When Migrants Die, Many Bodies Remain Unidentified

Nov 3, 2019
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

More than 600 migrants have died in the Americas so far in 2019, about half of them on the U.S.-Mexico border. Many of those bodies are likely to remain unidentified, leaving families without closure. That's according to a new report by Kristian Hernandez of the Center for Public Integrity, who has long reported on the deaths of migrants. He's just come back from three months in Guatemala, investigating the stories of missing migrants. And he joins me now in the studio.

Welcome.

KRISTIAN HERNANDEZ: Hi, Lulu. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us about this trip. Why did you go, and what were you trying to find?

HERNANDEZ: This story started a long time ago. In 2016, I was a reporter in South Texas. I found out that there were a lot of migrants that were dying in that area. It was the deadliest area - it still is - for migrants crossing illegally into the United States. And I began to try to understand the system and found that there was no one looking for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And when you say no one was looking for them, that means that there's no government entity on the U.S. side or on the Mexican side who is tracking who's crossing and trying to find out if anyone's perished on the way.

HERNANDEZ: There wasn't, at the time, a missing migrants initiative, which was launched after I and another of my colleagues at the newspaper found the body of a woman that was left for six days, even though the smuggler had given exact location of where they had left her, and all of the authorities knew where she was. After six days, a reporter and I went and found her body ourselves and called police and law enforcement to come and recover her. And I went to Guatemala to find her family.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What did that story uncover?

HERNANDEZ: I found that there were 2,000 unidentified remains on the U.S. side and more than 4,000 genetic samples from family members looking for missing migrants on the south side. The technology exists, and the data is there. And in a few seconds, there could be thousands of matches that could be done, but there's no system in place to do that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why not?

HERNANDEZ: It gets a little more complicated here. In 1994, the DNA Act ruled that there had to be somebody from law enforcement to administer any DNA sample that would be uploaded into this database owned by the FBI - that is CODIS. And this database is primarily used for law enforcement. So it's also not being used for tracking missing migrants.

And a lot of those samples that were taken from family members were administered south of the border and by the Argentine forensic group. And they're not a law enforcement agency, so they've been debating how they can use this database which wasn't meant for humanitarian purposes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You spoke to a mother who had to identify her son by his shoes. Is this because the remains of those who are found are essentially unviewable?

HERNANDEZ: That's right. So we don't know in what state the body was. It was a closed casket. And none - no one in her family was ever DNA-tested to try to genetically match the body to them. And the only thing that she was able to recognize was his basketball shoes, and they were in a clear plastic bag on top of the coffin. Her son, a 16-year-old, drowned, and his body had washed up on the north side of the Rio Grande.

If you've ever been to South Texas, it's - there's a lot of wildlife. I think one of the most impressive images that I've had was a line of vultures just standing on top of a wall. And those vultures get to the bodies pretty quick, and that's why a lot of these remains - we're calling them remains because they're not bodies. These are skeletal fragments that are found along the sandy ranchlands in the brush. These trails - when you see them from the air, they curve, and sometimes migrants are stuck walking in circles for days. They take sometimes six days to walk the equivalent of 10 miles.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dia de los Muertos just came to a close. How did it feel to be in Guatemala while they were looking for family members and they might not know if they were dead or not?

HERNANDEZ: It's different than in Mexico. Their grieving process is over a year long, and they keep an altar in their house throughout the entire year. And they grieve together. And that's a process that they're being denied because they don't have the means of identifying their loved ones.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Kristian Hernandez with the Center for Public Integrity. Thank you so much.

HERNANDEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.