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Deadly crossing: Death toll rises among those desperate for the American Dream

In a rural Texas county, an increasing number of illegal immigrants are dying before they can complete the journey to what they hoped would be a better life. (Warning: This video contains some footage that may be disturbing for viewers.)

MISSION, Texas -- In the freezer of a small funeral home nearly 13 miles from the Texas-Mexico border, 22 bodies are stacked on plywood shelves, one on top of the other. 

The bodies wrapped in white sheets have names, families and official countries of origin -- Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, sometimes China or Pakistan. The bodies in black shrouds are the remains of the nameless and unclaimed, waiting to be identified.


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For the past few years, the family-owned Elizondo Mortuary and Cremation Service in Mission, Texas, has been taking in the remains of undocumented immigrants found dead in nearby counties after crossing the border from Mexico. This year, however, they had to build an extra freezer. It’s become difficult to keep up with the rising tide of dead coming to them from across the Rio Grande Valley.

Crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally has always been dangerous, but this year heat and drought have made the journey particularly deadly. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, this part of the border has seen a sharp rise in both rescues and deaths of people crossing the border illegally. So far in 2012, agents have rescued more than 310 people, and found nearly 150 dead in the Rio Grande Valley -- an increase of more than 200 percent over the last fiscal year. 


 

This comes as migration across the U.S.-Mexico border has dropped to historic lows, falling nearly 62 percent over the last five years, according to numbers recently released by CBP. But the proportion of deaths to apprehensions is rising -- suggesting that while fewer are crossing, more are dying.

Marta Iraheta has been hunting for months for word of her missing nephew, Elmer Esau Barahona, who left his native El Salvador in June.

Ground zero is over 70 miles north of the border, in Brooks County. Last year the remains of about 50 presumed undocumented immigrants were found in the county. This year, the tally has reached about 104, with nearly three months to go.

The rising number of unclaimed corpses marks a growing crisis for this cash-strapped county of fewer than 7,500 residents. Because Brooks has no coroner, it sends the bodies recovered on its vast cattle ranches to Elizondo in neighboring Hidalgo County. It costs, according to county officials, about $1,500 for each body to be processed. 

Hannah Rappleye for NBC News

Ranch land in Brooks County, Texas.

Both the county and Elizondo also make efforts to identify the remains. In most cases, chances are slim. The mortuary uses physical descriptions and accounts of the clothing worn by missing immigrants to attempt to match bodies, but often there are few clues to work with. The elements and animals often destroy corpses and scatter bones across the desert. While DNA testing could help, neither Brooks County nor Elizondo can afford to order the tests for every unidentified body. 

Many of the migrants who are found dead in this part of South Texas end up buried in paupers’ graves, remembered only by their gender, case number and the name of the ranch where they died.

Adaptation
In September, Marta Iraheta traveled from Houston to Falfurrias, Texas, the seat of Brooks County. She came seeking the remains of her nephew and a friend who disappeared in July as they crossed illegally into the United States.  

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Twenty-year-old Elmer Esau Barahona left his hometown of San Vicente, El Salvador, on June 10th. On June 27th -- his is daughter’s second birthday -- he called his mother to say he had arrived in the border city of McAllen, Texas.

He told her he and his friend were staying in a stash house, waiting for the smugglers to take them on the next leg of the journey. From the stories Iraheta has pieced together from survivors, her nephew and his friend left McAllen five days later, on the evening of July 2.

They began the long walk with a group of migrants through desolate private ranch land, skirting the Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias. After a day of walking, his friend, a 17-year-old Salvadoran named Elmer Amilcar Sevallos Martinez, sat down and did not get up again. The rest of the group continued on. 

Just minutes from the highway where the coyotes -- as the smugglers are known -- were to pick them up, Barahona hurt his knee.

“The coyote told them they had to leave him there,” said Iraheta, his aunt, who is a naturalized U.S. citizen. “They said he was bad, really bad. He was faint. He remained there, sprawled on the ground.”

The Rio Grande Valley is one of the most trafficked illegal immigration routes used by people known in Border Patrol parlance as “OTM,” or “other than Mexican.” About 60 percent of those apprehended in this area come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, as well as countries as distant as China, Afghanistan and Russia.

“When you look at South Texas on a map and draw a straight line to Central and South America, this is your furthest southern point to cross into the U.S.,” said Enrique Mendiola, assistant chief Border Patrol agent for the Rio Grande Valley.

But the recent increase in traffic through this corridor is attributable to more than geography.

