In the deep south of Brooks County, Texas, forensic anthropologist Dr. Krista Latham and her team of students from the University of Indianapolis organized and led students from Baylor University on an excavation dig. The students came from a variety of academic backgrounds and had no forensic experience. UIndy’s team taught their college volunteers about the basics of forensic digging techniques to ensure the preservation of their projects.

The work appeared to use techniques from yesteryear, perhaps more like the movie set of Indiana Jones than the 21st Century. Students used small tools and their hands to dig in the dry earth, keeping an eye out for snakes, scorpions, spiders and fire ants. The hours were long, the temperatures were hot, and the work exhausting.

However, unlike a movie set, there were no bad guys to chase, yet there were tragic tales to uncover below the Earth’s surface: the remains of unauthorized immigrants buried haphazardly in Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, Texas.

It’s a project Latham joined in 2013 at the request of friend and colleague Dr. Lori Baker from Baylor University. Their work, along with Dr. Kate Spradley of Texas State University, is a major initiative of the International Consortium of Forensic Identification’s “Reuniting Families” Project. The goal of the project is to restore human dignity to immigrants who have died along the Mexico-U.S. border by identifying them and reuniting their remains with their families. The first step in the process is exhuming those immigrants from where they rest.

Dr. Latham is an expert in the field of forensic anthropology — she’s Indiana’s very own “Bones.” She was even asked by a prospective student what was different about what she does compared to the Fox television character portrayed by Emily Deschanel.

“I don’t have an FBI partner, I don’t have a fancy lab in the Smithsonian, and it takes longer than an hour to solve my cases,” jokes Latham, recapping her response to the inquiring email.

But the concept is still the same. She works with human remains and uses forensic science to determine who they were and how they died. Most of the time her work focuses on crime scenes in Indiana and the Midwest, helping law enforcement and the county coroner identify remains and causes of death. However, for the last two summers, Latham has lent her expertise to a more humanitarian cause.

Brooks County, Texas is one of the eight counties that make up the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the most southern portion of the state. Located approximately 70 miles from the Mexican border, Brooks County has its share of immigrant issues ranging from home invasions as immigrants desperately search for food and water to a high number of deaths as those immigrants succumb to the brutal elements. The median income for a family is just under $22,500 and the per capita income for the county is just over $10,200. Forty percent of the residents live below the poverty level.

Ironically, Brooks County tends to be a Democratic area in a state known to be a Republican stronghold. Brooks County has never voted for a Republican presidential candidate since the county was created in 1911. In the 2012 general election, over 78 percent of Brooks County voters cast their ballots for President Obama compared to the 21 percent who voted for the Republican candidate, Mitt Romney.

Brooks County has no coroner. The number of law enforcement officers is small and resources are severely limited. Most of the county’s acreage is private ranch land. Typically, if someone found a person deceased on their property, one of three options were selected. Sometimes the body would be wrapped up and taken to Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias. Other times the body was buried right where it was found. And sometimes the body was never found or simply left to rot where it lay.

Latham says the remains in Sacred Heart are not buried with any type of organization. Sometimes remains are found only four inches beneath the surface while others could be as deep as four feet. Shared graves are also dug if more than one person is found on any given day.

“Most of the time these remains are left in body bags or wrapped in plastic in shallow, unmarked graves,” says Latham. “We use the same standards established in Indiana for working with these remains so that everything is uniform and the remains are handled with dignity and respect.”

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According to Latham, Indiana has some of the toughest laws in the nation when it comes to human remains and death investigations. Although their work attracted a lot of the local Texas media, Latham did not allow the film crews to photograph the remains once exhumed and answered no questions about what was found. In Indiana, the only person legally allowed to release any information about a body is the coroner. Latham and her crew stayed true to these more stringent standards while working in Texas.

Once exhumed, the remains are tagged and boxed to be shipped to Baylor, Texas State, or UIndy for skeletal analysis. It’s in the lab that the process of identification truly begins. But for Latham, it usually generates more questions than answers.

