Anthropologists uncovered a series of mass graves filled with the human remains of immigrants stuffed into shopping and garbage bags in a county-owned section of a cemetery in South Texas. Now, a local politician is calling for an inquiry.
The group of anthropology researchers is made of professors and students from the University of Indianapolis and Baylor University, who are working on the Reuniting Families project. The multi-year project seeks to identify the bodies of the hundreds of undocumented immigrants who died (usually from exposure in the 100-degree-plus heat) while crossing the Texas-Mexico border over the last few years. They resumed work two weeks ago, exhuming 52 plots in a Brooks County-owned section of the Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias.
In those plots, they found the remains of multiple people instead of just one.
In one burial plot, bones of three bodies were inside one body bag. In another instance, there were at least five people in body bags and smaller plastic bags were piled on top of each other, Baylor University anthropologist Lori Baker said to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Skulls were found in biohazard bags — like the red plastic bags in receptacles at doctors’ offices — placed between coffins.
“To me it’s just as shocking as the mass grave that you would picture in your head, and it’s just as disrespectful,” Krista Latham, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Indianapolis, said to the Caller-Times.
Due to the commingling of remains, the researchers are unable to determine the total number of people buried in the 52 plots.
County Judge Raul Ramirez told the Caller-Times that, for at least 16 years, Brooks County paid the local funeral home, Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams, to bury the bodies after they were discovered in the remote areas of the county’s brush country.
The funeral home currently charges $450 to handle each body, Brooks County Chief Deputy Benny Martinez said.
The funeral home has “certain records related to these burials, but this does not amount to confirmation that Howard-Williams was involved in depositing the remains in the manner the researchers described,” Houston-based Service Corporation International (the parent company of Howard-Williams since 1999) spokeswoman Jennifer McDunn told the Corpus newspaper in an e-mail.
“Because of the sensitive nature of our business, it is not our general practice to share our records publicly, no matter the decedent or the family we serve,” McDunn said.
After the discovery became known, Democratic state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa called for the district’s attorney general to open a criminal investigation by the Texas Rangers, the Caller-Times reported. “This is too serious of a wrongdoing,” he said.
“It is horrible, and any human being deserves a burial of respect and dignity,” Hinojosa went on. “I’m appalled at the number of bodies just left in body bags and, in many instances, more than one body in one bag. That’s not right. We need to get to the bottom of the situation.”
Various Texas laws and regulations require records be kept for burials, set minimum burial depths, require certain containers and prohibit mass burials in some instances, according to the Caller-Times.
“When I see that more than likely this was done by a funeral home, well, they’re supposed to be aware of the regulations and what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to do it,” 79th Judicial District Attorney Carlos Omar Garcia said to the Corpus paper.
Chief Deputy County Clerk Elva Ray Silvas said the county courthouse held no records of burials except for an assessment of grave markers performed by a volunteer group in 2000.