Since the mid-1990s, U.S. Customs and Border Protection has clamped down hard on border crossings. The agency has more than doubled in size since 2004, and now has 28,000 agents, nearly half of them in Texas. Fences, sensors, drones, checkpoints and disciplined, coordinated enforcement have choked off routes through urban areas that were once easily crossed.

Smugglers have adapted by moving into sparsely populated areas like the Sonoran desert in Arizona, and the west Rio Grande Valley.

Rancher John Ladd tells NBC News about Mexican drug traffickers trespassing on his land, threatening his security.

“We’re starting to see these crossings more in these particular areas than we have in the past,” said Mendiola.

With triple-digit temperatures and wide deserts, these uncompromising landscapes are harder to patrol than populous areas on the border’s edge. They are also more dangerous for those crossing into the country.

“There’s no doubt that the increased vigilance has pushed people into these more hostile areas,” said Raquel Rubio-Goldsmith, a professor of Mexican American Studies and coordinator of Arizona State University’s Binational Migration Institute. “Traditionally, people crossed in urban areas. If you cross into an urban area, you can find a way of making it. If you have to cross through these rural areas, you’re taking a big chance.” 

Despite the rising danger and cost, people keep coming. Advocates and families say that with few legal avenues into the U.S., migrants feel this is the only way to make a better life.

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“Had they been able to have a good chance of getting a visa, they never would have tried to cross the desert,” she said.

Lucrative cargo
U.S. Customs and Border Protection says that Gulf Cartel out of Mexico controls most of the lucrative smuggling routes through this area of the Rio Grande Valley, and uses them to ferry both humans and drugs into the country.

The Border Patrol has made dismantling these networks a priority. Despite daily apprehensions of individual migrants, Deputy Chief Patrol Agent Woody Lee said the agency’s larger aim is “not focusing on what it is that’s coming across, but how do we take out the infrastructure.”

“How do we take out the people who are moving the product, or the people, on this side of the border? ” he said. “Those people are within our control.”

This means the agency, which has jurisdiction up to 100 miles from the border, does much of its work far from the Mexico line, following the smugglers as they forge new tactics and routes.

Hannah Rappleye for NBC News

Texas Border Volunteer Ed Aldredge, left, and rancher Mike Vickers. The Texas Border Volunteers, a citizen group based in Brooks County, patrols ranch land for undocumented immigrants.

The coyotes hustle people across the border into stash houses in towns and cities like McAllen and Mission. From there, they pile them into vans -- the seats torn out to fit more bodies -- and drop them off along the road south of the Falfurrias border checkpoint in Brooks County, the northernmost patrol point in this area.

Those who pay more walk less, according to the Border Patrol and immigrants who have made the crossing. The going rate varies. A thousand, or a few thousand, just to cross the border. For those from Central America, it may cost more than $5,000 or $7,000. For those from China or Pakistan, some say the cost is as high as $50,000. 

The terrain the immigrants must cross is brutal. The walk can be dozens of miles through the sandy terrain with nothing -- no water, mountains or hills by which to navigate. During the summer, daytime temperatures reached nearly 110 degrees. The brush fools the unaccustomed. One minute they are tired. The next, their bodies begin to give out.

People in Falfurrias know what happens on the journey, often better than the migrants themselves. 

They know how some groups have coyotes as guides across the desert. Others are left on their own, with a cell phone to call the coyote when they arrive. Some use it to call 911 if they are dying. 

Ranchers and Border Patrol agents have seen evidence of brutality. They will tell you that a pair of women’s panties hung in a tree is a sign that a woman was raped there. The coyotes leave them to mark the conquest.

They will tell you how the coyotes tell their charges that the walk around the Falfurrias checkpoint is short, that they should aim for those lights.

“That’s Houston,” some coyotes say to give the migrants hope the trip is nearly done. But that distant glare is merely light over a ranch gate, or the streetlights illuminating Highway 281. Houston is nearly 300 miles away.

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‘The depravity of man’
The photos spread across the desk of Brooks County rancher Mike Vickers show corpses in various states of decomposition. From the pile, the sun-bleached skulls of women peer out from beneath the rotting flesh of young men. Others show immigrants who were found near death by the Border Patrol or Vickers himself -- women huddling underneath trees and men leaning against trucks, dazed by thirst and heat exhaustion.

All the images were taken on Vickers’ ranch.

“These bodies are everywhere,” Vickers said. “The bones are everywhere.”

Vickers, who is also a local veterinarian, spoke of the toll the stream of illegal migration has taken on Brooks County ranchers and their families.

