Digging Up the Dead: Researchers exhume unidentified remains at the border

Forensic anthropologists from Central Texas were at the Mexican border this week, exhuming unidentified human remains from graveyards. Their goal: identify all the John and Jane Does to help bring closure to so many families.

RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas -- Forensic anthropologists from Central Texas were at the Mexican border this week, exhuming unidentified human remains from graveyards.

Their goal: identify all the John and Jane Does to help bring closure to so many families.

The site of the endeavor is at a Rio Grande City cemetery.

Texas State University students and anthropologists were back at work with their latest project in Starr County; digging up remains of those believed to be undocumented immigrants.

“Our biggest challenge is figuring out where unidentified human remains are buried because there’s no centralized record keeping,” Texas State University Anthropologist Dr. Kate Spradley said.

With no markers to pinpoint all of the grave sites, Dr. Spradley says that her team is having to rely on the memory of those who did the initial burials; people like Michael Olivarez, assistant director at the Sanchez Funeral Home.

“There are no medical examiners in Starr County so funeral homes are rotated, and they are the ones who go out to the scene or the house call or the hospital,” Olivarez said. “Wherever we get called, that’s where we go.”

Olivarez has helped county officials handle these cases for more than 20 years. He says that the unidentified bodies that end up in these graves have first been taken to an embalmer, who works with Mexican and Central American consulates in an effort to return them, only to have no luck.

There is no exact number, but Olivarez estimated that more than 20 sets of human remains are buried at the county cemetery.

In this round of exhumations, only 10 bodies were recovered, totaling 222 since the initiative began four years ago.

“There’s probably unidentified human remains buried in small areas throughout this cemetery that we may never find,” Dr. Spradley explained.

Those that are found are taken to the university’s lab in San Marcos for identification and data collection.

“I honestly think there’s decades of work ahead of us,” Dr. Spradley noted.

It’s an effort that these volunteers take to heart, including Olivarez, who has joined the fight to bring closure to the families of men and women who died crossing the border.

“There’s people that try to come and make a better living over here, but they didn’t make it. So you kind of feel sad for them,” Olivarez said. “Especially when you find someone young. Those are the ones that do hit you hard.”

Uncovering all the unidentified remains is a daunting task. The anthropologists say that they will return in the winter to finish the job. There could be another dozen yet to be exhumed in this cemetery, alone.

© 2017 KENS-TV


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