BROOKS COUNTY -- Brooks County is nearly 80 miles from the southwest U.S.-Mexico border, but it’s still a major hub for human smugglers.
Coyotes, or smuggling guides, take hundreds of people a day through rugged ranchland.
The number of illegal border crossings has fallen to its lowest level in decades, but Brooks County leads the trend.
Tighter border enforcement elsewhere has made the region one of the most deadly routes for migrants.
“I don’t want to be known for the county where 129 people have perished and probably more this year,” said Raul Ramirez, Brooks County Judge.
The rural county, with a population of 7,200 is bracing for more deaths as the temperature rises.
Human smugglers try to avoid a border patrol checkpoint on Highway 281 by guiding migrants on foot through thick brush.
Six deputies and one investigator patrol nearly 950-square miles. Usually only one or two are on duty at the same time.
As Deputy Jorge Esparza began his shift one evening, he spotted two disheveled men walking on side of the road.
“Where are you from?” he asked in Spanish.
“El Salvador,” the men answered.
The deputy said they were probably abandoned by a coyote.
“That’s how they leave them in the brush. He’s already admitted they’ve been walking for two or three days,” said Esparza. “The other guy’s pants are all torn up. They’ve been jumping fencing.”
The men said they left El Salvador two months ago.
“We just had a little way to go,” said the younger man who was in his early 20s. His traveling companion sighed and put his hands in his face. They thought they were near Houston which was still 300 miles away.
“It’s not safe for them. The best thing to do is for us to turn them over to Border Patrol, “said Esparza.
In the search for better life, migrants risk death.
“Welcome to hell.” That’s how Diana DeLeon at the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office described their experience.
DeLeon is in charge of dispatch which gets daily calls from desperate migrants who are abandoned by their smugglers or lost in the thick brush as temperatures soar.
DeLeon and others at the sheriff’s office spend hours with 911 callers trying to pinpoint their location using cell phone towers and a description of their surroundings.
“It really has been overwhelming,” said Chief Deputy Urbino Martinez.
Since Brooks County does not border Mexico, it does not get federal funds to deal with the cost of being a major smuggling corridor.
“Do I consider this to be a border county? Absolutely,” said Chief Deputy Martinez. “I always have because of the volume of immigration issues we have and because of the volume of people walking through here.”
Many migrants make it to highways where they’re picked up by smugglers and shuttled to major cities. Many have jobs waiting for them.
But for some, the journey ends at the Brooks County cemetery.
“All this section is John Doe,” said County Judge Ramirez standing in the cemetery. “As you can tell these are all unknown persons.”
Small tin plaques over mounds of dirt say “unknown” “male” or “female” and sometimes the ranch where the remains were found.
One plaque reads “skull case, Mariposa.” By law, Brooks County must pay to conduct autopsies and burying the dead.
Last year, there were 129 bodies. So far this year in Brooks County there are 19 more.
“We ran out and we started coming across here, and across over there and across over there and we couldn’t keep up with it,” said Judge Ramirez as he pointed to a fresh plot where the four bodies were recently buried. It’s right on the edge of the cemetery.
The death toll is so high, Ramirez says the rural county is running out of burial space and money.
“That takes a toll on an impoverished county,” he said.