Desperate for water, migrants break the pumps that provide water to the cattle. They tear down fences. Men have scared Vickers’ wife, Linda, as she rode her horse. And finding the remains, which sometimes end up right in their backyard, wears on him.

“We see the depravity of man out here,” he added. “It’s altered our way of life.”

Vickers is the chair of a group called the Texas Border Volunteers. At least once a month, members gather in Brooks County to search private ranch lands for migrants and their remains.

When they find either, they contact the Border Patrol.

They carry water, food, cameras and GPS devices on their patrols.

“We do everything we can to try to rescue them and get them out of a bad situation,” Vickers said. “The heat can fool you. It doesn’t have to get that hot to really make someone walking through that sand get dehydrated real quick and suffer heat stroke.”

They also bring weapons in case they encounter coyotes, gang members or people carrying expensive cargo, such as drugs.

On a recent patrol, Vickers and two volunteers wearing military camouflage rolled across deep sand in a four-wheeler, searching for signs of life or death.

Black buzzards drifted above one of the few hills on the land. To ranchers and cowboys, the buzzards have become a sign not of dying cattle, but of a dying human. “Something’s dead up there,” Vickers said.

Hannah Rappleye for NBC News

Texas Border Volunteers Ed Aldredge, left, and Mark Medina patrol a ranch in Brooks County.

On top of the hill, Mark Medina, 45, and Ed Aldredge, 45, both military veterans, picked their way through trees and cacti, searching for a corpse. They found nothing.

“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” Medina said.

But evidence of crossers was everywhere. Half-empty water jugs, crushed energy drink cans, socks, and jackets lay discarded under trees or covered in sand.

The Border Patrol has stepped up efforts to rescue immigrants who find themselves lost, dehydrated or sick. They’ve placed rescue beacons on the ranches, where an immigrant can push a button to alert Border Patrol agents. They’ve posted signs with GPS coordinates across the landscape so immigrants with cell phones can call 911 and give their location.

They’ve also produced public service announcements, including some in Spanish, imploring people not to cross.

The message is this: “Don’t put your life in the hands of these ruthless people,” said Border Patrol agent Mendiola. “To them, you’re just a commodity. You’re not a human being. You’re cargo.”

‘Are you going to come or go?’
After 17-year-old Sevallos Martinez fell behind, Barahona continued with the rest of the group to trudge through the private ranch land flanking Highway 281.

In the morning, Barahona stepped into a hole and injured his right leg. In pain, he could barely walk. A friend he made along the journey took off a brown checked shirt and tied it around Barahona’s knee, over his black jeans, then helped him limp along.

They were almost to the road when Barahona gave out. His friend helped him over a fence. They were minutes from the pickup point, near enough to hear the highway. There were just two fences left. The coyote said the truck was waiting. People ran for the road.

“He was yelling. Yelling for people to help him,” Iraheta said. “The coyote told him to stop yelling because people would hear him.”

The friend who helped Barahona told Iraheta her nephew’s lips went white and he fell. The coyote yelled at the friend. “Are you going to come or go?” He ran to the vehicle.

On July 5th, the coyote called Barahona’s mother in El Salvador and told her he left Elmer in the desert.

“And that’s where the tragedy began,” said Iraheta. “I looked for him alive in all of the jails and nothing, so I’ve started to look for him among the dead.”

‘On our own’
Brooks County Chief Deputy Urbino Martinez has a stack of white binders filled with emails, letters, and reports of the missing and the dead. His office, he said, is “overwhelmed” by the deaths.

With a yearly budget of about $585,000 and only one investigator and five deputies on patrol, the county has neither the staff nor the resources to process the remains. Since they’re not technically a “border county,” Martinez said, it’s been impossible to get federal grants to help.

“We’re pretty much on our own out here,” he said.

Brooks County has no medical examiner, so it can’t perform autopsies or extract samples. Instead, deputies send remains first to a funeral home in Falfurrias, and then to Elizondo in Mission, where they can extract samples for DNA testing. 

Hannah Rappleye for NBC News

A photo of a young woman with her child in the missing persons file at the Brooks County Sheriff's Office.

But Brooks County’s responsibility doesn’t end there. The sheriff’s office keeps pages of records. Deputies call consulates. They try to match remains to open missing persons cases.

“At times people wonder why we put all this effort into it,” Martinez said. “Because our administration feels like they’re humans. I know they’re trespassing, I know they shouldn’t be in the United States. But they’re on U.S. soil. We have to protect them and we have to make sure that we do what we have to do on our end, regardless of what we have to go through.”

