Forensic Anthropology Government and Public Policy Law Enforcement

Kari Helgeson, Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State

Operation Identification

After walking transects through the brush and scanning the ground for any trace of human remains, we observed a large cactus surrounding a single femur. With the heat blazing down and sweat soaking our shirts, we began to hack at the massive cactus in hopes of finding more remains of the individual.

The cactus fought back by constantly sinking its spines into our hands despite the thickness of our leather gloves. The feat of knocking the cactus down and being able to identify and repatriate the individual or individuals held captive within it was more important than the multitude of spines sticking out of our skin.

After an hour and a half of hacking away, we successfully discovered a partial os coxa (pelvic bone), an ID card, and a cell phone. The ID card was of an individual from Chiapas, Mexico, which put a name to the remains, and the potential for identification. This search was performed in Falfurrias, Texas on a private ranch. Other than the items found within the cactus, we also found a humerus buried within a rat nest and a fragmentary sacrum. These remains returned with us to Texas State University for further analysis.

During the fall semester of 2016, I completed an internship with the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State (FACTS), and worked specifically with the Operation Identification (OpID) project. OpID works with human remains found along the Texas-Mexico border through skeletal analyses which result in a biological profile. The goal of this analysis is to positively identify and repatriate the remains of presumed migrants who die crossing the border near Brooks County through genetic association.

The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure requires that all unidentified decendents have an autopsy performed and DNA submitted to the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI) for inclusion into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). However, not all counties have followed these laws for various reasons, including an extreme lack of resources (Spradley & Anderson 2016). Out of the 254 counties in Texas, only 12 counties have medical examiners. For those counties without medical examiners, jurisdiction falls to the Justice of the Peace. This miniscule amount of medical examiners in the large state of Texas adds to the reasons the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure is not always followed. Each year, Texas has a large number of migrant deaths along the Texas-Mexico border.  Specifically within Brooks County, in 2011 there were 80 deaths. 2012 saw 129, and 2013 saw 87 (Texas State). This large amount of migrant deaths overwhelms Brooks County. There are not enough medicolegal individuals to perform autopsies on this large amount of individuals. OpID began to help assist with this growing problem.

The project began in 2013 on a completely volunteer basis, when Baylor University and University of Indianapolis teamed up and exhumed remains from Sacred Heart Cemetery in Falfurrias, Texas (TABA). A large number of the remains exhumed were sent to Texas State University to perform biological analyses and work towards facilitating identifications of the individuals. In July of 2014, Baylor University transferred 50 more unidentified individuals to Texas State for further analysis and storage. In January of 2016, Dr. Kate Spradley was awarded a grant through the Ed Rachal Foundation and the Texas Governor’s Office to fund a postdoctoral position and two additional positions to work on the project. In addition to these paid positions, a large amount of the work is done with the help of student and non-student volunteers.

To date, OpID has received 197 sets of remains, 20 of which have been positively identified. Of the individuals identified, nine have been from El Salvador, five from Guatemala, four from Mexico, one from Honduras, and one from Ecuador.

Several factors contribute to contribute to the challenge of locating skeletal remains. One of the problems encountered when trying to identify these migrants include the context surrounding their deposition. Most tend to perish on private ranch land, preventing any systematic search for missing migrants. As a result, the recovery of human remains is sporadic, often spurred by their random discovery by ranch personnel. Furthermore, because individuals are often scavenged by small carnivores and avian predators prior to their discovery in the South Texas brush land, the remains can be scattered through a wide range of land, and some skeletal elements may never be recovered (Anderson 2008). The individual recovered on the private ranch in Falfurrias with the ID card from Chiapas, Mexico was scattered throughout a large area on the ranch. Most of the skeletal elements were not recovered. Those that were recovered were in a rats nest or hidden within a cactus, most likely from scavengers moving the remains.

