Why Border Patrol is doing more to rescue and identify missing migrants



A U.S. Customs and Border Safety agent scrutinized video of a dying migrant on her cellphone, making an attempt to match the background to the ranch she was trying to find his physique final month.

“Can I see the image actual fast, the background?” one other agent requested.

Agent Nancy Balogh held out her telephone. Within the two minutes of video, 25-year-old Yoel Nieto Valladares lay on the sandy floor, shirtless and sweating, denims cinched with an oblong steel belt buckle. Nieto was barely capable of sip from a Coke as one other man fanned him with a black cap. The dying man’s palms twitched, a tattoo of his father and youthful brother’s initials seen on his arm. His eyes rolled.

“How do you’re feeling, man? Hey, how do you’re feeling?” the person filming requested, panning to indicate a dozen others dressed all in black, the colour favored by smugglers working at evening.

Nieto shushed him, smiling.

“That is dangerous, he’s delirious,” stated the person filming.

The dying man groaned.

Moments later, in a second minute-long video, Nieto’s black polo shirt was on and his arms lay atop it, limp. His eyes have been open, staring.

A smuggler had despatched the movies to Nieto’s household with GPS coordinates. “I actually hope we discover him,” Balogh stated.


A number of years in the past, the U.S. Border Patrol launched a Lacking Migrant Program in Arizona — although the company’s main mission remained apprehending migrants — that has since expanded border-wide. Their relationship with migrant advocates had grown strained. In recent times, the Border Patrol had even helped prosecute some who left water and different provides for migrants within the desert.

An agent in camouflage gear with a dog on a dirt path

A U.S. Customs and Border Safety agent searches for migrants who crossed the Texas border illegally on June 2.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Occasions)

However the company’s strategy has now advanced amid a rise in migration and deaths.

Brooks County — about 75 miles north of the Rio Grande Valley — has turn out to be the Border Patrol’s laboratory, a spot to check approaches they’re already extending throughout the border. A 3-person missing-migrant staff educated in forensics is working with an intelligence officer to assist determine migrant stays.

The company additionally added tools and know-how to assist find stranded migrants sooner. It put in greater than 1,400 rescue indicators throughout the area labeled with GPS coordinates. Brokers obtained GPS coordinates for greater than 22,000 landmarks that may be referenced throughout a migrant’s 911 name — from energy poles to windmills, pipelines and cattle guards. They usually positioned 30 cellular, solar-powered rescue beacons in distant areas with little to no cellphone reception. The beacons are outfitted with cameras which have already led to the rescue of a migrant.

By summer season’s finish, the beacons will alert brokers’ cellphones immediately. By 12 months’s finish, they plan to have 170 beacons nationwide, which can be utilized to rescue migrants and examine, Supervisory Agent Brandon Copp stated.

Regardless of the summer season warmth, which often decreases migration, the variety of migrants arriving on the border final month — 188,829 — was the biggest in years. The busiest space for crossings was south Texas, the place brokers earlier this month stopped 736 migrants in three teams close to the Rio Grande. As of final month, they’d helped get better greater than 324 migrant stays and carried out 9,201 rescues nationwide, 81% greater than all of final 12 months.

“If we get facial recognition of a information, we will tie them to that migrant’s loss of life,” Copp stated.

Like a lot of Texas’s 254 counties, Brooks — inhabitants 7,100 — doesn’t have a health worker. Dying investigations are dealt with by justices of the peace until the county pays an outdoor professional. Native funeral houses traditionally minimize corners burying migrant lifeless. Researchers investigating unmarked migrant graves at a neighborhood cemetery in recent times discovered a number of migrant our bodies buried collectively, some in plastic baggage and milk crates. They needed to exhume and catalog DNA in worldwide databases to assist determine them.

Now the sheriff’s workplace is working with the Border Patrol to extra rapidly determine and launch migrant stays with out sending them for autopsies or DNA testing, which might be costly and time-consuming. The sheriff simply received a secondhand refrigerated trailer on mortgage from the state funeral house affiliation, used for COVID lifeless through the pandemic. Deputies and Border Patrol brokers now retailer unidentified our bodies there as they examine.

Due to modifications in county ordinances, among the Border Patrol brokers in south Texas, El Paso and Tucson have educated to {photograph} lifeless migrants’ fingerprints to assist consulates determine them. In addition they realized to get better fingerprints from our bodies which have decayed or been submerged in water.

“By no means thought I’d be doing this, the forensic aspect of it, the compassion,” stated Agent Jerry Passement whereas trying to find Nieto’s physique. “It’s a puzzle we’ve received to attempt to put collectively.”

Two forensics workers stand over a body on a gurney beside a trailer

U.S. Customs and Border Safety Brokers Nancy Balogh and Jerry Passement {photograph} fingerprints from a migrant’s physique on June Four in Falfurrias, Texas.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Occasions)

The method of finding lacking migrants usually begins when these in misery name 911 from their cellphones, stranded and determined for water. Dispatchers request their GPS coordinates, then join them to the Border Patrol’s operations middle, the place brokers additionally attempt to find them.

The search might be daunting. A Guatemalan man who referred to as final month stated he had wandered for 2 days, removed from any highway, signal or mild. Brokers couldn’t find him.

“I’m misplaced and my companion died in a single day. I’m alone right here,” one other 28-year-old Honduran migrant informed dispatchers on Could 18. “I’m dangerous. I can’t stroll.”

Later that day, brokers rescued him and recovered his pal’s physique.

Copp and his staff see migrants and their households as a useful resource. In at the very least one case this summer season, a household helped brokers bust a smuggler and rescue 42 migrants from a stash home.