Martinez said the Sheriff’s Office is deluged by phone calls, emails and in-person visits from desperate families and friends of the missing. But it’s difficult to find and identify someone who has died in the desert, he said, even when the families offer clues.

“It’s a sad thing sometimes because you just can’t help them and they don’t understand that,” he said. “They’ll call you and say, ‘He’s by this tree, they’re telling me he’s by this tree.’ If the animals get to them, they’re not going to be by that tree. The limbs are going to be everywhere. That’s just the way it is.”

Like the files at Vickers’ ranch, the binders deputies have assembled contain photographs both of the living and the dead. In some, the victims are smiling with their children, or clutching their husbands or wives. In others, their bodies are sprawled on the sand, staring up at the sky. Paging through the photographs, Martinez wondered aloud what went through their minds as they lay dying in the desert.

“It’s not worth it,” he said. “They feel like the dream that they hear about, as soon as they get onto U.S. soil, they’re closer to the dream.”

“But a lot of the time when they’re being walked across,” he added, “that dream is empty.”

Searching for answers
In mid-September, Iraheta came to Brooks County carrying photographs of the two Elmers.

She believed she had identified a man in one of the sheriff’s files as her nephew, but wanted to know for sure. She carried a snapshot of the picture in the sheriff’s file, showing a man prone face down in the brush, a brown-checked shirt tied around his knee. But her discovery had come too late -- the body had already been buried. Now, answers would cost money.

Iraheta can recite the figures by heart: $900 to exhume the body; $250 to cut the bone for DNA testing. $3,000 for the DNA test; $100 a day to store the body for nearly four weeks until the results come in; $3,000 to $4,800 to send the body home.

“That means that’s more than $12,000,” said Iraheta. “I can’t afford that. I’m poor.”

But she is trying to raise the money, for her sister crying in El Salvador, and for Barahona’s daughter.

“I want his daughter to have a place to carry a flower to,” she said. “I want her to have a place to say, ‘Here is where my father is buried.’”

Hannah Rappleye for NBC News

An unidentified immigrant's grave at the Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, Texas. When the remains of a migrant cannot be identified they are buried with a marker indicating where their body was found.

On this trip, she came with a group assembled by Angeles Del Desierto, or Desert Angels, which has for 15 years conducted rescue mission and searched for the dead along the southern border.

They went to the sheriff’s office, which had nothing more for Iraheta. They spoke to the local funeral home, which could offer little. They went on a mission into the desert, searching for people, alive or dead.

Finally, with little hope, they drove to Elizondo Mortuary in Mission. Iraheta carried her photographs of the Elmers and the little she knew about where they were last seen, what they wore, and the things they carried.

The owner of Elizondo looked at Iraheta’s pictures, and went to her files. She stopped at one file of a man found with no face, no hair, no discernable features -- just bones. But the people who found the remains had recovered personal effects: a white rosary and a pair of pants with two pictures tucked in the pockets -- the same pictures Iraheta had been given by the family of 17-year-old Elmer Amilcar Sevallos Martinez, the boy left in the desert a few hours before her nephew.

“With those two things, we knew that it was him,” said Iraheta.

The discovery came just in time for Sevallos Martinez’s family. His remains were to have been buried the following day.

His family had held out hope the teen would be found alive. They only knew that he had been left in the desert. In some stories, he fell. In others, he was exhausted, and stopped to rest under a tree. But maybe he had recovered and begun to walk again.

Iraheta called a number she had for the boy’s father, a man from El Salvador living in Maryland.

“I think he was in shock,” said Iraheta. “He asked how we knew it was him. And we told him by the photos that were in his pants pocket.”

Sevallos Martinez’s remains are being sent to Maryland by the Salvadoran consulate, so his father can examine the photos and rosary. In some cases, the consulate will help with the cost of sending a body home. Even so, the family, like Iraheta, may want a DNA test to know for sure -- if they can afford it.

Money is the reason the two Elmers risked their lives to make the illegal crossing -- money and a search for a better life. Now it is a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to their families’ efforts to bring them home.

“You have nothing to give to your children, to help your mother, so you have to take the decision to come here to find a….to try to find a job to send money to the family,” said Iratea. “They paid the high price for the American dream.”

“We can’t turn back time,” she added. “But I hope that everyone sees that it’s not worth it, that voyage. To give up your life to that desert.”

NBC News Correspondent Mark Potter contributed to this report.

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