A few groups work collaboratively to achieve the overall goal of identifying and repatriating presumed migrants along the Texas-Mexico border. Texas State has partnered with the Colibrí Center for Human Rights, Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, South Texas Human Rights Center, and Pima County Office of the Medical Examiner in Arizona. These groups work collaboratively with the Forensic Anthropology Center at Texas State to identify and repatriate as many migrant remains as possible.  Each group offers a slightly different perspective and can gain access to different resources.  The Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, for example, collects family reference samples throughout Latin America. These samples are compared with the DNA samples we collect at Texas State and even Pima County (Anderson & Spradley 2016). The main way to identify these individuals typically comes from the personal effects and identification documents carried on the individuals. The fact that they are not US citizens means their DNA is most likely not in any federal system, such as CODIS. This is why family reference samples are extremely important. The samples allow for a positive ID if the family reference sample can be obtained.

When a new case is brought to Texas State, the case must go through a few steps before an individual can be potentially identified. On arrival, initial intake will be performed, which consists of the individual being brought into the processing room at ORPL where a volunteer will methodically search through the contents of the body bag. Once the bag is open a FACTS volunteer will remove any personal effects. To complete this process, one person remains “clean” to take notes and photographs of the condition of the remains and the contents of the bag. Photographs and notes are taken to document both the present condition and the contents of the bag to ensure artifacts are not separated from their appropriate case. After the clothing is removed from the body, all the pockets must be searched to look for things that were missed by the authorities such as ID cards or other small personal effects. Next, the skeletal remains will be removed and placed in a kettle for processing. Once the intake is complete, the remains are processed (cleaned) so that a skeletal analysis can be conducted. The skeletal analysis will estimate sex, stature, and ethnicity. A DNA sample is submitted to UNT and most likely will not return with a DNA profile for about 6 to 8 months. Once the DNA sample is submitted, a positive identification can be made if a family reference sample matches. A family reference sample is utilized by OpID and law enforcement to confirm genetic relation between family members. One problem with awaiting a family reference sample is that many of the families are from Latin American. These families are not able to provide reference samples in the United States. For many of the cases, a third party organization, the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team (EAAF), collects family reference samples from the families around Latin America and compares them to DNA samples collected by FACTS (Anderson & Spradley 2016).

My internship began with consolidating documents to make sure that each case had the appropriate documentation, including a Brooks County Sherriff’s Office report, death record, transfer of custody, and notes from when the individual was exhumed from Sacred Heart Cemetery. I went through documents, scanned them into the computer, and updated the workflow checklists. I also spent time working in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NamUS). I uploaded photographs of clean personal effects and updated cases with demographic information.

NamUS is a database used to display information about individuals both missing and unidentified. Institutions handling forensic casework, such as Texas State, can upload demographic information about missing persons such as ethnicity, biological sex, and stature: as well as case background such as date found, location found, and personal effects found. Dental information, images of the personal effects discovered with the individual, or any identifying features such as tattoos are also uploaded to each NamUS case. The system will compare missing persons reports with the unidentified persons’ reports for possible matches. Family members can also search the site for demographic information or photos that match their missing relative.

Case 0601 is an example of a case that I saw from start to finish; beginning with the intake process all the way to an identification hypothesis. Case 0601 was brought to Texas State in October of 2016. This individual was mostly skeletonized, with a few personal effects remaining on the individual such as pants, a shirt, and a pair of boots. When the clothing was removed from the body, all the pockets and shoes were searched to make sure nothing was missed. For this case, two ID cards were found placed under the insole of one of the shoes. When migrants have ID cards on them, there is always a possibility that the ID is fake. Typically, if the ID is fake, it is of Mexican origin. If the migrants are caught and deported, they don’t want to return to the faraway place they began. Case 0601 had an ID from Nicaragua. This lead to an ID hypothesis and somewhere to start when looking for a DNA comparison. A DNA sample was collected from the individual and sent to UNT for analysis. Because the ID was from Nicaragua, Texas State reached out to the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team in hopes that they had a missing persons report on file. This team did have a missing persons report on file, which also described some unique dental work the individual had prior to death. This did not serve as a replacement for a DNA match. The DNA match is needed to confirm the positive identification.

I spent a short period of time working with our forensic odontologist, or forensic dentist, who analyzes the migrant cases in hopes of making an identification through the dental work. A dental comparison can lead to a positive identification because the probability of two individuals having the same root orientation, tooth spacing, or unique dental work is extremely low. A dental analysis is performed post-mortem (after death) in the laboratory. If there is an ID hypothesis we will request any ante-mortem (before death) dental records. Although a moderate amount of the individuals at Texas State have dental work, we have not yet been able to obtain antemortem dental records to compare. While working with the forensic odontologist, we performed a dental inventory on the teeth, which documented any cavities and fillings; any dental modifications; number of teeth present; and, if the teeth were missing, whether they were lost ante-mortem or post-mortem. We also took dental X-rays using a portable handheld X-ray machine to look for any other anomalies not visible on the surface.

