Eduardo “Eddie” Canales leans out of his truck window, peering beyond a barbed wire fence and into the sandy, scraggly brush of a remote ranch here in South Texas, about 80 miles from the US-Mexican border.
“Is that a body?” asks Ryan Strand, a missing persons investigator at Texas State University and forensic anthropology fellow assisting Mr. Canales at the South Texas Human Rights Center (STHRC).
Canales pushes his sunglasses down and his eyes lock on the mound of fabric barely visible beneath a mesquite tree. “It might be,” he says.
The two men, as well as an instructor from Duke University, climb out of the truck. The barbed wire fence divides the deserted dirt road from the private ranch – one of dozens here in Brooks County. Canales is able to step through the barrier and finds that it’s only a blanket, probably discarded by one of the thousands of mostly Central American migrants who use this corridor each year.
Canales and his colleagues didn’t come here today looking for fallen migrants. And yet part of the STHRC’s work is to help identify remains and inform worried families abroad about those who die here on their attempted journey north. The STHRC is a one-of-a-kind organization in this rural Texas county that also tries to prevent the deaths of migrants passing through this rough terrain. And that’s what this trio is doing now – driving through dusty back roads to check on water stations.
Canales, who founded the STHRC three years ago, dedicates much of his time to educating the public about regional migration and migrant deaths. For him, what’s important are the basic needs and rights of any individual.
“This work is needed. There’s a big hole when it comes to this kind of [humanitarian] work in Texas,” Canales says. “The conversation is all about border enforcement. But we are here to place an emphasis on human rights.”
In 2012, Brooks County rose to national attention after scores of unauthorized immigrants perished here in their attempts to bypass on foot a US Border Patrol checkpoint.
Oftentimes, migrants are dropped off by human smugglers before the checkpoint in Falfurrias, Texas. They then walk roughly 40 miles north through land overgrown with cactuses and low trees. Most are unprepared, sometimes wearing dress shoes in hopes of “fitting in” once they come out of the brush on Highway 285. That’s where smugglers typically pick them up again, transporting them to destinations such as Houston and San Antonio.
But in 2012, temperatures here hit extreme highs, and nearly 130 bodies were recovered, according to the Brooks County sheriff’s office. (The number of retrievals went down after that, to 87 in 2013 and 61 in 2014.)
“For every one we recover, there are maybe two still out there,” Canales says.
Around the same time, the county – one of the poorest in the United States – was exposed for not having collected DNA samples or having conducted proper autopsies on those who died within its boundaries.
Looking for help in South Texas
Amid the searing temperatures, families in Mexico and Central America who were worried about missing individuals placed an unusually high number of phone calls to the nongovernmental organizations and volunteer groups in California and Arizona that have a history of helping with such issues. But those groups weren’t familiar with the Rio Grande Valley, and nothing like them existed here.
Enter Canales, who was already known as a labor organizer and activist in South Texas. “I started getting calls, so I started making calls,” he says. “I went to the sheriff’s office, to visit residents with ranches, calling on churches, trying to get an idea of what was going on traffic-wise.”
Born and raised in South Texas, Canales comes from a long line of farmers. “I realized that labor and farm work was something that needed attention,” he says. “The need to help make the situation better came almost instinctively.”
Drawing on his background, Canales founded the STHRC in 2013. He is now a key connector within a large network of US-based agencies and interest groups, local ranchers, Central American consulates, and families abroad.
On a muggy afternoon this April, Canales walks through the Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias. He points out a roped-off plot of land that’s about the size of a small swimming pool. It was here and in a nearby plot in 2013 and 2014 that students from Baylor University and the University of Indianapolis came to exhume more than 100 bodies that had been buried without DNA testing or identification.
“Identity is a right. Every person who dies should have a name on them,” says Sara Katsanis, the instructor from Duke’s Initiative for Science & Society, who is here to learn more about the STHRC and Canales’s work.
Scores of families were searching for the migrants who had been buried here, and thanks to the work of these students and the STHRC, all of them have since been identified. Some have even been repatriated.
These days, it’s common for families searching for loved ones to call Canales. “The first thing people say [when they call] is, “Habla español?” he says. (The answer is yes.)
“I help cut through some of the red tape,” he adds, making calls to detention centers first to see if possibly the missing person has been detained.
“It all comes down to helping a family that’s worrying or grieving,” says colleague Mr. Strand.
Gratitude from the sheriff's office
It’s not just families who are grateful for Canales’s work. At the Brooks County sheriff’s office, Sheriff Rey Rodriguez says his team of six deputies is often overwhelmed by the lack of resources to search for and help migrants in distress.
“Our job is to serve and protect,” Mr. Rodriguez says. “But we’ve lost so many people,” he adds. “My boys want to get involved, and I understand that.”
The STHRC “helps a lot. They are doing something for these migrants and their families.” Canales “is a pain in the butt,” Rodriguez says playfully, “but he’s a huge help for everyone involved.”
In a sparsely populated border region like this, “everyone” includes consular staff.
Sitting in her office in McAllen, Texas, on a recent afternoon, Salvadoran Consul General Ena Úrsula Peña estimates that 30 percent of her workload relates to trying to help desperate families back in El Salvador figure out what has happened to missing loved ones.
“Eddie knows what we’re facing. He knows the area, the land, the authorities,” Ms. Peña says. “He’s a great resource for us.”
Of course, not everyone is on board with what Canales is doing. He’ll find water stations vandalized, or get feedback from ranchers that by offering water, he’s in fact drawing more migrants to the area. But from his point of view, “this [migration] corridor isn’t going to go away anytime soon.” He tries to appeal to residents on a human level, adding, “You can’t get too political – then you lose them.”
Back in Falfurrias, Canales pulls his truck onto the sandy, wildflower-speckled terrain by the side of the road. He’s spotted a large blue plastic barrel emblazoned with the word agua, sitting underneath a tattered white flag.
He hops out of the truck and peels open the top of the barrel. He calls out the inventory: Two one-gallon jugs have been taken, four jugs remain, along with a little surprise: Someone has contributed a handful of small water bottles. “These have been dropped off by people in the community. It shows they care,” Canales says.
The idea that neighbors are aware of what’s happening here, and want to help, makes him feel his work is making a difference. “I think we’ve been able to create a new sense of understanding, or are at least changing the narrative,” he says. “Together, [we] are helping another human being survive.”
• Whitney Eulich’s reporting on the US-Mexican border was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation.
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