Recovering human remains in the heat of a South Texas summer is not for the faint-hearted. The sight and smell of the dead can linger with you for days. It can give you nightmares if you let it.
Whenever ranchers in rural Brooks County, 70 miles north of the Mexican border, find a body, which is often these days, they call the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office. Chief Deputy Urbino “Benny” Martinez and his deputies are tasked with recovering the growing number of dead, and placing them in Department of Homeland Security-issued body bags — black bags for the recently dead, white for skeletal remains.
The 57-year-old Martinez has been in law enforcement for 35 years. He isn’t squeamish. But the images of the dozens of bodies he’s recovered in the ranchland haunt him. “You don’t ever become accustomed to it,” he says.
It can take hours just to reach the bodies through the deep sand, the cactus and the thorny mesquite. Often, cowboys or hunters find bodies in remote corners of the county because migrants and their smugglers take great pains to avoid detection as they walk around the nearby Border Patrol checkpoint. Martinez and his men often have to trek to the sites on foot because their county-issued vehicles can’t handle the terrain.
“One night we went out and picked up a body at 1am,” Martinez says. “We had to backpack out there. We stayed until sunrise because it was too dark to figure out where we were, and how to get the vehicle in there and the body out.”
In 2009, Martinez took the job as chief deputy with the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office. He’d recently retired after 29 years as a Texas state trooper, and he hoped to lead a quiet life in Falfurrias, the small town where he had grown up. “I just wanted to wind things down a bit,” he says. He never imagined, when he took the job, that he’d be sitting across a desk from so many grieving mothers looking for their children. He never imagined the stack of thick binders documenting by year and by month the hundreds of bodies he and his deputies have recovered on the surrounding ranches.
- “They're here illegally but they're human beings too.”
For many desperate families searching for missing relatives, Martinez is one of the few law enforcement officials they’ll ever meet who will genuinely listen. Despite his department’s lack of resources, despite having to skimp on gas for the patrol cars, despite working more than 50 hours a week to make up for the deputies he’s lost to budget cuts, he’ll still do everything possible to find their loved ones. “On a personal note, it’s always difficult,” he says of meeting with the families. “I can see their pain in just talking to them, I can see they feel hopeless. I want to reassure them we’re doing everything we can. They’re here illegally but they’re human beings too.”
It took Martinez a couple of years to come to terms with what was happening in his hometown, he says. Then in the summer of 2012, with the region deep in drought and suffering through a heat wave, the migrant deaths in his county became a full-blown humanitarian crisis. “Things started popping, and I knew with the terrain here and this busy immigration corridor it wasn’t going to be easy,” he says. “We didn’t have the personnel to begin with.”
That year, Martinez and his men recovered 129 bodies from the surrounding ranches, a record for the rural county and the first year that Texas eclipsed Arizona as the deadliest state in the nation for undocumented migrants.
It’s early June, and Martinez, wearing a black cowboy hat and dark sunglasses, is steering his silver Volkswagen SUV through downtown Falfurrias toward Sacred Heart Cemetery, on the outskirts of town. Half of the buildings on downtown’s main street are boarded up, but there’s a busy Whataburger drive-through and two large truck stops that depend on customers from US Highway 281.
It’s the highway, which runs north from the border all the way to Canada, that draws migrants and smugglers to Brooks County. Martinez says Falfurrias has always been a corridor for immigrants. “Growing up, I remember we’d have people from Mexico walking along the little creek bed that went past my bedroom window.” Usually they were men walking alone or in pairs, looking for work. “Sometimes they would ask for a drink of water, then they’d move on.” Martinez and others in town didn’t feel threatened by the people passing through, he says.
Most of the migrants he’s talked to over the years have jobs waiting for them in the United States. “I call them ‘the do-ers,'” he says. “They’re here to work and send whatever money they can back home.” When a do-er dies in Brooks County, it’s a tragedy that ripples through families and communities on both sides of the border. “There are a lot of people out there relying on these do-ers to help them,” he says. “We have to put value on these lives.”
In the past decade, however, the occasional walker passing through from Mexico has turned into hundreds of migrants a day, Martinez estimates — many of them from Central America or countries as far away as China and Bangladesh who are fleeing poverty and sometimes violence. The tolerant feeling toward the migrants in Falfurrias has also changed to one of fear and sometimes resentment. “The migrants coming through are more aggressive because they have to be,” Martinez says. “The smuggling business has been taken over by organized crime. And they use the migrants. They rape them or make them carry drugs. They take away any human value they have. They’re just merchandise.”
Lately there’s been a problem, he says, with smugglers leading migrants trying to evade the Border Patrol across the busy Highway 281 and to their deaths. In May, a semi struck and killed a woman from El Salvador and her teenage daughter who were darting across the highway with a group of 30. “Her 13-year-old son witnessed the whole thing,” Martinez says. “I had to call the father in New York and tell him what had happened. So much senseless death.”
Martinez pulls into the long drive that leads to Sacred Heart Cemetery. He’s there to check in with Dr Lori Baker, a Baylor University anthropology professor, and her students. Baker and the students have volunteered to exhume the bodies of hundreds of unidentified migrants so that DNA and forensic tests can be performed on the remains in an effort to return them to their families.
Martinez scans the cemetery for signs of Dr Baker and her students, but a cemetery caretaker tells him that, because of the triple-digit heat, they’ve already gone back to the hotel for the day. Not far from where the team is digging lies the Martinez family plot, where three generations are buried.
