Lawmakers call for investigation into mass graves
McALLEN, Texas (AP) — The mass graves of suspected unidentified immigrants buried haphazardly in a South Texas cemetery and uncovered this month by anthropologists should be secured by state police until a criminal investigation can be carried out, a Texas lawmaker said Sunday.
State Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, said he had asked the Department of Public Safety to secure the cemetery in Falfurrias following revelations of human remains buried in garbage bags and multiple remains put in a single body bag without proper records. DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said Sunday in an email that, "the Texas Rangers plan to meet with local officials Monday to determine the proper course of action."
Baylor University anthropologist Lori Baker and Krista Latham, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Indianapolis, worked with their students at the cemetery this month in an ongoing project to identify immigrant remains along the U.S.-Mexico border. The teams worked in Falfurrias last year as well and found similar practices.
"There's no question in one way or another that this is illegal, whether it violates the actual penal code or it if constitutes fraud," Canales said.
The remains were buried by the Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams, which has offices in Falfurrias and Hebbronville, Baker said Friday. Both Brooks and Jim Hogg counties contracted with the funeral home to bury unidentified remains there.
"This is not a respectful way of interring someone's remains," Baker said. "And we had one, of course, with all of these bags on top of bags this year and not in a coffin. Most of these remains were not within a coffin, they were buried just in the body bags or whatever else they were recovered in."
Baker said the group exhumed 52 graves this month, but will not know how many individuals they have until they are inventoried at the lab.
A message left at Howard-Williams over the weekend was not returned. The funeral home's Houston-based parent company, Service Corp. International, did not immediately respond to an email message Sunday.
Service Corp. International told the Caller-Times in a statement, "No matter if this is one of our client families we serve on a traditional basis or a migrant family's loved one we're serving and we don't have any identification of the loved one, I do want to let you know it is our policy to treat the decedent with care, to treat them just like we would treat anyone else."
State Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, D-Corpus Christi, told the Corpus Christi Caller-Times on Friday that he was calling for a criminal investigation.
Hundreds of immigrants' have been recovered on the ranches in Brooks County in recent years. Smugglers guide immigrants through the brush trying to circumvent a Border Patrol highway checkpoint an hour's drive north of the border. There is little water and the walk can take two or three days in punishing temperatures.
Canales said he had also submitted a public records request to the Brooks County auditor on Saturday for records that would show how many bodies the county had paid the funeral home to bury.
"No matter how you slice it there is definitely I think a crime committed," he said. "However the real crime is against the families and the desecration of their bodies. I don't care what country you're from, I believe you should be buried with dignity and respect."