The fieldwork in Falfurrias throughout my internship opened my eyes to the problems immigrants face. The city of Falfurrias is located 75 miles north of the Mexican border. Many border-crossers are dropped off in Falfurrias to evade the checkpoint, with plans to be picked up on the other side (TABA). Routinely, the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office will locate remains throughout this area as individuals die of dehydration and other natural causes. A group of Texas State representatives spent multiple occasions searching the brush and surrounding areas throughout two different ranches looking for border-crossing individuals– live migrants or their remains. Although during the first trip we did not locate any individuals, we did find a plethora of personal effects, food trash, and water jugs. This demonstrated that many people had passed through this area and made it out alive. This experience was eye opening in that we were partially making the same trek as these migrants; however, we were prepared for the harsh environment. We wore thick clothing and snake guards for protection. We also had an immense amount of water and food, and we traveled with other people. The border-crossers have no idea what troubles lie ahead if they do not take these same precautions, and most are unaware of the environment they are entering. They are escaping their horrible lives in their countries of origin only to get here and realize that they are not equipped to make this week-long or more journey. These individuals are willing to die in the Texas heat rather than stay in their previous living conditions. They pay a stranger to bring them to America and these strangers do not explain what they will encounter; they tell them Houston is a 3 day walk when in reality it is over 200 miles away. There are so many barriers and obstacles these fleeing migrants face, and it is my opinion that we as a country are not doing enough to help these people. Their lives matter just as much as anyone else’s, but yet the more fortunate do not understand what it’s like.  It was on the second trip to Falfurrias that we located the remains and the ID card from Chiapas. This trip was considered a success because we completed the partial recovery started by the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office prior to our arrival. The sheriff’s office located the cranium and asked that we search the surrounding areas for the remaining skeletal remains.

Everything that I am doing in this internship is to help discover who these people are; instead of giving them an unmarked grave, we give them back their identity and their family. Looking at these individuals in front of me who are now reduced to a box of bones and a bag of biohazardous clothes makes my heart hurt because a multitude of  families have no idea where their loved ones are. Who told these people that wearing multiple layers of clothes was a good idea, or that what we know to be the long horrible journey was easy?  The hardships these migrants face is one of the reasons I want to pursue a career in anthropology. I want to better understand the adversities a person may face and help the people who can no longer help themselves. I want to be a voice for those who no longer have one. My internship has put me in a position to recognize these issues, and I now hope to find a way to fix them using my research and experience in anthropology. Bones tell a person’s story even after death. Each set of remains tells the story of an individual; I want to be their advocate and unlock the story that they worked so hard to develop their entire life. I feel that it is my job as an anthropologist moving forward to highlight the great adversities some individuals face and disseminate ways to change the enforcement policies regarding positive identifications of minority groups. Through my internship working with the unidentified migrant remains, I have seen the way these individuals are displaced in death as they are quickly swept up into a body bag by medicolegal authorities and I want to help change that. Because of my internship and working with so many unidentified human remains, seeing the politics behind the difficulty in identifying these people makes me want to reform the way people view migrants using the lens of anthropology.

Figure 1: Chopping down the large mass of cactus surrounding the femur.

Figure 1: Chopping down the large mass of cactus surrounding the femur.


Figure 2: Anthropological team that searched the South Texas Ranches and performed the skeletal recovery in November of 2016.

Figure 2: Anthropological team that searched the South Texas Ranches and performed the skeletal recovery in November of 2016.


Figure 3: Team beginning a line search.

Figure 3: Team beginning a line search.



Anderson BE. 2008. Identifying the dead: methods utilized by the Pima County (Arizona) Office of the Medical Examiner for undocumented border crossers: 2001-2006. J Forensic Sci 53:8-15.

Anderson BE, Spradley MK. 2016. The role of the anthropologist in the identification of migrant remains in the American Southwest. Acad Forensic Pathol: 6(3): 432-438.

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