverick County Attorney Jaime Iracheta said that the border community budgeted $100,000 of a nearly $4 million grant from Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) border security initiative, Operation Lone Star, toward handling migrant remains but that auditors now expect they will need to spend over $1 million.

“I have one now. I had one yesterday. I’m going to have more this week,” Jeannie Smith, a justice of the peace tasked with recording migrant deaths, said in February. “There is an overwhelming sense of ‘What are we going to do?’ You want to make sure they get back to their loved ones, but it’s too many people crossing the river. Where do we put the bodies?”

The crude and haphazard manner in which migrant bodies are often being stored, identified and buried here is adding to the indignity of their deaths. It is also compounding the anguish of relatives, many of whom wait months or years to learn about the fate of loved ones, if at all.

On that January afternoon, officials at least had a clue as to who the woman was. After plucking her body out of a bend downriver from Shelby Park, where Texas forces have seized city land and set up a makeshift base, they searched her body and found an ID tucked into her bra.

Her name was Irma Marivel Cú Chub. Maybe someone would inquire.

“River. River. Ranch. Ranch. John Doe. Jane Doe. John Doe. Fetus, the mother gave birth at the river, but the baby didn’t survive. They come from everywhere. I say a little prayer for each one.”

Migrants are drawn to this stretch of Texas borderland 150 miles west of San Antonio because it is perceived as relatively safe. The city of Piedras Negras across the river in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila reports fewer migrant kidnappings and extortion cases than other border communities. But the Rio Grande is a different story.

On certain days the turbid water is only knee-deep. But a dam upriver periodically releases water, changing the depth. Smooth rocks beneath the surface make it hard to find a grip. And a powerful undercurrent can drown even the strongest. Videos on social media showing migrants easily crossing lure many into a false sense of comfort.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection rescues along the nation’s southwest border have been skyrocketing, jumping from 2,920 in fiscal 2019 to 37,323 in 2023. Current data for the Del Rio sector, which includes Maverick County, isn’t available, but older records show the number of migrants in need of help has been on the rise. There were 2,000 rescues in fiscal 2021, compared with 480 in 2019.

Meanwhile, the number of deaths is also mounting. Border Patrol agents documented 281 fatalities along the southwest border in 2018; that figure had climbed to 895 in 2022, the last year for which data is available. Those numbers are an undercount because agents are not called to every incident. The Del Rio sector reported more deaths than any other.

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Arelis R. Hernández, Marina Dias and Daniele Volpe