Martinez steps out of his SUV and walks to his parents’ graves. His father was a World War II veteran who became partially paralyzed from a stroke after he returned from war, and his mother was a homemaker. Together they raised 10 children. When he was 11, he says, Martinez watched Hurricane Beulah wash their house away. “The water took everything but my parents took it in stride,” he says. With a loan from the federal government they built a small brick home that had electricity but no indoor plumbing. “We did OK for ourselves,” he says. “We didn’t have money, but we never felt poor, if that makes sense.”
The community, predominantly Latino and working class, was always supportive of Martinez and his siblings when he was growing up. “We excelled in running. We were all runners, and my brothers built a dirt track next to the house. You would have to go around it 20 times to make a mile,” he says, smiling at the memory. Martinez had a passion for long-distance running. He’d often run 20 miles a day on the dirt track next to the house. “I was drawn to it because it was self initiated. It took discipline and commitment.”
That commitment won him a track scholarship to Baylor University and pulled him away from his hometown. After college he became a state trooper and worked for years in other parts of Texas. But he always knew he would return home. “At the end of the day, this is a good solid community,” he says. “We just happen to be right smack in the middle of this immigration corridor, and we got nowhere to go. So we’ve got to deal with it.”
Martinez and the sheriff were doing what they could, but there were too many demands for a small department to tackle on a daily basis, especially in a rural, 944-square-mile county: a growing number of sexual assaults of migrant women by smugglers, deaths on Highway 281 and gang-affiliated groups from Houston and other cities moving into the area to set up stash houses and prey on the thousands of migrants being moved through the county.
There were also the high-speed chases with smugglers who drive recklessly through town in SUVs packed with migrants trying to elude deputies and Border Patrol. The pursuits often end in tragedy. “In one vehicle recently there were five deaths. They hit a tree,” Martinez says. “Another time a vehicle went right through a woman’s house and killed her. We try to take one issue at a time because that’s all we can handle.”
Then, in January 2014, a bomb dropped.
County officials announced they would have to cut their $4 million budget by half. The oil and gas wells Brooks County depended on for tax revenue were nearly tapped out. The first thing to go for the sheriff’s department would be health insurance for Martinez’s deputies and their families that had been one of the biggest benefits of a job with an average annual salary of $23,000. Martinez, who made $26,000 last year, took a pay cut; because he’d retired from the Texas Department of Public Safety, he still had health insurance through the state. His deputies were not so lucky. “Most of them are just starting their careers and their families,” he says. “So they had to move on.” Martinez had eight deputies last year. This year he has four.
- “This is already the second-busiest checkpoint in the country and it's going to get bigger.”
The department spends nearly half its annual budget on body recovery, autopsies and transportation of corpses. Martinez added up the department’s expenditures on recoveries from 2009 to 2013 and came up with $628,000. “That’s a pretty significant amount for a poor county like this,” he says. This year, the department received $152,000 in state funding for the first time to help offset the costs, but the department receives no federal money, unlike border counties, because it is 70 miles north of the international border.
“I get real confused about why this county isn’t a ‘border’ county, despite the fact we have all these immigration issues and a federal checkpoint,” Martinez says. And Brooks County’s border issues are going to get only worse. The federal government announced plans this year to expand its four-lane checkpoint on the highway south of Falfurrias to eight lanes. To Martinez, this means more drug felonies to process, more traffic deaths and more people dying as they hike around the checkpoint. “This is already the second-busiest checkpoint in the country and it’s going to get bigger.”
They would rather be saving lives than recovering bodies, he says. In the past year his department has received more than 600 emergency 911 calls from migrants hurt or dying on isolated ranches. With only a handful of deputies available to respond, Martinez relies on Border Patrol personnel stationed in the area to rescue many of the migrants, who suffer from dehydration and heat stroke. Last year, they rescued more than 350.
Yet the average time for Border Patrol to respond to distress calls on the ranches is two hours or more, according to a recent investigation for Telemundo, The Weather Channel and The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations and The Weather Channel by John Carlos Frey, a reporting fellow for the Investigative Fund. In August, after the broadcast aired, Border Patrol deployed a Search Trauma and Rescue (BORSTAR) team to Brooks County. “Now we’re seeing response times of 10 minutes or less,” Martinez says. “When we have resources like this, it makes a difference.” But if history is any indicator, the BORSTAR team, which has been dispatched to Brooks County before, won’t stay for long.
There has recently been help from other sources, though. After the media reported that the sheriff’s department had lost half its workforce, law enforcement personnel from the more populated border cities south of Brooks County contacted Martinez with offers to volunteer. Now he has 15 reserve deputies helping in their spare time.
Martinez would like to have them all patrolling the county at once, but he can deploy only six deputies at a time, because he has just six vehicles. Still, “We have them out there 24-7, and they’re helping us tremendously,” he says. “Response times are quicker and the reports are getting done. The community is happy because they see department personnel out on the streets.”
Driving back into town from the cemetery, Martinez contemplates the future of his hometown. Despite the psychic toll of the crisis and all the other setbacks — the budget cuts, the lawmakers who refuse to send aid to Brooks County — he won’t lose hope. He learned that from his parents a long time ago, after the hurricane took everything they owned. “It’s been a challenge,” he says. “The best thing to do is to learn from it.”
Martinez says he’ll stick with the department even through these bad times. “At the end of the day, I like my job because I know I’ve done something right. Maybe I helped a mom or recovered a body or rescued some people in the brush,” he says. “If you’re here for the hoorays or a pat on the back, then you’re in the wrong business. As a public servant I have to find that from within. It’s just you doing what you got to do, and making it home safe.”
Texas Observer staff writer Melissa del Bosque is a 2014-2015 Lannan Fellow at The Investigative Fund, now known as Type Investigations, a project of The Nation Institute.