Winner of the 2019 SLS Essay Contest
Eddie has close-cropped white hair and an occasional slight limp from pushing a bad knee too hard in weekly basketball games. He grew up in South Texas, became an organizer during the Chicano Movement, and spent much of his career in Denver, where he worked on a decade-long Justice for Janitors campaign representing over a thousand female janitors. After he had returned to Corpus Christi to take care of his aging mother and stepfather, activists in Houston contacted him regarding the migrant deaths in nearby Falfurrias. This led to the creation of the “Prevention of Migrant Deaths Working Group,” which later became the South Texas Human Rights Center (STHRC). Now, the organization works to prevent migrant deaths through both a network of water stations and search-and-rescue, and to provide dignity in death when it does occur. Eddie runs the center off small donations and grants, and from Tuesday through Saturday every week until 2018, slept in a cot in the bathroom of the downtown Falfurrias office.
Large-scale migrant death started in 1994, when Customs and Border Protection initiated its strategy of “Prevention through Deterrence” (PTD), which increased enforcement in border cities in order to re-route migration through the harsh surrounding deserts, justified by the idea that a passage so forbidding would deter migrants from entry. The long, barely fenced, public lands of the Sonoran Desert of Arizona became the principal site of migrant traffic, along with apprehensions and deaths. Yet from 2004 to 2014, migrant traffic shifted from Arizona to Texas, as a result of escalated enforcement along the Arizona boundary after 9/11, increased drug trafficking through northern Sonora, and a shift in migrants’ origins from Mexico to Central America.
Those who implemented PTD knew that death would be one of the strategy’s outcomes, even going so far to use it as a metric of success: a 1997 report by the US General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) identified one of the “Indicators for Measuring the Effectiveness of the Strategy to Deter Illegal Entry Along the Southwestern Border” as “the deaths of aliens attempting entry.” Even as immigration numbers have decreased since the 1990s, deaths have continued to increase.
Accompanying the shift in migrant routes from Arizona to Texas, then, came a new geography of death. In fiscal year 2012, 179 migrant bodies were recovered in Arizona, while 271 were found in Texas, 129 in Falfurrias’ Brooks County alone. Not only did the geography shift, it became ten times more concentrated: Brooks County covers only 942 square miles, whereas Pima and Maricopa Counties, where Arizona’s fatalities occur, cover 9,189 and 9,224 respectively.
|Brooks County, Texas
What’s more, the Texas death count is much less conclusive than Arizona’s. South Texas is 100% private land, whereas southern Arizona is 95% public and tribal land, making remains far less likely to be discovered: “There are bodies scattered all over South Texas, because you have private property and there’s no systematic way to search,” says Eddie. County Sheriff Benny Martinez estimates that for every set of remains recovered, four have not been found.
Perhaps the most surprising piece of the puzzle is that Brooks is not a border county. Its southern edge is some sixty miles from the US-Mexico line. The county is instead the site of the Falfurrias Traffic Checkpoint, part of an archipelago of inland stations located on every north-south road from Mexico to form, in the words of writer Mike Davis, a “second border,” or in Eddie’s, “a militarized line through the Southwest.”
According to Customs and Border Protection’s website, the Falfurrias Checkpoint is “nationally known as a primary leader in seizures, both alien and narcotic apprehensions.” The website does not mention that the checkpoint, along with parallel stations in Kingsville and Hebbronville, was established in the early 1950s after farmers in the Rio Grande Valley, dependent on cheap undocumented labor, retaliated against the workplace raids and increased policing that led up to Operation Wetback in 1954. After the farmers successfully prevented new Border Patrol appropriations and organized to stop a measure that would have criminalized undocumented employees, the agency agreed to take a more hands-off approach to farm labor in the Valley, and to retreat northward, leading to the system of inland checkpoints.
