A laborious task for a Texas sheriff: finding bodies as migrant deaths increase

VAN HORN, Texas: Like many other sheriffs in West Texas, Oscar E. Carrillo makes a gun, drives a truck, and wears a cowboy hat.

But it’s his new piece of gear, a corpse cart, that makes him question whether to remain a lawyer.

“That’s how we no longer have to carry the remains on hand,” Sheriff Carrillo, 56, explained as he described the list of dead migrants that appeared on his watch. “I used to order regular things like bulletproof vests,” he said. “Now I’m asking for more body bags.”

As the number of migrants crossing the border into Mexico has increased this year, with encounters not seen in more than two decades, so has the number of bodies found by the State Customs and Border Protection. Units. As of July, Border Patrol officials found 383 migrants dead, the highest number in nearly a decade, and one that already far exceeded the 253 recovered in the previous fiscal year.

There is no single system for tracking the deaths of immigrants, some of which have not been discovered for years, and the Border Patrol figure does not include the dozens of bodies found by other police agencies, such as the local sheriff’s offices.

Sheriff Carrillo, for example, has found the bodies of 19 migrants this year, many of whom died due to the sweltering heat of summer, compared to two last year. It handles cases, in addition to fighting day-to-day crimes such as burglary and cattle theft, with only 10 deputies in Culberson County, a sparsely populated expanse of mountainous terrain, scrub and sand dunes about three and a half times the size of size of Rhode Island.

Some political leaders, such as Gov. Greg Abbott, argue that there are more cross-border people making the dangerous journey after President Biden eased the hostility his predecessor showed to migrants in Latin America.

Others blame drug gangs and famine in Central America or the extreme climate fueled by climate change. While these factors are interrelated, for Culbertson County there is another element: the border wall.

The Trump administration’s signature project has pushed some migrants to cross into exceptionally forbidden areas where no walls exist, such as remote stretches around Culberson County.

Sheriff Carrillo, who has held his job for 21 years, said he tried to avoid all the political skirmishes surrounding immigration.

“I have a job to do,” the sheriff, who grew up in El Paso, said in an interview conducted entirely in Spanish, the hybrid language that prevails across much of the border. It fell in Texas oil fields before falling oil prices in the 1980s.

“I told myself I needed something that would exist,” he said, “such as law enforcement or funeral work.”

Now, as the death toll rises, Sheriff Carrillo discovers he’s doing some of the two.

Most of the migrants come from three Central American countries, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, although the sheriff has also recently found the bodies of Ecuadorians and Mexicans.

In contrast to those seeking asylum elsewhere, those making the stealth trip in this part of West Texas are what border law enforcement officials call “Title 42,” referring to -se to a Trump-era policy that allows authorities rapid deportations during the Coronavirus pandemic. Although President Biden promised for months that he would lift title 42, he recently announced that he would keep it as the contagious Delta variant sent cases across the country.

After being sent to Mexico, many of the migrants simply try their luck again, sometimes in exceptionally remote places in the Chihuahuan Desert. More than 200,000 migrants were detained along the border in July, 13% more than the previous month and the second highest number recorded, according to data from the border patrol. Of those arrested last month, 27 percent had been previously arrested.

Migrant deaths, a horrible reality for decades, are rising in one stretch of the border after another.

In Arizona, the remains of 127 migrants were found during the first half of this year, up from 96 in the same period in 2020, according to Humane Borders, a human rights group documenting these deaths using data from the U.S. Bureau of Investigation. Pima County. Forensic in Tucson.

In the Rio Grande Valley, South Texas, 69 bodies of immigrants were found from October to July, compared to 57 in the same period last year, according to data from the border patrol. The agency’s Rio sector in Texas recorded an even bigger jump, to 71 bodies from 34.

On the border side of Sheriff Carrillo, some die from sunstroke or dehydration, left by smugglers leading groups of border crossings.

But, as the sheriff explained, there are many ways to die in the desert.

