FALFURRIAS, Texas — The last time Deputy Don White recovered a corpse, in early May, it had been ripped apart by feral hogs. He found human body parts and clothing scattered over about a 100-foot area on a cattle ranch in Brooks County, Texas, about 70 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. The man had been dead for about three weeks.
The hogs, says White, “took the arms — the scapula will oftentimes come loose, and so the whole arm goes. So, the arms all the way up to scapula, and the feet were gone.” At that point in the decomposition process, explains the 68-year-old White, it’s hard to see the bones in the grass. He found the clothing first, then a pair of yellow boots, then a mandible.
It was the yellow boots, together with some Honduran currency in a pants pocket, that confirmed this was the man White had been sent to find. The two women who drove down from Dallas a few days earlier had given the Brooks County Sheriff’s office a detailed description of their nephew, along with his last known location. They hoped he might still be alive, lost somewhere in the vast ranchlands of Brooks County. But they had their suspicions, says White, that he was dead.
The man had been with a small group of other illegal immigrants, led by a smuggler, who were hiking around the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint outside the tiny town of Falfurrias, Texas. They had already crossed the Rio Grande without being detected, and their last obstacle was to get around the checkpoint unnoticed.
Groups like these — single adult migrants attempting to evade law enforcement — are now crossing the border in near-record numbers. Media coverage of the ongoing border crisis has focused almost exclusively on the children and families turning themselves in and claiming asylum. During the last border crisis, in the spring of 2019, the vast majority of those caught crossing illegally were children and families, mostly from Central America.
But now, the situation has reversed. Since October, children and families have accounted for less than one-third of all apprehensions at the border, while the vast majority, more than 70 percent, have been single adults.
Of the 178,000 apprehensions at the border in April, more than 111,000 were single adults. Most of them, if caught, won’t be able to claim asylum. They instead face immediate expulsion under a pandemic-related safety protocol invoked by President Trump and continued under President Biden. So they’re trying not to get caught.
‘I Think Their Intel Is Probably Better Than Ours’
That means sneaking around checkpoints, hiding in stash houses, arranging to be picked up on remote country roads, and, if spotted by law enforcement, running. High-speed car chases and bailouts — when a pursued vehicle stops suddenly and everyone inside bails out and runs in different directions — have become common this spring in Brooks County, as have broken fences and car-jackings. The sparsely populated county is home to one of the largest and busiest of 33 permanent inland Border Patrol checkpoints, which means it’s a bottleneck in the northward flow of illegal immigration, and a hotbed of all the problems that come with it.
It’s been a bottleneck for decades, ever since Border Patrol built the checkpoint south of town in 1994. But ranch owners and law enforcement officials tell me this is the worst they’ve ever seen. It’s not just car chases and broken fences, it’s also corpses.
The Honduran man whose corpse was ripped apart by feral hogs earlier this month was the 34th body found so far this year in Brooks County, already more than were found all of last year. And it’s only May. The hottest and deadliest months are still to come.
Brooks County Sheriff Benny Martinez says this year is already far worse than 2019 and reminds him more of 2012, when his deputies recovered a record 129 bodies and Texas became the deadliest state in the country for illegal immigrants. But there are some significant differences compared to 2012, he says.
Smugglers are now using GPS to go cross-country in trucks and SUVs, smashing through fences as they go. Last week, a group stole a backhoe and used it to break through ranch fences for about 60 miles until they got to U.S. Highway 285, an east-west corridor north of the checkpoint where most groups traveling on foot will get picked up.
The other big difference is that the groups are smaller. Back in 2012, says Martinez, “we had groups of 75 to a hundred. Now we’ll have five different groups at the same time that add up to a hundred.” He thinks their movements are coordinated, designed to tie up limited law enforcement resources and ensure a maximum amount of human cargo gets through.
“They’re talking to each other, they got GPS on them, and they’re making every effort to evade,” he says. They’re also strategizing, watching where sheriff’s deputies and state troopers are patrolling and then shooting through the gaps. “Daytime, nighttime, don’t matter. They’re coming,” says Martinez. “It’s all a coordinated effort. In fact, I think their intel is probably better than ours.”
‘It’s Like Somebody Is Herding These People Like Cattle’
That coordination has sometimes led to a brazenness from smugglers and traffickers. Martinez mentioned to me that a group of five illegal immigrants recently walked out of the brush and into the parking lot of a big truck stop outside of town, in broad daylight, thinking their ride was waiting for them there. As it happened, some state troopers and sheriff’s deputies were in the parking lot re-grouping from a high-speed chase, and took them into custody.
I later went to the truck stop and asked a cashier if she’d ever seen anything like that, groups of migrants walking in from the brush. She said she usually works the graveyard shift, and yeah, “It happens all the time now. You see them come in and you can tell they walked through the brush. They’ll have sticks and burrs and dirt on them. It’s just obvious.”
Whether they get picked up at the truck stop or somewhere along Highway 285, these groups are in communication with what Sheriff Martinez calls “transportation cells.” Those are networks of drivers and stash house operators stretching from Brooks County north to Houston and Dallas, where migrants are usually released from the smuggling organization’s custody and sent on their way.
It’s another aspect of the industrialization of illegal immigration by cartels and smuggling networks, exemplified by wrist-bands and information databases run by cartels on the south side of the Rio Grande and coordinated smuggling operations around border checkpoints further inland.