At checkpoints, most travelers are simply asked if they are US citizens, and waved through upon an affirmative answer. While the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which prohibits unreasonable search and seizure, dictates that law enforcement searches require a warrant based on probable cause of criminal activity, a 1976 US Supreme Court case, United States v. Martinez-Fuerte, ruled that Border Patrol officers could use racial profiling to refer drivers to secondary questioning at checkpoints. The decision reads, “Even if it be assumed that such referrals are made largely on the basis of apparent Mexican ancestry, we perceive no constitutional violation…we think it follows that the Border Patrol officers must have wide discretion in selecting the motorists to be diverted.”
Now, the checkpoint is responsible for the concentration of deaths in Brooks County. After making a treacherous journey across Mexico, swimming the Rio Grande, and thinking they have safely reached the United States, migrants learn they have one more obstacle: circumventing the checkpoint—on foot, through private ranchlands, in extreme heat and humidity. To make matters more complicated, migrants often change guides upon entry into the US, meaning they lose whatever trust they have established up to that point, and that their families do not always know the contact information of the new guide. Eddie sketched a possible trajectory:
“Let’s say you cross in Laredo, your family is in constant contact with you up to that point, all across Mexico, then the person you’re contracted with changes. We have a case going right now, this Guatemalteco, I’ve been in contact with the father, and it was exactly this story. The first coyote gets his son across the border, but then he was put into a group of twenty—una mezcla, people from Mexico, Honduras. The Border Patrol ambushes them, fifteen were captured, five got through. Now they don’t know where they’re at, barely know they’re going north, and the son is making a call to his dad from somewhere under a bridge, he says there’s water in the arroyo, and the father is saying, please, take the water, and turn yourself in.”
Turn yourself in. The private-lands geography of Texas means that only the Border Patrol can access the majority of land in South Texas; successful search-and-rescue operations end in detention and deportation.
“The reality is that I have to work with Border Patrol,” Eddie explains. “I don’t have access—they have access. So for us, a ‘success’ in search and rescue means turning them over to the Border Patrol. But the level of elation from families when someone is being detained is—well, because it means they’re not going to die.”
“¿Cómo estás?” Eddie answered the phone.
“Más o menos, muy preocupado,” said the man in Denver. So-so, very worried. Eddie told him that he had asked the Border Patrol to do a search for his brother, but they hadn’t acquiesced because they didn’t have enough information about where to find him. He asked the brother in Denver to list all the information he knew. When the man was finished, Eddie asked him to repeat it all again.
The group had crossed the river at Roma, stayed in a safe house in McAllen, and driven to Hebbronville. In his last communication, the migrant brother had said he was five hours’ walking from Highway 285, and that his group of thirteen had been chased by the Border Patrol and scattered, but none of them had been apprehended. (“They need to quit ambushing the groups,” Eddie said when he got off the phone, shaking his head. “People get lost and die.”) When Eddie pressed for more information, the brother suggested that Eddie talk to their father. Eddie said the father hadn’t called him. The brother said he would tell the father to call.
Shortly after they got off the phone, Eddie’s phone rang with a WhatsApp call from Mexico. The father repeated what the Denver brother had said about Roma and McAllen. Neither understood that these two towns were very far from where the brother had gone missing, nor did they have information to help Eddie locate him within the vicinity of Falfurrias. Eddie, who describes himself as “pushy—with a smile,” characteristically kept pushing.
“¿Donde empezaron a caminar?” he asked. Where did they start walking? The father didn’t have an answer. Instead he said again that the son had told them he was walking toward 285, and started to spell out some words, along with the phone number of a friend of the guide. “Mande por texto,” Eddie told him. Send it by text. The message came in:
Eddie handed me the phone. I read the text out loud. When I said “brecha thirty,” he interrupted me.
“That’s what we need to figure out!” I handed him back the phone and asked what he meant. “I keep hearing that, the ‘brecha treinta,’ so many times over the last few years.”
“What does brecha mean?” I asked.
“It’s like a gap, here, look it up,” he said, and handed me the iPhone again, with the app SpanishDict open.
“Breach, gap, rift,” I read.
“So I think it’s some kind of opening onto the road,” he said.