“Back in the lab we go through our usual process of identification,” says Latham. “First we clean and inventory the bones associated with the remains and count the number of bones and teeth.”

Certain bones help in creating the living characteristics of person. Things like gender, height, and age at death can be determined from the right combination of bones. “We can begin to build a biological profile, or basic information about who this person might have been,” says Latham.

The lab work includes a skeletal analysis which can show healed fractures, disease in the skeleton or signs of stressed health. “A lot of times we can see things like nutritional deficiencies or arthritis in the joints. That arthritis can be tricky, though,” says Latham. “It can make a person appear older than they really are, but it can also tell us that this person probably had a job with a repetitive behavior, like they had been involved in hard labor for a long period of time.”

Tissue samples, if available, are taken and sent to Dr. Eric Bartelink at California State University, Chico who volunteers his expertise in isotope analysis. That data can help identify the geographic region or even the country where the deceased was from originally. Finally, a DNA profile is created and put on file. Once the identifying characteristics are cataloged along with a detailed description of any other materials found with the remains (a piece of clothing, shoes, jewelry etc.), the remains are re-packaged and sent back to Baylor University for storage. The hope is that one day a name will be matched to the box’s contents and sent to the next-of-kin.

“It’s hard, because truthfully, DNA is the best chance we have of identifying these remains,” says Latham. “But without DNA submitted by the families for comparison, the DNA on file for the remains is meaningless.”

The Reuniting Families Project shares the identification profile with organizations that represent the families of the missing as well as missing persons databases. RFP also works to educate those organizations and the embassies of the involved countries so that they can work with families to collect DNA samples for comparison.

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Where science meets culture

The hardest part of Dr. Latham’s work in Texas is not having that Hollywood ending where the good guys have won and justice is served. While her science is able to give a general idea of whom the person on her examination table might have been biologically, there are never any definitive answers as to whom that person truly was and how he or she came to be in Brooks County, Texas. Does this person have a family? How long has he/she been missing? Is there someone somewhere waiting for this person to arrive? Why did the journey begin?

When a mutual friend introduced Dr. Latham to Dr. Wendy Vogt, she began to get some general answers to those lingering questions.

Dr. Vogt is a cultural anthropologist at Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI). She based her dissertation research on the migrant journey from Central America to Mexico and ultimately the United States. Vogt spent four summers and an entire year in an immigrant shelter in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her mission was to collect the immigrant story and determine why people were leaving Central America en masse and taking a trip guaranteed to be fraught with violence, poverty and in many cases, death. She is also working on a book on her research so the immigrant story can be told.

The World Report 2014 published by Human Rights Watch identifies Honduras as having one of the highest murder rates in the world. Those responsible for providing public safety and security (government officials and law enforcement) are just as corrupt as the gangs, drug lords, and other perpetrators of violent crimes. As recent as February 2013, a UN Working Group expressed concern over the Honduran government’s alleged involvement in widespread human rights violations. Those violations alluded to killings, disappearances, forced evictions, and sexual violence.

The report for Guatemala from the same source is a little better, but not by much. Organized crime continues to be a problem in the country, despite criminal justice efforts, and some communities have reportedly turned to vigilantism as a solution. (And Guatemala hasn’t even begun to heal from the genocide and crimes against humanity suffered at the hands of former Guatemalan leader Efrain Rios Montt. The former dictator was tried and convicted for his crimes in 2012, but the verdict was overturned on a technicality. Montt is expected to be re-tried in a national court in January 2015.) Child labor and exploitation, violent crimes against women and girls and corruption in government and law enforcement are also reported as chronic problems throughout the country.

Before ISIS and Ebola became the hot buttons of justification for the ideological push to “seal the border” in lieu of true immigration reform, the fear was focused on the criminal activity of Mexican drug cartels and human smugglers. However data from the Migration Policy Institute shows the majority of the people making their way into America are Central Americans looking for a life better than the one they left behind, a life without violence, fear, extortion, or corruption.