Breaking up or even disrupting these networks is an almost impossible task, even with a heavy law enforcement presence, in part because of the vastness of the natural landscape here. Since March, the area has been swarming with Texas state troopers as part of Operation Lone Star, which Gov. Greg Abbott launched to combat the smuggling of people and drugs into Texas. Along Highway 285 south of the Border Patrol checkpoint, every mile or so you’ll see a state trooper parked on the side of the road in what amounts to a massive stakeout.
The problem is, Brooks County covers nearly 1,000 square miles but has only about 7,000 residents. Nearly the entire county is ranches, many of them more than a century old, handed down from one generation to the next. Finding small groups of migrants in this vast landscape is extremely difficult, even with the cooperation of local ranchers.
William Jones Miller, 57, runs the Alto Colorado division of Jones Ranch, which encompasses some 400,000 acres in South Texas and was founded in 1897. Miller’s part of the ranch in Brooks County sits just south of the checkpoint, which means it’s constantly being traversed by groups of illegal immigrants, and has been for years.
I ask him what’s different about the last three months or so, and he’s emphatic: “Right now it’s worse than it has ever been, ever been. Worse than it has ever been that I can recall, ever.”
That’s telling because Miller, who grew up on the border, in Brownsville, has seen plenty out here. A few years back, he tells me, he came across “15 or 20 guys, with paramilitary garb, backpacks up to here and automatic weapons moving at a hard clip across my country. This is America. What the f-ck, right?”
As we talk, a Border Patrol SUV drives past near the ranch house, traveling off-road through the brush. Like most of the ranchers in Brooks, Miller allows Border Patrol access to his land to conduct searches and pursuits of illegal immigrants, but it comes with a certain amount of risk. Three months back, says Miller, a Border Patrol vehicle traveling over dry grass accidentally sparked a wildfire that consumed 8,000 acres and miles of fencing.
Even so, Miller says he likes having Border Patrol on the ranch these days because of the sheer volume of illegal immigrants coming through. During the Trump presidency, even during the 2019 surge, he says the volume of migrants was way down. Now, he sees groups moving day and night, and tracks all along the pipeline roads and easements. “I mean, it’s like somebody is herding these people like cattle.”
Presnall Cage agrees. His 46,000-acre ranch sits just north of Miller’s but still south of the checkpoint, so he’s been dealing with groups of illegal immigrants crossing his land — and getting lost and dying — for years. But this year is already the worst he’s seen, he says, in at least 15 years. Dozens of migrants cross through his property every night, he says, “And I’m seeing the leftovers, those who got lost, almost every day now.”
‘The Single Worst Place to Start’
The ones who get lost often find themselves in danger. Miller tells me that if you were going to trek from Mexico into the United States, Brooks County is “probably the single worst place to start because everything out here has a thorn, everything out here is trying to bite you.”
And it’s true. Brooks County is only about 30 miles from the Gulf Coast and the soil is sandy and deep, full of burrs and difficult to walk through. The vegetation is brutal: thorny mesquite, pricklypear, horse crippler cactus, crown of thorns. Snakes and venomous insects are everywhere, especially in the spring.
And then there’s the heat. Already in May, temperatures are in the 90s. For most of the summer it’s in the triple-digits, even sometimes at night.
Along the caliche backroads and the two-lane county roads near the checkpoint you’ll see bright blue 50-gallon drums with “AGUA” spray-painted on the side and gallon jugs of water inside. Eddie Canales, a local activist, has worked for years to get permission from landowners to place and maintain these water stations all over Brooks County.
The water gets used because many migrants have no idea what kind of terrain or climate they’re walking into. Rescued migrants often have no provisions, says Don White, the deputy, because the smugglers have lied to them about where they are and how long the trek will take, telling stragglers at night that they’re close, that the glow of lights in the distance are the lights of Houston, some 275 miles away. Just walk towards those lights, they say.
The ones who don’t make it are White’s responsibility. He’s known as “the body man” because all he does, as a semi-retired volunteer deputy, is search for dead bodies and human remains. The work has kept him busy because migrants keep dying on ranches, and every time there’s a surge of illegal immigration at the border the body count in Brooks County rises. Border Patrol conducts search and rescue operations for lost migrants, but after a day or two they’ll turn the search over to the sheriff’s office and the rescue becomes a recovery.
What often happens, White tells me, is that groups get dumped out just south of the checkpoint and try to follow an old pipeline road that comes out north of the checkpoint. “The only problem with that is it’s a quick jump so nobody takes supplies. So if they get lost, they get separated, they got nothing to carry them through.”
The Honduran man whose corpse White recovered earlier this month was one of those who brought no supplies. The aunts from Dallas told White their nephew was asthmatic but that he didn’t bring his inhaler with him. He must have thought he was only going to be hiking for a few hours. “It’s a wonder he made it as long as he did,” says White.
The man’s scattered remains might have been left in the wilderness for years before being discovered. White has stumbled upon remains by accident before. He showed me a picture on his cell phone of a half-buried human skull he came upon recently while searching for a missing woman. He says it initially “looked like a deflated soccer ball in the sand.”
But in this case, someone in the group had called the women in Dallas to tell them their nephew had been left behind, unable to keep up through the harsh terrain, and given them his last known location. It didn’t take White long to find the man, and because he had a description of his clothing, he knew he’d found the right corpse. Someone had already gone through his pockets and taken his ID, which is common.
“If the group they’re with don’t take it, then in a follow-up group somebody will almost always takes their stuff, including their ID,” says White. “To me that’s heartless, to take somebody’s ID,” says White, because it makes it extremely difficult to notify the family, “and quite possibly it may never take place.”