Eddie is empowered to request search and rescue operations from the Border Patrol partially thanks to a special relationship between the STHRC and the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office. County Sheriff Benny Martinez is a retired Department of Public Safety officer who looks the part of Texas sheriff: his daily attire includes black cowboy boots, Wranglers, and silver bracelets. Even in his sheriff’s office ID photo, he wears a cowboy hat. Martinez became a sheriff’s deputy in 2013 and was elected sheriff in 2017, and has managed to collaborate with all types of constituents and authorities to help the county resolve the challenges that have arisen from its new centrality to migration.
“When I started as a deputy,” he told me, “this county was $682,700 in the hole. From the migration costs.” The federal government does not classify Brooks as a “border county,” which renders it ineligible for funding to deal with costs related to migration; additionally, as soon as migrants are deceased, they become the responsibility of the county, rather than Border Patrol. In 2013, Martinez reached out to state legislators, leading to support form the governor’s office from the county’s migration-related expenses, which total $350,000 to $400,000 per year, much of it for handling the remains of the deceased. But until he did, Brooks County—one of the poorest counties in the nation—had to use its own coffers for the transportation, processing, and burial of unidentified remains. A national scandal broke in June 2014 when it was revealed that the funeral home responsible for those services had buried hundreds of migrant remains in trash bags in mass, unmarked graves, violating a Texas state law that requires DNA collection from all unidentified remains. Neither is Brooks the only county in which migrant remains have been thus mishandled: this sort of indignity seems to be the rule, rather than the exception.
When Eddie offered Benny the willpower and collaborators to deal with the issue of the mass graves, including bringing teams of forensic anthropologists to exhume the remains and collect DNA samples for entry into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, as well as to coordinate search and rescue efforts with the Border Patrol, the two men came up with a solution: a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the sheriff’s office and the STHRC. An MOU is an agreement between two parties that is not necessarily legally binding in the way that a contract is, or is used in situations in which a contract is not appropriate. Benny describes the agreement:
“Basically I adopted Eddie as my forensic team, so he’s under my colors. It’s opened a lot of doors, and it’s never before been done in the US because he is not law enforcement.” Yet while the memorandum may name the legal status of their relationship, on the ground the MOU is executed through iMessage, through Eddie dropping in on the sheriff’s office, and through good-natured taunting between the two men. “We do our parts, and at the end of the day, it comes together, like spokes on a wheel,” says Benny.
Next, Eddie dialed the head of the Rio Grande Sector of the Border Patrol.
“We’re looking for this guy,” he said, “and we need to know, what is the brecha treinta? I’ve heard it a bunch of times before.”
“Yeah, I have, too,” the division head said. “Well, the thirty is Creek Road.”
“Right,” said Eddie. “So we’re looking for some kind of gap, some kind of opening onto the road.” The division head said again that it was a term they had heard, wondered about, but that they didn’t have an answer for either.
At the bottom of the father’s WhatsApp message was a phone number of a friend of the guide. Eddie called it. The friend answered, and Eddie began asking him about when and where the group was scattered.
“¿Cuando entraron al desierto?” Eddie asked. When did they enter the desert? The friend repeated the information the family had shared before finally conceding,
“You should ask the guide.”
“The guide’s not answering,” Eddie said. They got off the phone.
Eddie has placed over a hundred stations around Brooks and adjacent counties, along county roads as well as inside ranches where he has permission. He or his volunteers drive each route every two weeks, “dando vuelta al monte poniendo agua”—going around the brush putting out water—keeping notes on how many gallons of water have been taken, and trying to get a sense of where migrants are walking.
