Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Identification begins on South Texas immigrants

One of the girl's pink and white high-top sneakers, size 6½, was still on her foot when her body arrived at the Webb County Medical Examiner's Office in Laredo on Sept. 1.

Medical Examiner Corinne Stern placed her at 15 to 17 years old, but knew little else.

Now, a month later, the body of Sandra Maribel Jarama Naula, 17, is back home in Ecuador, and her husband knows her fate.

The Corpus Christi Caller-Times (http://bit.ly/1bBjW4Q ) reports none of these stories have the ending that friends and relatives want, but now there is a greater likelihood that they will at least have an ending.

Naula's story represents an early success in Brooks County's new policy mandating that all bodies believed to be those of migrants are sent to Stern's office for autopsy. Before August, there were no official examinations of migrant bodies because the cash-strapped county didn't budget for it. The change is critical because Brooks County is the epicenter for migrant deaths in South Texas, with its unforgiving remote terrain surrounding the Border Patrol checkpoint south of Falfurrias.

Affidavits by federal investigators show Naula walked 12 hours through the brush, on a day when the temperature in Falfurrias reached 99 degrees, before she collapsed and died.

Remains of 129 people were recovered in Brooks County in 2012, setting a record. Seventy-six have been found in 2013. Law enforcement officials believe even more deaths are unaccounted for, because remains are scattered across the 944 square miles of barren ranch land. A Caller-Times analysis showed at least a third of those recovered since 2011 were reduced to bones.

The policy changed after pressure from human rights groups and coverage in the Caller-Times. Before the change, bodies were sent to a mortuary in the Rio Grande Valley. There, staff members tried to identify bodies by studying the personal items they carried and maintaining contact with foreign consulates that collected missing person reports.

But the efforts fell short of scientific standards and a state law that requires DNA samples to be collected from unidentified bodies. While it's impossible to tell the mortuary's success rate, because its records aren't public, one measure was the Brooks County cemetery, which ran out of space for unmarked graves.

In May, anthropologists from Baylor University unearthed 55 graves from the cemetery and are creating profiles of each person in hopes of identifying them.

Under the new system, fewer bodies should end up in nameless graves because although most are in advanced states of decomposition, DNA samples can now be compared against samples submitted by people seeking missing relatives.

The early results are promising. Brooks County has sent 16 bodies to Stern's office since the policy change in mid-August. She identified three by dental records and other measures, and tentatively identified five more, pending DNA samples submitted by relatives.

Naula's case shows another benefit of the autopsy process: It preserves evidence in criminal cases and lines of communication between officials at state, federal, local and international agencies. It also helps federal agents probe the international criminal organizations that traffic people and drugs.

Stern made the identification after learning from officers that the girl might be from Ecuador. She called the Ecuadorean consulate. Two days later they called back. A husband reported his wife missing. Naula wore the ring he gave her, a gold band, on her left little finger. It was still there when she arrived in Stern's office.

Her body was recovered Aug. 30 after Border Patrol agents detained a group of migrants on the Cage Ranch, one of the larger ranches adjacent to U.S. Highway 281, a smuggling corridor where the Falfurrias checkpoint sits.

Tuesday 8 October 2013



Post a Comment