A Texas Sheriff’s Grim Task: Finding Bodies as Migrant Deaths Surge

VAN HORN, Texas — Like many other West Texas sheriffs, Oscar E. Carrillo packs a gun, drives a truck and wears a cowboy hat.

But it is his newest piece of gear, a corpse trolley, that has him questioning whether to remain a lawman.

“It’s so we don’t have to hand carry the remains anymore,” Sheriff Carrillo, 56, explained as he described the list of dead migrants turning up on his watch. “I used to request regular stuff like bulletproof vests,” he said. “Now I’m asking for more body bags.”

As the number of migrants crossing the border with Mexico has surged this year, with encounters reaching levels not seen in more than two decades, so, too, has the number of bodies found by U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Through July, Border Patrol officials found 383 dead migrants, the highest toll in nearly a decade, and one already far surpassing the 253 recovered in the previous fiscal year.

There is no single system for tracking migrant deaths, some of which are not discovered for years, and the Border Patrol figure does not include the dozens of bodies found by other law enforcement agencies, such as local sheriff’s offices.

Sheriff Carrillo, for example, has found the bodies of 19 migrants this year, many who died because of the sweltering summer heat, up from two last year. He handles the cases, in addition to fighting day-to-day crimes like break-ins and cattle thefts, with just 10 deputies in Culberson County, a sparsely populated expanse of mountainous terrain, scrublands and sand dunes that is about three and a half times the size of Rhode Island.

Some political leaders, like Gov. Greg Abbott, argue that more border-crossers are making the perilous journey after President Biden toned down the hostility his predecessor showed toward migrants from Latin America.

Others lay blame on drug gangs and hunger in Central America, or the extreme weather fueled by climate change. While such factors are interrelated, for Culbertson County there is another element: the border wall.

The signature project of the Trump administration has pushed some migrants to cross in exceptionally forbidding areas where no wall exists, like remote stretches around Culberson County.

Sheriff Carrillo, who has held his job for 21 years, said he tried to avoid all the political skirmishing around immigration.

“I’ve got a job to do,” the sheriff, who grew up in El Paso, said in an interview conducted entirely in Spanglish, the hybrid language prevailing along much of the border. He roughnecked in the Texas oil fields before the crash in oil prices in the 1980s.

“I told myself I need something that’s going to be around,” he said, “like law enforcement or funeral work.”

Now, as the death toll surges, Sheriff Carrillo finds he is doing some of both.

Most of the migrants come from three Central American countries, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, though the sheriff has also recently found the bodies of Ecuadorians and Mexicans.

In contrast to those requesting asylum at other locations, those making the furtive journey in this part of West Texas are what law enforcement officials along the border call “Title 42s,” referring to a Trump-era policy that allows authorities for quick deportations during the coronavirus pandemic. While President Biden promised for months to lift Title 42, he recently announced he was preserving it as the contagious Delta variant sends cases soaring nationwide.

After being sent to Mexico, many of the migrants simply try their luck again, sometimes in exceptionally remote locations in the Chihuahuan Desert. More than 200,000 migrants were detained along the border in July, a 13 percent jump from the previous month and the second-highest number on record, according to Border Patrol figures. Of those taken into custody last month, 27 percent had been previously detained.

Migrant deaths, a grisly reality for decades, are spiking in one stretch of the border after another.

In Arizona, the remains of 127 migrants were found in the first half of this year, up from 96 in the same period of 2020, according to Humane Borders, a human rights group that documents such deaths using data from the Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Tucson.

In the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, 69 bodies of migrants were found from October through July, compared with 57 over the same period a year earlier, according to Border Patrol figures. The agency’s Del Rio sector in Texas had an even larger jump, to 71 bodies from 34.

In Sheriff Carrillo’s part of the border, some die from heatstroke or dehydration, left behind by smugglers guiding groups of border-crossers.

But as the sheriff explained, there are many ways to die in the desert.

