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'Floaters': Death in the Rio Grande

The treacherous river claims hundreds of illegal border crossers each year. Their bodies wash up in Texas counties too poor to do more than bury them in pauper's graves.

March 27, 1996|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — The body of John Doe No. 95-036751, one of 14 undocumented migrants to wash up along this short stretch of the Rio Grande last year, was clad only in beige underwear with thin, red, checkered stripes.

His trim, 20ish frame was bloated. His lips and eyelids had been devoured by turtles. Other than a dark oval birthmark on the right side of his chest, there was no way to identify him--no wallet, no jewelry, no tattoos--not even enough skin on his fingers from which to draw prints.

Being a "floater," as the river's victims are commonly known, no autopsy was performed. A funeral home stored him for two days in its garage. Fewer than 48 hours after being fished out, the corpse was placed in a plywood box and planted in an unmarked plot at El Jardin, a pauper's cemetery that, until recently, allowed goats to graze atop the graves to cut down on mowing costs.

"I'm sure that somewhere he has loved ones who have never heard back from him," said Danny Besteiro, co-manager of Delta Funeral Directors, which handled the body last May. "It's sad, really. They're probably still wondering if he ever made it."

John Doe No. 95-036751 is among the disappeared of the Rio Grande, the narrow, deceptively tranquil ribbon of water that separates Mexico from Texas--and all the promise that life in the north is imagined to hold.

Illegally crossing any portion of the U.S. border is fraught with risks, of course, a gamble that every undocumented immigrant knowingly takes. But no obstacle is more hazardous or less forgiving than the Rio Grande, which is uniquely situated to erase any record of the fate of those who die trying to cross.

Many come from small villages or ranches, never having learned to swim. Most remove their clothing and identification, ferrying them in plastic bags above their heads. If they slip or panic, warm waters and carnivorous aquatic life quickly deform their features. When their bodies surface, it is upon the shores of some of the poorest counties in America, ill-equipped to handle the human detritus of an international migration crisis.

"They're virtually a forgotten people," said Jacqueline Hagan, a sociologist at the University of Houston's Center for Immigration Research. "Their existence is eradicated."

In a landmark study released earlier this month, the university estimated that as many as 270 would-be immigrants drown every year while illegally crossing the Texas-Mexico border. Many of them never are identified, the study found, blaming the "cursory and informal" procedures of South Texas authorities for hampering the identification process.

Because of limited funds, only one of the 14 Texas border counties has its own coroner, thus requiring a justice of the peace with no medical training to rule on the cause of death. If there are obvious signs of foul play, a justice sometimes will contract with a pathologist. But the study found that most apparent drowning victims, presumed to be illegal immigrants, almost never are afforded the same priority.

No coroner also means no morgue. The burden usually falls on local funeral homes, which may be paid as little as $70 to handle a body. Again, the study found, lack of resources impeded the chances of identification. Although state law requires an unclaimed body to be held for at least 72 hours, most funeral directors told the researchers that they were unwilling to store a decomposing corpse for more than a day or two before shipping it to a pauper's grave.

"The villain here isn't a person, but a system . . . one that doesn't weigh the human costs of immigration policy," said Nestor Rodriguez, the University of Houston sociologist who directed the project. "It's an issue of respect and humane treatment of the deceased."

Although the report was released with an eye toward the current immigration debate in Congress, the Rio Grande was claiming lives long before there was even a Border Patrol standing sentry over its muddy banks. A serpentine, 1,200-mile-long moat, it is the one inexorable hurdle that all illegal immigrants must scale before setting foot in Texas--a hazard that fails to deter the hundreds of thousands who attempt it each year.

"If they've come this far, they're not going to let that river stop them," said Norma Cortez-Lopez, a supervisor at the Border Patrol's Brownsville station. "Rail, hail, sleet, snow--they've come determined to get across."

What invariably surprises most first-time visitors is the shallow, almost pathetic trickle that the Rio Grande has become in places. Despite looming large in the mythology of the Southwest, its flow has been sapped by urban sprawl, industry and agriculture. During dry spells, as the last few months have been, the water level at some bends is not even knee-deep.

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