Holding a human rib bone in her gloved hand, Baylor University Anthropology Professor Lori Baker noted signs of postmortem damage.
“This would be indicative of vulture damage,” Baker said to the students working with her on a skeleton found in the lower Rio Grande River valley of Texas, close to the Mexican border.
According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, more than 6,000 immigrants have died crossing into the United States from Mexico in the past 15 years. In south Texas alone, local officials have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries.
In an effort to help families find out what happened to their loved ones, Baker and her students have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. Baker said that in most cases the cause of death is not found by examining the bones.
“There are a few traumatic things we need to look at, but, all in all, most of the individuals we see die of heat exhaustion,” she said.
Baker said unscrupulous smugglers often abandon immigrants in sparsely populated rural areas where there is no water or shelter.
“So there are probably a lot more individuals who have died and just have not been found,” she said.
Missing without a trace
Baker feels sorrow for the families in Mexico or Central America who have spent decades looking for lost loved ones. Often, authorities say, immigrants carry no identification. In many cases, a person leaves home, telling friends and family that he or she is going to “el norte,” which, in Spanish, means “the north” and is commonly used as a reference to the United States. If that person fails to contact family members later and if no identifiable remains are located, loved ones will never know what happened.
Lori Baker said she can identify with poor families in Latin America. She was the first person in her family to graduate from college. She said she often thinks of her humble beginnings in east Texas and how difficult it would be for her family if she were to disappear.
“I come from a family that if they were faced with finding me in another country, their resources and abilities would be very limited,” she said.
Baker began her career in Anthropology examining ancient bones found at sites in North America where hunter-gatherers came together in small camps thousands of years ago. But her skills were in demand to identify more recent remains found in mass graves in countries that had gone through a period of repression or political turmoil. She worked with human rights groups in such places as Panama after the fall of dictator Manuel Noriega in 1989. She said this work affected her deeply. In 2002, she put some of her paleontology projects aside to try to identify bodies found in the Mexico border region under The Reuniting Families Project.
Student volunteers join her each summer, sometimes examining bodies found more recently in the deserts or brushy pastures. More often, they work with bodies that have been recovered over the decades by local sheriffs in counties on and near the border and deposited in potter’s fields at local cemeteries. In some cases, Baker said, bodies have been thrown into a grave together or stuffed into large plastic bags.
But Baker remains understanding of the burdens put on local authorities in rural counties with few resources and minimal budgets. According to a coalition of Texas sheriffs, each dead migrant they find costs a county $5,000 to remove, examine and bury.
The sheriffs and residents of the border counties are very supportive of Baker’s mission, part of which is to re-bury these unidentified people in a more dignified manner after the bones have been examined, carefully recorded and cataloged.
Baker’s team sends bone samples to a laboratory at the University of North Texas, which has a contract to extract DNA and send the information to the FBI’s DNA database. Baker has also met with Mexican officials to obtain access to their Missing Persons Database, which contains around 400 DNA samples that can be compared to what her team has found.
The student volunteers, mostly from Baylor’s campus in Waco, Texas, but also from schools as far away as Indiana, engage in the grim, grueling work of digging up bodies partly for the experience it provides in forensic investigation, but mostly because they share Baker’s sense of mission.
Jennifer Husak, a recent Baylor graduate, spent two summers working with Baker in south Texas. She recalls the hardest moment came early on when she examined an infant’s bones.
She said the thoughts that went through her head at that moment briefly interrupted her technical detachment.
“It was very difficult for me at first to think of a mother not being able to watch her child grow up,” she said. “It was very difficult, but I took a second, re-grouped and then came back, remembering that we do have a job to do.”
Husak said she and other volunteers look for physical evidence that might be useful in making an identification, such as fractures in bones that leave small lines after they heal.
“They might be minute, but we can see them,” Husak said. “So we look for things like that to help narrow down and help make an identification.”
Chelsea Art, a senior studying Anthropology at Baylor, volunteered for the first time this past summer to work with Lori Baker at a cemetery in Brooks County, about 100 kilometers north of the border, where hundreds of bodies have been found over the years. The area is sparsely populated and immigrants are often exhausted and dehydrated by the time they get there.
Art says working in the heat gave her some idea of how terrible it must be for an immigrant out in the open, without any support.
“Even just working there [in the cemetery], we had to make sure to take plenty of water breaks, and make sure to get some food in us and knowing that they [the immigrants] did not have any of that made it a lot more real, a lot more personal," she said.
It has also become personal for Lori Baker. When she looks at anonymous bones, Baker says, “I hope that through the work we do we can restore some human dignity to that person by giving them a name.”
Baker and her volunteers have worked with more than 170 bodies from the south Texas border region and identified three. But she has spoken to the family members of those who were identified and knows how much it meant to them.
The ultimate goal for Lori Baker is to return identified remains to their families, who, as she put it, will then at least have a burial place where they can pray and put flowers.