The “processing” of immigrant bodies would be too gruesome for the untrained, but for forensic science students it is a necessary task that they volunteered to do on behalf of loved ones.
“Their families are besides themselves trying to find out what happened to them,” said Dr. Lori Baker, the forensic anthropologist at Baylor University.
She is leading the volunteer effort by other experts and students at Baylor, Texas State University and the University of Indianapolis.
Baker said nearly 100 remains were recently exhumed or recovered in Brooks County where a record 130 immigrants died last year, abandoned by smugglers in desert-like conditions.
“It’s mind blowing. You don’t know it’s this bad. You just don’t hear about these things,” said Sabrina Lacruz, who just graduated from Baylor with a degree in forensic science. “It’s just made me love the field even more.”
Hailey Duecker, a graduate student at Texas State with a degree in biological anthropology, also said she wasn’t aware of how critical the situation was in Brooks County.
“Getting to see it really close up for the first time, it really brings it home,” Duecker said.
“It is a silent mass disaster,” said Dr. Kate Spradley, the forensic anthropologist at Texas State overseeing their work at the Freeman Ranch near San Marcos.
But Spradley said science could go a long way toward identifying the badly decomposed remains that typically have no identification on them.
She said “processing” begins by stripping the body and photographing every bit of clothing, shoes or other items in hopes families can recognize something belonging to their loved ones.
Difficult though it may be going through their personal effects, Spradley said it is the most humanizing aspect of the work.
Spradley said a young man wearing “very, very nice clothes for his entry into the United States.”
She also said the case of young woman was also poignant.
Spradley said, “We looked through her backpack and she was carrying chili peppers, either as a favor for her family in the U.S. or bringing a taste of home with her.”
She said the next step involves removing tissue from the bones because skeletal remains hold potential clues to their age, gender and ancestry.
“These skeletal traits -- especially in the skull -- are kind of a proxy for DNA,” Spradley said.
Measurements also can differentiate Mexicans from Central Americans, she said.
Spradley said, “Isotopes can tell us where a person was born and where they spent the last ten years of their life.”
Baker said forensic artists also have volunteered to recreate faces, giving priority to children.
By combining all lines of evidence, they said particular families can be targeted for comparisons with the help of the University of North Texas that will extract DNA from the remains, as required by law.
They said information also will be available on NAMUS, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, that now offers a bilingual database.
Spradley and Baker said it could be there are U.S. citizens among the remains.
Spradley said they also are collaborating with human rights groups and consulates to reach families with no internet in Mexico, Central and South America.
She said believing human rights don’t end with death, “Everybody deserves a chance to be identified and returned to their family.”