Operation Identification: Life, Death, and Lessons on the South Texas Border
Written by Dale Garrison   

LOST IN THE DEBATE over illegal immigration and border security is a story of human tragedy… and a forensic challenge.


Especially along the south Texas border, hundreds—perhaps thousands—of people have perished in the harsh desert. In many cases, the remains are never recovered. In others, they are found but cannot be identified and are listed as unknown. Their families and friends never learn the fate of a loved one.

These outcomes are changing, and the reasons have broad implications for nearly everyone involved in forensic evidence recovery.

Altered Paths

Although migrant deaths have occurred for years, the crisis accelerated in 1994 when the United States Border Patrol (USBP) adopted “Prevention through Deterrence” as an operational strategy along the US-Mexico border. This procedure effectively deterred migrant crossings in populated areas that were relatively safe and inadvertently pushed migrants into attempting crossings through more remote and dangerous environments. According to one source, from 1990 to 1999, 129 deaths occurred along the Arizona-Mexico border, but 802 deaths occurred during the following five years. Today, many of these deaths take place in the Rio Grande Valley and especially in Brooks County, Texas, a largely rural, even remote, area of 944 square miles and barely more than 7,000 residents. A similar situation exists in nearby Starr County.

This map shows Starr and Brooks counties highlighted in blue.

Beginning in late 2013, a solution to the forensic issue of identification began to form. Like the Texas Ranger who gave Brooks County its name, an informal coalition has stepped in to solve the forensic nightmare of locating and identifying this growing collection of human remains. It hasn’t been easy.

“You have these small, rural counties that are overwhelmed with migrant deaths,” explained Kate Spradley, Ph.D. and associate professor with the Department of Anthropology, Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State University. “It can cost $2,000 per remain to conduct a thorough search for identification, and one of those counties may have 200 a year. That’s why it can be so hard to make these identifications.”

The solution actually began with a civics lesson. “The first thing we had to do was learn all the state laws for unidentified persons,” Spradley said. “There are no federal laws, so it’s learning the Texas laws and who has the authority to identify the remains.”

What she found is that such deaths are under the jurisdiction of the justice of the peace because there is no medical examiner in less-populated areas like Brooks County. Whenever an individual dies and the circumstances are unknown, Texas law requires a forensic examination, collection of DNA samples, and submission of paperwork to an unidentified and missing persons database.

At least that’s what is supposed to happen. But due to the high volume of deaths and lack of county resources, the local justice of the peace and Brooks County Sheriff’s Department are overwhelmed. To deal with the avalanche of deaths, they began to bury undocumented migrants, often without proper analyses or collection of DNA samples. Not surprisingly, identifying these unknown remains becomes virtually impossible, along with providing information or remains to loved ones.

“Many of the justices of the peace in south Texas counties are supposed to order an autopsy and track the disposition of the remains,” Spradley said. “This wasn’t happening and still isn’t happening.”

Learning Experience

Some of the first attempts to solve the identification of migrant burials in Brooks County occurred when Dr. Lori Baker of Baylor University and Dr. Krista Latham from the University of Indianapolis brought their students to conduct voluntary exhumations. They hoped that skeletal analysis and DNA sampling might bring positive identification that could help return individuals to their families.

Unfortunately, most of these remains were in early to late stages of decomposition. Getting a justice of the peace to sign off on an expensive DNA test is problematic, and DNA matching requires a database of family members—which in these cases is nonexistent, since the family is unknown.

This is where Texas State University became involved. When Baker and Latham found DNA analysis promised no quick solution, they turned to the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS) and its large storage, processing, and analysis facility. Two of the center’s facilities would prove to be crucial: the Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) and the Osteological Research and Processing Laboratory (ORPL). Now the work to identify some 240 human remains could begin.

“Most people think DNA solves all the problems,” Spradley said. “It’s a big help, but even getting it done is difficult, and you must have someone to compare it to. That’s not a given for most of these remains.”

So began what came to be known as Operation Identification. But while the name is straightforward, it may not do justice to the complex network of agencies, organizations and individuals it represents, many far beyond even Texas State’s facilities.

“We quickly realized this would require a cooperative effort,” Spradley explained. “It was obvious we couldn’t do this on our own.”

Some collaboration began almost accidentally. “I think all of us started getting invited to meetings that dealt with migration and borders,” Spradley recalled, “and we all started talking to each other and realized we were working on the same agenda. It became obvious that we needed to work together.”