In one case in late July, he got a call around 3 in the morning. A migrant from Ecuador had been killed by an eighteen-wheeler when she tried to cross Interstate 10 near the county seat of Van Horn.

Only teeth and a few body parts were recovered, he said, reviewing photos of the gruesome crash. “No quedó mas nada,” he added. Nothing else was left.

In another grim case, Sheriff Carrillo was called to the site of an empty water tank on a cattle ranch, where he found a migrant who had hanged himself on a mesquite tree.

“He made it all this way only to find the tank empty,” the sheriff said. “What would have been going on in his mind at that point?”

Such questions seemed to haunt Sheriff Carrillo as he stared at the pile of manila envelopes on his desk. Each envelope, he said, included details about a migrant who had died in his county this year.

Culberson County, like other hinterland Texas counties, cannot afford its own medical examiner. So the Sheriff’s Department takes the bodies to El Paso, about 160 miles west, where officials charge about $3,500 for each autopsy.

At the same time, Sheriff Carrillo’s jail is so full of smugglers that he has had to start turning away those handed over to him by state troopers or National Guard personnel who are part of Mr. Abbott’s immigration crackdown.

“When someone shows up with a criminal, I’m not taking them,” Sheriff Carrillo said. “There’s no bed space anymore.”

Turning away criminals is not what Sheriff Carrillo had in mind when he got into police work. He projects a law-and-order image, bolstered by photos on his shelf of him with Texas Republicans like Mr. Abbott and Rick Perry, the former energy secretary and former governor.

But Sheriff Carrillo, a Democrat in a predominantly Hispanic county carried by President Biden in the 2020 election, is also known for hewing to positions that can make him something of an outlier.

In 2017, Sheriff Carrillo came under fire from conservatives when President Donald J. Trump jumped to the conclusion that a Border Patrol agent had been murdered after being found with head injuries along a stretch of Interstate 10.

“They had this narrative that ‘bad hombres’ came across the border and attacked our law enforcement, and that is not what happened,” the sheriff said, citing evidence that the agent had fallen to the bottom of a culvert.

After F.B.I. agents interviewed more than 650 people and found no evidence of a homicide, pressure on the sheriff eased. He was appointed this year to the board of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, a distinction in an organization where Hispanics, on the cusp of emerging as the state’s largest ethnic group, remain severely underrepresented.

Sheriff Carrillo said many of his counterparts, especially those in counties deep in the Texas interior, were curious what it was like on the border these days. He said he tried not to sugarcoat his responses.

“All these bodies are deserving of an investigation,” the sheriff said, calling the dead migrants “esta pobre gente inocente” — poor innocent people.

Still, Sheriff Carrillo acknowledged that the climbing death toll was overwhelming small departments like his own, and that dealing with so much death had him contemplating retirement.

His phone keeps ringing with calls about bodies. One week, it is a rancher checking his water lines, the next it is bighorn sheep hunters who spot a corpse.

“I’m not a young man anymore,” he said. “I had no idea we were going to get bombarded with this crisis.”

The sheriff said he knew his aim of making smugglers accountable remained out of reach. In the meantime, he is hoping to provide the families of dead migrants with some form of closure.

Many of the remains lack identification, so he posts details about some cases on his personal Facebook page. People from across Latin America reach out to him, desperate for information on loved ones.

In one case, a woman in California asked if he had come across the body of her brother, who had an owl tattoo on his leg and often wore a Chicago White Sox cap. Using that information, the sheriff was able to confirm that the remains of a migrant found in June were those of a 28-year-old man from the Mexican state of Veracruz — the woman’s brother.

“We were able to get the body back to the familia,” the sheriff said. “At least we could do that for them.”

On Sheriff Carrillo’s desk, near the manila envelopes that hold information about the bodies he hauls out on the department’s new stretcher, sits another pile of documents: pleas for help from the consulates of Central American countries to find migrants who went missing while crossing the border.

“These people are out there somewhere,” he said. “I hope that someday we’ll find them.”

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