Identification begins on Texas immigrants
By Mark Collette, Corpus Christi Caller-Times
Oct. 9, 2013 at 11 p.m.
FALFURRIAS - One of the girl's pink and white high-top sneakers, size 6
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 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.
According to court documents, 13 members of the group were migrants. A 14th person, Carlos Morales-Luna, was guiding the group through the brush. When agents found the group, Naula was unconscious. Medics tried to revive her.
Morales told investigators he started out with 24 migrants that day, picked up from a stash house in Mission, a border town in the Rio Grande Valley. Naula and a 16-year-old boy were the youngest in the group. About 3 p.m., Naula collapsed, Morales told investigators. Soon, a border patrol helicopter flew overhead, prompting the group to scatter.
One of the migrants told investigators he saw Naula collapse after they had been walking 12 hours. Morales revived her, then gave her a pill, the witness said. Stern later found an over-the-counter pain medication in her system.
A federal grand jury indicted Morales Sept. 25 on two counts of transporting unauthorized immigrants. The government detained 11 members of the group as witnesses against him.
A brush guide is "just a little piece of the pie," said Tom Roddy, a retired Homeland Security Investigations agent from South Texas. "If you have an identification, then you can do interviews with the relatives and hopefully they cooperate with you and provide information on who their contacts were. What were the phone numbers? Who did they give money to?"
And identifying bodies can help investigators connect a death with a smuggler, leading to more prison time under federal sentencing guidelines, Roddy said.
If Morales is convicted and prosecutors connect Naula's death to the offense, the minimum possible prison time would rise from 18 months to nearly five years, according to federal guidelines. It could be more or less depending on Morales' criminal history, plea agreements, whether he cooperates with investigators and other factors.
"If you don't know who they are and you just have a dead body out in the woods, you know, you have to have a way to link it to that group," Roddy said.
There also is hope for naming the eight bodies Stern has yet to identify. She is steadily building relationships with foreign consulates, including in El Salvador, where six of the bodies are believed to have originated. Central America now makes up a greater percentage of bodies found as those countries have destabilized while Mexican migration has slowed.