Additional challenges also involved the Texas jurisdictional issues. Spradley noted an area in Arizona where similar migrant deaths occur but with a much higher identification rate. The similarity largely ends there, however. Texas identification efforts receive much less public funding than those in Arizona, and inter-jurisdictional cooperation is greater there as well. “Many of these deaths in Texas are on public land, and there isn’t as much cooperation,” Spradley said. “It’s very fragmentary.”

Spradley and her students began looking for like-minded people in the region and soon found that they were not alone, although the potential network was scattered and diverse. “We’re learning who the stakeholders are in these situations,” she said. “That’s been a real learning curve.”

The education included some steps that were obvious, as well as several surprises. Funeral directors often proved to be a key because, while they rarely handled the remains in question, they tended to be in touch with family and other sources of information that helped fill forensic gaps. The biggest breakthrough, however, came with some unexpected groups: nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that had been developing responses to a humanitarian crisis. These included the South Texas Human Rights Center, the Equipo Argentino de Antropologia Forense (EAAF), and the Colibrí Center for Human Rights. Each brought a key ingredient to the search for identities.

“The Argentine and South Texas groups collect missing persons reports from families in South America,” Spradley explained. “They collect reports as well as DNA, and most of the IDs, probably 75 percent, come from these NGOs. They have the information to get us pointed in the right direction.”

Tough Country

The remains themselves come from several different sources. A large number are discovered in the south Texas brush land by ranch hands or others working in the area. Sheriff’s deputies are another source. Operation ID has also begun a cemetery survey project where volunteers locate migrants buried in local cemeteries, often in unmarked graves.

Members of Operation Identification work to exhume bodies of unidentified migrants from unmarked graves in a south Texas cemetery.

“We’ll know that migrants are buried there, but we’re not sure where,” Spradley said. “Sometimes community members can help recall where someone was buried.”

Other help comes from master’s student Courtney Siegert, who plays a major role in the evolving system. Originally a volunteer, her position as a skeletal analyst was funded by a grant. Besides her hands-on work, she supervises a postdoctoral student also funded in the effort, as well as a growing number of volunteer students and community members. Some of their toughest work involves exhumation of remains.

“We organize that for January in order to avoid the heat as much as possible,” Siegert said, noting that even winter in south Texas can bring dangerously warm temperatures. “Heat exhaustion is a real threat. By the end of May it’s consistently in the 90s. This year it was in the 100s.”

Siegert also emphasized the collaborative nature of the effort and cited a Brooks County Sheriff’s officer as a good example. “He gets permission from landowners to allow us to conduct systematic searches,” she said. “The officer also has medical training and makes us take breaks and stay hydrated. Even people living there have trouble, and the scrubland is very difficult. You can’t walk in a straight line and you can get exhausted very easily. It’s not hard to see how someone could fall victim to the conditions out there.”

Courtney Siegert, skeletal analyst with Operation Identification, collects cranial data.

Another key player is graduate research assistant Kari Helgeson. Starting last year, she joined the team to organize, photograph, and digitize the thousands of items steadily accumulating at the lab. Besides her lab work, Helgeson is also involved in the exhumations, including those conducted by the team, as well as those located by other organizations.

“One of the challenges is there are a lot of different methods for acquiring remains,” Helgeson said. “Sometimes it’s the medical examiner, sometimes the Sheriff’s department. We have to make certain that our processes are consistent no matter what.”

Regardless of source, most of the remains are in a state of advanced decomposition. Student volunteers have the unenviable—but educational—task of cleaning the flesh off of bones and cleaning any clothing or personal effects found with the remains.

“The students find out if this is really the work they want to do,” Siegert noted. “That’s a good test for them.”

After the initial exhumation, Spradley and Siegert write up the forensic reports, which are submitted to North Texas University, as required by law. A volunteer dentist has also helped, and that work led to several identifications.

Kari Helgeson works an exhumation in south Texas.

Bits of Evidence

Working with the NGOs and their South American contacts, Operation ID may have reports from family members describing what their loved one was wearing when they were last seen alive, or other information. Just as often, researchers will find bits of evidence such as notes on a piece of paper or on the back of a photograph of a loved one.

“Personal effects have helped us a lot with identification,” Siegert explained. “All of those are cleaned by hand.”