Baluarte Creek Road—“la treinta” because its official name is Farm-to-Market Road 3066—receives unique attention in the water station program. This is because it is the only east-west county road between Farm-to-Market 755, which Eddie says, “in terms of where los avientan [they throw them out], is basically the only place,” and TX-285, where most migrants get picked up. Eddie does not have permission to access most of the private ranchland between 755 and 285, making Creek Road the only intermediate artery along which he can locate stations. He has roughly twenty of them along the road.
|STHRC Director Eddie Canales replaces the lid
on one of the organization’s water stations
Driving Creek Road to check water one day, I asked how many people crossed through Brooks County every day. In 2013, Eddie said, people had estimated three hundred to five hundred migrants per day. Now, he thought, it was more like one hundred. I replied that even one hundred seemed like a large number, until I thought about them being in groups: twenty people per group, that’s only five groups.
“Yeah, but they’re going in smaller groups now,” said Eddie. “Five, ten people.”
“So ten, fifteen groups.” I said.
“There are more than ten trails,” he said. “What I don’t know is how many groups start each day.”
We added six gallons to an empty barrel and marked the number on a clipboard. A white and green helicopter suddenly began circling us overhead. Eddie said we must have tripped a motion sensor.
“The best thing,” Eddie continued, “would be for the coyotes to call me, so we could put water on their trails. But they don’t want anyone knowing their routes. What do you think about distributing GPS coordinates of the water stations at the shelters in Mexico? Or would maps be better?”
The calls Eddie receives from families include who have lost touch with their loved ones for long enough to presume them dead, as well as those who can contact their migrant family member, understand them to be in distress, and have some idea of where they are. The latter are migrants who have, by acquiring an American or binational SIM card, purchased the ability to be located. But the thick binders of death reports at the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office catalogue hundreds of individuals who carried no cell phone, or only a Mexican SIM.
“I just want to tell them,” Eddie says, “you’ve spent thousands of dollars on a guide—bring an American phone, with location services, and an extra battery. That’s the difference between life and death.”
Even when migrants do have the ability to make US calls, some of the technologies of translation fall short. A joint Weather Channel and Telemundo documentary, “The Real Death Valley,” detailed the shortcomings of the 911 dispatch service in Brooks County, which repeatedly failed to correctly locate calls from cells phones and to respond to calls from lost migrants. Until the film was released, the Border Patrol had also declined to respond to migrant 911 calls, offering Eddie the justification that “they might be decoys.”
Putting out water stations on the western side of Brooks County one day jogged Eddie’s memory of a Guatemalan migrant who called him and said that he had gotten the water, but that he needed food. He read Eddie the coordinates of the station off the lid, and Eddie told him to hide until he got there.
As soon as I walked in the next morning, Eddie threw a thumbs-up in the air.
“They found him!” he said. “I have to call the brother in Denver!”
He explained that he had tried to ask the Border Patrol for more information about how they found the missing brother, but that they had told him they didn’t have any more information to share. This is a persistent frustration for Eddie in working with the Border Patrol: as part of the Department of Homeland Security, viewing their mission as one of security and anti-terrorism, agents are trained to be tight-lipped. Eddie, on the other hand, shares everything he has.
He moved onto the next task of the day: setting up new water stations in a large ranch whose owner was supportive of the STHRC’s work. He called the foreman on speakerphone to find out what time they could meet. Before they finished the call, Eddie asked,
“By the way, do you know what la brecha treinta is?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s the next county road after the pipeline,” said the foreman. He paused. “Actually I picked up a guy right over there the night before last. Over by a windmill I was checking. He was pretty dehydrated. A guy named Guillermo.”
“Pedro Guillermo González?” Eddie asked, suddenly excited.
“Probably—he just told me Guillermo,” said the foreman. Eddie asked him to repeat the whole story, thanked him profusely, and told him what trouble he’d been having, first trying to locate the brecha treinta, and then getting Border Patrol to tell him about how the migrant had been picked up.
“Yeah, must’ve been him that saved that guy,” he said to me when he got off the phone.
Over the course of the summer, Eddie began receiving calls about migrants missing further afield than ever before. One morning, he received a call regarding a migrant lost in the Chihuahuan Desert across the river from Ojinaga, Mexico. He told me about it with a note of surprise.
“Is that a common place to cross?” I asked.