“The humanitarian facet, we’re placing extra of an effort into it,” Balogh stated as she looked for Nieto. “No person deserves to die like this.”

They’re working with Eddie Canales, founding father of the Brooks County-based South Texas Human Rights Heart, which has relayed data to authorities and helped save at the very least 50 migrants in current months, Canales stated.

“We’re seeing an exceptional enhance within the calls that we’re getting concerning folks going lacking,” he stated.

Earlier this month, Canales checked a dozen of the group’s greater than 150 water barrels, constructed on close by ranches for migrants. Within the final month, migrants had taken seven jugs of water, 28 gallons whole. One half-empty barrel was surrounded by discarded garments. One other contained 5 wilted greenback payments, in all probability left by a grateful migrant. Typically, supporters depart additional meals and water. However final month, some barrels have been stolen, together with $200 in provides. The thieves have been by no means caught.



Smugglers had provided Nieto’s household a selection: Pay extra — about $11,000 every — or threat a protracted, harmful journey to make sure that he and cousin Heyder Perdomo Nieto, 31, reached South Carolina.

“We determined to pay extra in order that they might come safely,” stated Jhoselyn Nieto, 34.

She and a cousin in Honduras stated the boys had grown up within the capital, Tegucigalpa, and have been ill-equipped to outlive within the brush. Nieto, her cousin, often known as “Gato” due to his inexperienced eyes, was a college-educated name middle operator who dreamed of working at a financial institution. Perdomo, her brother, made furnishings and cared for his 8-year-old daughter. Smugglers promised that the boys would journey largely by automobile, strolling solely about eight hours in Texas to avoid a Border Patrol checkpoint.

“They lied,” she stated.

Her cousin would die throughout a four-day trek with 18 different Central American migrants by way of arid ranches with little meals or water. Perdomo would keep together with his cousin’s physique, deserted by their information, misplaced. He waited six hours, till his father received on the telephone and informed him to depart, “since you are nonetheless residing.”

Perdomo set off into the ranches about 7 that evening.

His sister referred to as the smuggler and accused him of mendacity to the household and killing her cousin.

“He stated, no, he was alive, that they each have been OK. ‘They’re coming to Houston, you must wait,’” she stated. “So, we waited for them.”

The household debated whether or not to contact authorities, afraid of how the smuggler may react if he nonetheless had the boys. The following day, when she messaged her brother, the information responded that they have been headed to Houston.

However they by no means arrived.

When she messaged the next day, the information stopped responding.

4 days later, after she wrote demanding the reality, somebody claiming to be a fellow migrant stated one of many males had died and the opposite was presumed lifeless.

“You lie,” she wrote. “How can we discover them?”

“Sadly, it is a consequence for many who come right here,” the stranger wrote.

“There are penalties, however you performed your half,” she responded. “Inform me the situation and ship me a video if he’s lifeless.”

He despatched her the GPS coordinates and movies.

She watched in horror, realizing the smuggler had lied, and her brother was lacking.

“We didn’t know if he was residing or lifeless,” she stated.

That’s when, on June 2, she despatched the movies to the Border Patrol.

The following day, brokers spent a half-hour combing the comb earlier than they noticed vultures circling.

“They discovered him,” Balogh stated, and crossed herself as she all the time does after they find a migrant’s physique.

At first, brokers couldn’t ensure it was Nieto. Scavengers had dragged what was left of the physique below a log, sporting denims and a blackened shirt. Had Nieto been lacking lengthy sufficient to be so decomposed, brokers questioned? A researcher accompanying them stated vultures may choose a physique clear inside hours.

A man tends to a body found near a tree

Funeral Director Alonzo Rangel helps get better the physique of Honduran migrant Yoel Nieto Valladares, 25, close to Encino, Texas, on June 3.

(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Occasions)

“We could need to do DNA,” Copp stated, which may take months.

Brokers checked the physique for identification, however discovered none. Then they noticed a black polo shirt within the grass, a Coke bottle and a belt that matched the movies.

“That’s for certain the belt buckle,” Copp stated.

They’d discovered Nieto. Brokers notified a justice of the peace, who pronounced him lifeless.

“The unhappy factor is, the household held onto that video for nearly every week,” Copp stated.

There was no signal of Perdomo, or whether or not he may have been saved, had officers been alerted sooner.


That day, after the Border Patrol referred to as to inform the household that it had discovered Nieto’s physique, they received their first name from Perdomo.

He was with a smuggler in Houston.

“He stated he was OK, however we needed to pay once more,” his sister stated: $4,000 on prime of the $11,000 they’d already paid for every of the boys.

After he left his cousin’s physique, Perdomo had practically died, strolling in a single day and a part of the subsequent day. He stumbled upon one other group of migrants whose information took pity on him, gave him water, tuna and chocolate. Perdomo was so dehydrated, he vomited. He requested if they might retrieve his cousin’s physique.

“No, he’s lifeless,” the information stated, “However we may help you.”

Fellow migrants needed to assist Perdomo’s shoulders as they walked. Wounded, soiled and hungry, he lastly arrived on June 15. He was nonetheless recovering final week.

“He cries for Yoel. He remembers him. He tells me issues that occurred on the highway,” his sister stated.

It wasn’t clear what precipitated Nieto’s loss of life. His father determined to have him cremated, in order that he may have a funeral in South Carolina. However the Honduran Consulate insisted that the physique be DNA-tested, which workers informed the household may take as much as eight months, Jhoselyn Nieto stated.

“We need to get better his physique as quickly as doable so my uncle can have peace,” she stated. “He can’t have him alive; at the very least he can have his ashes.”


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