Not surprisingly, the work is extremely painstaking. All of the remains are analyzed to generate a biological profile, including the estimation of age, sex, geographic origin, and height. Any trauma or pathology is noted. Personal effects are inventoried, photographed, and catalogued. All of this will hopefully lead to an identification hypothesis—a theory that the team can use to pursue leads for possible verification.

Maintaining and organizing this growing collection of evidence quickly became a problem before Helgeson joined the team. “There had been no one to really organize it,” she said. “But that’s important in order to proceed toward identification. It’s really critical that we know how everything comes in and that we can track everything.” She maintains the records in both digital and paper formats, not only for redundancy but also for flexible use.

Volunteer help also remains important. “This relies heavily on volunteer students,” Spradley noted. “Without our volunteers, we could not move forward.”

Modern techniques are not ignored, but their results are often limited because of circumstances. All case information is entered into the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUs). Because NamUs contains both missing persons information from family and unidentified persons information reported by medical examiners or law enforcement, it can help narrow down potential matches. If a missing person in NamUs is a potential match to an unidentified person, the family of the missing person can submit a DNA sample to the University of North Texas, and FACTS will submit a DNA sample from the skeletal remains. Identity can be established or eliminated based on comparison of the DNA profiles. This DNA testing is free.

If the biological profile of an unidentified individual does not have any potential matches within NamUs, a DNA sample from the skeletal remains is submitted to UNT, and the DNA profile generated will be stored in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which contains DNA from families and unidentified human remains. CODIS will cross-reference DNA from unidentified human remains with DNA samples from families to see if there are any potential matches.

Unfortunately, many of the migrant families are not listed in these systems, so while they must be used when possible, the results are often limited. Operation ID has, to date, identified 26 individuals from 240 remains. About 150 have been used to submit DNA samples, but most of the 26 successes have come through help with the NGOs and their efforts with families and community members, including those in Mexico, Central, and South America.

“They are our contact with the families,” Spradley said. “They are really instrumental. The CODIS system is great, but it often lacks the information to make a match.” CODIS does not allow foreign nationals to submit DNA samples unless there is a potential for a one-to-one match.

Spradley noted a more typical example where remains were found with a card that contained a phone number. “We were able to contact the Argentine organization and say, ‘Do you have a person with this information?’ That led to an identification.” Sadly, many remains lack even these clues.

The Operation Identification team works in the lab to collect data on unidentified remains.

Valuable Information

Spradley sees a lot of benefit to the work beyond the obvious humanitarian issue. “We’re developing techniques for going into an area and creating a protocol for searching for remains,” Spradley said. “I think that benefits other counties and other states on the border. It could also be useful for missing persons and cold cases in all states.”

Some of the knowledge gained is more emotional. Siegert noted that dealing with “death in the desert” takes a toll on everyone involved in the project. While some find dealing with grisly remains a challenge, almost everyone is affected by the lonely death endured by hundreds of fellow human beings.

“It’s hard when you get an email from a family with a couple of pictures of the person when he or she was alive,” Siegert explained. “They’ll say, ‘This is what he was wearing,’ but what really strikes you is that you realize this is someone’s brother or father, mother or sister.”

Helgeson agreed. “That’s some of the hardest part. You know this was someone’s loved one, and we do our best to get the remains identified,” she said. “But you never actually get used to it.”

Siegert says she compartmentalizes the emotions well most of the time, but she also keeps in mind the benefits of identification. “Those little successes are monumental,” she said. “You know that now this family has closure. That’s stronger than the depressing aspects. We’re doing everything we can to give these families closure. The people on this project also lean on each other a lot. We’re of the same mind and that really helps.”

Siegert also values the knowledge she and others are gaining. “It’s one thing to learn about skeletal analysis and what to look for in a classroom,” she said. “It’s very different to learn in the real world instead of in the classroom. There are a lot of things I wouldn’t have considered prior to this project.”

The most important lesson may be in the effort’s extensive collaboration with volunteers and nongovernmental organizations. But even with this, adequate funding probably remains the biggest hurdle. “We don’t really have a budget,” Spradley acknowledged. “We’ve been very fortunate to receive some private funding, including the grant. But this is not research, so it’s often not a priority.”

Clearly, she thinks it should be. “People are dying, and no one records their deaths. It wipes out their existence,” she concluded. “We feel we are recognizing everyone under the law and giving them their rights in death. I always think, ‘What if it was one of my family members?’ I’d want someone to try to bring resolution.”’

About the Author

Dale Garrison is a freelance writer in Liberty, Missouri.

This article appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Evidence Technology Magazine.

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