EDINBURG, RGV – A state agency primarily tasked with investigating allegations of misconduct in crime labs in Texas is now being tasked with handling one of South Texas’ most significant humanitarian issues, according to state lawmakers.

State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg.
State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg.

As a result of a legislative push by state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, the state’s Forensic Science Commission (FSC) has now begun coordinating a massive effort to collect DNA and relevant forensic evidence in order to identify fatalities in the desolate ranchlands near the border.

For those given the difficult job of identifying the remains it becomes a delicate issue that encompasses human rights, logistical expertise and communication among many agencies.

“I’m hoping we can find a way to coordinate with all the key players dealing with one of the key problems we have here in South Texas,” said state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. “This is a gateway for many immigrants and human trafficking coming through the Valley going north, and many of those are left and abandoned on the ranches and brush between here and San Antonio or Houston.

“We have found many bodies in Brooks County, and we have struggled to identify those bodies,” Hinojosa said. “For me, working with the Sheriff from Brooks County we are going to coordinate these efforts and marshal our resources so we don’t have groups going in all directions, and we focus on identifying those bodies.”

State Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen.
State Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

The FSC held a public meeting at Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance on Sept. 28. The meeting was a gathering of state lawmakers, statewide experts in forensic pathology and anthropology, federal law enforcement agencies and human rights advocates looking for ways to improve the identification process of undocumented immigrants who die while crossing from Mexico into Texas.

In attendance at the meeting were many commissioners from the FSC, various justices of the peace from Brooks County, representatives from South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias, forensic anthropologists from the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification and forensic pathologists from Hidalgo and Cameron Counties.

Attendees relied primarily on statistics provided by Dr. Corinne Stern, chief medical examiner for Webb County; Dr. Lori Baker, executive director for reuniting families at the Forensic Science Laboratory at Baylor University; and Dr. Kate Spradley of the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University in San Marcos.

The gathering in Edinburg was the result of a last-minute amendment last legislative session by Rep. Canales to Senate Bill 1287. Canales focused on what is known as the Rio Grande Identification Project. The amendment created the Project and requires the Texas Forensic Science Commission to develop a method for collecting forensic evidence related to unidentified bodies located less than 120 miles from the Rio Grande River.

“We are failing to identify these people, and we need to use the tools available to us,” Canales told attendees at the meeting. “Last session we found that Brooks County was burying bodies in mass graves. There was a dispute whether you could consider it a mass grave by definition, but they were mass graves. Not only was that disturbing, but they were unidentified. I thought about how people were sacrificing their lives to get here and would do anything to get here.

“We’re that beautiful of a country, but we were still burying people in a mass grave. Mass graves is not us. It’s not what Texans do or what Americans do,” Canales said.

In Brooks County, 169 cases have been recovered either through exhumation from Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias and Elizondo Mortuary in Mission, Texas, according to the Forensic Science Laboratory at Baylor University.

Of those cases, 106 were handled by Baylor and 63 sent to Texas State University’s Forensic Anthropology Center.

Dr. Stern, with Webb County, said her office covers a ten county area that includes Brooks, Jim Hogg and La Salle among others. Stern said she recorded statistics over a two year period from Aug. 2013 to Aug. 2015 and found that more than half (55 percent) of all fatalities were Mexican nationals.

Most deaths were the result of hyperthermia or heat stroke, but she also recorded at least 92 cases that were from freezing, and 25 fatalities from drowning or motor vehicle-related accidents. The majority of fatalities are male, but there has been an increase in female deaths, as well as a rise in older men between the ages of 50 and 60.

On a national scale, 10,000 sets of human remains are currently registered in the national database, amounting to upwards of 20,000 of unsolved cases nationwide, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

“A lot of you here have been wrestling with the logistical issues, the human rights issues, the communication issues, the resource issues related to the problem of having human remains that are unidentified,” said FSC general counsel Lynn Garcia “We don’t know if there is a family looking for a person or if it’s related to a migrant crossing or a criminal case, there are many diverse considerations.”