“The people that are fleeing those countries (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) are more like refugees,” says Vogt. “They are fleeing from violence rather than looking for economic opportunity. Many of them had jobs at home, but were forced in some cases to pay a weekly ‘tax’ that really amounted to extortion which ultimately made that employment non-sustainable.”

Statistics from the U.S. Border Patrol show a decrease in the number of Mexican immigrants apprehended at the border. The number non-Mexican immigrants detained at the border increased by 175 percent between 2011 and 2013. In a January 2014 online article for the Washington Office on Latin America about the Border Patrol report, Senior Associate for Regional Security Adam Isacson wrote, “We are witnessing an exodus of Central American citizens.” The overall trend of the Border Patrol report indicates more and more non-Mexican migrants are arriving in Texas and dying in remote areas.

“Migration is a dangerous journey,” says Vogt. “And what Central American people face is not dissimilar from what refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or other countries face. All areas of war or criminal social violence are triggers for migration en masse.”

The journey through Mexico from border to border is no picnic, either. Vogt says the southern border from Guatemala into Mexico is porous, but the Mexican government’s attempts to reduce drug trafficking in and out of the country have resulted in a number of military checkpoints along the border-to-border route.

“Immigrants travel into Mexico by bus,” says Vogt. “However once they cross the border, many immigrants switch to train travel, usually on top of the trains or hidden in cargo cars.”

Immigrants and locals call the trains migrants use to travel “la bestia” or “the beast.” The mode of transportation earned its nickname from the horror that is associated with its use.

“They call it the beast because it has become the epicenter of organized crime along the migrant route,” says Vogt. “People are kidnapped en masse then held for ransom with relatives expected to pay a large sum of money for the safe return of their loved ones. Some are forcibly recruited to work for the crime bosses as sex workers and drug runners. Others are simply executed for unknown reasons.”

Vogt says there is an understanding that this and other atrocities can happen. Immigrants are warned of the odds of getting robbed, beaten, raped or even killed before their journey even begins. That message is reiterated once they cross the border into Mexico.

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“The beast” also gets its name from the physical harm the train itself can do to people. Disease and starvation are always possibilities. Many people fall off the train and lose a hand, a foot, an arm, or a leg from getting stuck on the tracks. Families become separated and loved ones get left behind.

“The civil society in southern Mexico takes care of the injured and lost,” says Vogt. Priests have established shelters along the rail route and their congregations care for the travelers, providing food, water, medical care, and a place for families to try and reunite. Doctors Without Borders has set up some clinics to assist with medical and trauma needs as well, with specialized care for those who have been dismembered.

An immigrant’s stay at one of these shelters can vary from days and weeks to months and years. Vogt says almost everyone there has family somewhere they are trying to reach. There is a yearly caravan where the families of missing migrants travel along the route carrying signs displaying the name and face of the loved one they are trying to find. Through the years of her research, Vogt has wondered what ever happened to the people she encountered during her time at the shelter. Did they ever reach their final destination? Were they able to locate their missing friends and family? Did their stories find a happy ending or a tragic one?

Once Vogt and Latham were able to sit down and share their research and stories, they realized that together they could begin to find the answers to those ever-present questions.

“When we put our timelines together, I realized that some of the people I met at the shelter could very easily be among the remains Krista has found and worked with,” says Vogt.

Latham and Vogt are continuing their work and research individually, but they are also working together through their individual connections to increase the DNA pool of families missing loved ones and educating people on this humanitarian crisis. Vogt knows of recent immigrant families here in Indiana who are still looking for loved ones who began this latest treacherous journey to America. Convincing them to give DNA samples that can be compared with the remains being stored at Baylor University is yet another step in helping those families find answers and finally providing peace for both the living and the dead.

For Latham, knowing the background and some of the stories that could be associated with her remains makes the need to identify and repatriate them all the more necessary. “Not only do people deserve dignity in death, but someone out there is missing them.”

(Editor's Note: The University of Indianapolis established a blog for Dr. Latham and her students to document their experience in Texas. Click here to read the blog.)

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