In one case, in late July, he received a call around three in the morning. An Ecuadorian migrant had been killed by an eighteen-wheeled vehicle while trying to cross Interstate 10 near Van Horn County headquarters.

Only the teeth and some parts of the body were recovered, he said, reviewing photos of the horrific accident. “I didn’t have anything left,” he added. There was nothing left.

In another case, Sheriff Carrillo was called to the spot where there was an empty water tank in a ranch, where he found a migrant who had hung himself from a mosque tree.

“He went all this way just to find the tank empty,” the sheriff said. “What would have occurred to him at that moment?”

These questions seemed to haunt Sheriff Carrillo as he stared at the pile of manila envelopes on the desk. Each envelope, he said, included details about a migrant who had died in his county that year.

Culberson County, like other inland Texas counties, cannot afford its own forensic. Thus, the sheriff’s department takes the bodies to El Paso, about 160 kilometers to the west, where officials charge about $ 3,500 for each autopsy.

At the same time, Sheriff Carrillo’s prison is so full of smugglers that he has had to start diverting those handed to him by state soldiers or National Guard personnel who are part of Mr Abbott’s immigrant crackdown.

“When someone shows up with a criminal, I don’t take them,” Sheriff Carrillo said. “There’s no more room for the bed.”

Keeping criminals away is not what Sheriff Carrillo had in mind when he went to work with the police. He projects an image of law and order, reinforced by photographs on his shelf with Texas Republicans like Mr. Abbott and Rick Perry, the former secretary of power and former governor.

But Sheriff Carrillo, a Democrat from a predominantly Hispanic county, led by President Biden in the 2020 election, is also known for running in positions that could make him atypical.

In 2017, Sheriff Carrillo was attacked by conservatives when President Donald J. Trump came to the conclusion that a Border Patrol agent had been killed after being found with head injuries along a stretch of road interstate 10.

“They had this narrative that‘ bad men ’crossed the border and attacked law enforcement, and that’s not what happened,” said the sheriff, who cited evidence that the officer had fallen to the bottom of a sink.

After FBI agents interviewed more than 650 people and found no evidence of a homicide, the pressure on the sheriff eased. This year he was named a board member of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, a distinction in an organization where Hispanics, on the verge of emerging as the largest ethnic group in the state, remain severely underrepresented. .

Sheriff Carrillo said many of his counterparts, especially those in inland Texas counties, were curious about how he was on the border these days. He said he tried not to sweeten his answers.

“All of these bodies deserve an investigation,” said the sheriff, who described the dead migrants as “these poor innocent people,” poor innocent people.

However, Sheriff Carrillo acknowledged that the increasing number of deaths was overwhelming for small departments like his, and that facing so much death prompted him to retire.

Your phone keeps ringing with calls about bodies. One week, he is a rancher checking his water lines, and the next is the large sheep hunters who detect a corpse.

“I’m no longer a young man,” he said. “I had no idea we were going to be bombarded with this crisis.”

The sheriff said he knew his goal of holding the smugglers accountable was out of reach. In the meantime, he hopes to offer the families of the dead migrants some kind of closure.

Many of the remains have no identification, so he posts details about some cases on his personal Facebook page. People from all over Latin America approach her, desperate for information about loved ones.

In one case, a California woman asked him if he had run into the body of his brother, who had an owl tattoo on his leg and often wore a Chicago White Sox cap. Using this information, the sheriff was able to confirm that the remains of a migrant found in June were those of a 28-year-old man from the Mexican state of Veracruz, the woman’s brother.

“We were able to return the body to the family,” the sheriff said. “At least we could do it for them.”

At Sheriff Carrillo’s desk, near the Manila envelopes containing information about the bodies he drags on the department’s new bunk, is another stack of documents: requests for help from consulates in Central American countries to find missing migrants when they crossed the border. .

“These people are out there,” he said. “I hope one day we find them.”