“No, because there aren’t any landmarks around,” he said. “There’s nothing around. But people are trying everywhere now.” Just as the advent of Prevention Through Deterrence in the 1990s pushed migrant routes from cities like El Paso and San Diego to the Arizona desert, and the post-2001 militarization of the Arizona border pushed routes to Texas, the more recent focus of resources on Brooks County seemed to be keeping the cat-and-mouse game going. Eddie began trying to understand where the paths were going.
Within Brooks County, traffic appeared to be shifting to the western edge of the county, away from the checkpoint. On a single day in July, three ranch managers each found newly deceased bodies, all of them along the county’s western edge. I asked Sheriff Martinez about this shift in paths. He put his face in his hands and shook his head.
“Unfortunately, that’s going to make them harder to find—it’s too empty over there. No one’s around.”
As the paths scatter, another problem arises. What happens as migrant geographies diffuse beyond Brooks County’s web of local knowledge and social bonds? Benny has a fixed jurisdiction, and Eddie, for all his best efforts, can only drive so many miles in a day.
As we were driving back to Falfurrias late one night on the caliche road through the rural community of Encino, just south of the checkpoint, a volunteer helping Eddie for the week hit a young bird. It was a brown-crested flycatcher, a brown and yellow neotropical land bird that migrates each year, crossing the border in both Arizona and Texas. The volunteer, a medical student, extracted the bird from the grate of the truck. It was alive but couldn’t move its outstretched wings. She fretted about how to deal with the situation, finally deciding to position it gently along the side of the road, though she knew it was likely too injured to survive the night.
I walked a few paces away from the truck and stood in the middle of the road. After a 110-degree day, the temperature had finally cooled to something bearable. I looked at the stars and the fences, trying to calm my impatience with the situation—an impatience borne of powerlessness, knowing that we had done harm, but couldn’t fix it.
As Juan Rulfo writes in Pedro Páramo: “I felt the sheath of the night envelop the earth. The earth, ‘this valley of tears.’”
Andreas, Peter. 1999. “Borderless Economy, Barricaded Border.” NACLA Report on the Americas. 33:3, 14-21.
Customs and Border Protection. 2014. “Falfurrias Station.” Washington, DC: CBP. https://www.cbp.gov/border-security/along-us-borders/border-patrol-sectors/rio-grande-valley-sector-texas/falfurrias-station
Customs and Border Protection. 2016a. “Southwest Border Sectors: Southwest Border Deaths by Fiscal Year.” Washington, DC: CBP. https://www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/assets/documents/2016-Oct/BP%20Southwest%20Border%20Sector%20Deaths%20FY1998%20-%20FY2016.pdf
Customs and Border Protection. 2016b. “Enacted Border Patrol Program Budget by Fiscal Year.” Washington, DC: CBP. https://www.cbp.gov/sites/default/files/assets/documents/2016-Oct/BP%20Budget%20History%201990-2016.pdf
Davis, Mike. 2001. Magical Urbanism: Latinos Reinvent the U.S. City. New York: Verso.
De León, Jason. 2015. The Land of Open Graves. Oakland: University of California Press.
Frey, John Carlos. 2015. “Graves of Shame.” Texas Observer. https://www.texasobserver.org/illegal-mass-graves-of-migrant-remains-found-in-south-texas/
General Accounting Office. 1997. “Illegal Immigration: Southwest Border Strategy Results Inconclusive; More Evaluation Needed.” Report to the Committee on the Judiciary, U.S. Senate and the Committee on the Judiciary, House of Representatives. Washington, DC: US GAO.
Hernández, Kelly Lytle. 2010. Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Nevins, Joseph. 2013. “Brooks County, Texas, and the Geography of Migrant Deaths.” NACLA. https://nacla.org/blog/2013/1/30/brooks-county-texas-and-geography-migrant-deaths
Slack, Jeremy, Daniel Martinez, Alison Lee, and Scott Whiteford. 2016. “The Geography of Border Militarization: Violence, Death and Health in Mexico and the United States.” Journal of Latin American Geography 15(1).
Images By: Caroline Eaton Tracey