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South Texas Cemetery Paid by Local Authorities to Bury Countless Undocumented Migrants in Mass Graves

First Posted: Jun 24, 2014 04:50 PM EDT

The Sacred Heart Burial Park in Brooks County, Texas, officially housed the remains of 110 migrants in a mass grave until last year. But within recent weeks, researchers have discovered even more mass graves, littered with the bodies of dozens of unidentified migrants who died of exposure while trying to evade border authorities as they attempted to enter the U.S., succumbing to the hot and dry region, where the temperature reaches 100 degrees in the summer.

Within the last two weeks, anthropology researchers made 52 exhumations. They found bodies buried in mass graves and single plots in various stages of decomposition, placed in coffins, biohazard bags, body bags, shopping bags, kitchen garbage bags and against the bare dirt. In one instance, the remains of three separate individuals were tucked into a single body bag, and in another, five bodies in one bag. Skulls were found in biohazard receptacles, and some of the bones were wedged inside of a gift bag adorned with a logo featuring the word "Dignity," one of service brands owned by Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams' parent company.

Forensic anthropologists indicated that the bodies had likely been buried between 2005 and 2009. County officials paid Howard-Williams to "handle the bodies after the sheriff's officials recovered them from the brush country." For at least 16 years, the county paid the funeral home to file away the bodies of immigrants, according to Corpus Christi Caller-Times. Jim Hogg, the neighboring county, also paid Howard-Williams to handle bodies for at least 22 years, according to Chief Sheriff's Deputy Lorenzo Benavides.

"To me it's just as shocking as the mass grave that you would picture in your head, and it's just as disrespectful," said Krista Latham, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Indianapolis.

Laws prohibit mass graves, and the Texas Health and Safety Code requires that records of dates, locations and names be kept for any burial; however, it's unclear who is to take the blame for the concealed pits of bodies: the funeral home or the cemetery.

Jessica McDunn, spokeswoman for Service Corporation International, the parent company of Howard-Williams, stated that Howard-Williams 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." She also said that it is their policy to "treat the decedent with care, to treat them just like we would treat anyone else." Brooks County Chief Deputy Sheriff Benny Martinez stated that the funeral home is not anticipating criminal charges. Martinez also shared that about 120 bodies of immigrants were found each year in Brooks County.  

Sen. Juan Hinojosa, a Democrat from South Texas, called for an investigation into the discovery of the mass immigrant-filled graves, believed to have been buried by the funeral home at the cost of $450 a body and billed to local county authorities in Falfurrias, Texas, just 80 miles from the state's southern border with Mexico.

"These people deserve a proper investigation and a proper burial," Sen. Hinojosa told Reuters.

Hinojosa has plans to meet with the local district attorney next week to request an inquiry by the Texas Department of Public Safety's investigative arm, the Texas Rangers. Local authorities, who've launched their own investigation, have not determined how many bodies have been deposited near or around the cemetery and funeral home, but with 235,000 undocumented immigrants apprehended last year near the border, it's possible that there could be thousands of bodies filling numerous graves. The International Consortium for Forensic Identification has been working with a team of student volunteers on a multiyear effort to put a name to the dismembered bodies, most of which are missing limbs.

"These are all people," said Dr. Lori Baker, a forensic anthropologist at Baylor University and one of the researchers who discovered the graves. "Their families deserve to know what happened to them. And they deserve human dignity."

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