Kim Wile, Operation Identification at Texas State

Hundreds of individuals from countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico travel thousands of miles trying to reach the border of the United States of America. These people are often fleeing from poverty, war, political corruption, and violence that dominate the landscape of their country. Many of these undocumented border crossers (UBC) are successful in their journey, but some are not so fortunate. 

Operation Identification is a program at Texas State University that works to identify migrant remains that are found in South Texas. The program was founded in 2013 by Dr. Kate Spradley of Texas State University. She identified the need to bring closure to families by assisting in the identification and repatriation of these individuals. Because of the humanitarian aspect of the program, I chose to complete my internship with Operation Identification. 

Migration Crisis at the South Texas Border

The city of Falfurrias in Brooks County has been the focus of Operation Identification over the past few years, due to its high number of recorded deaths of unidentified or undocumented people. Because of a policy called “Prevention through Deterrence”, many counties have built and increased their number of border patrol checkpoints. Many UBCs try to bypass authorities here by entering the private ranch lands that surround it (Anderson and Spradley 2016: 434). This is where their journey gets dangerous. These lands are often flat and covered in brush and without a compass, it is easy to get turned around. A person traveling in this area could walk for miles in a circle without even knowing it. Dehydration and weather conditions are most often the cause of death cited on death certificates. Summer months see temperatures anywhere between 90 to 100 degrees, with high humidity and low precipitation. Winter months see lower temperatures, but the threat of dehydration still exists.

From 2009 to 2013, 326 sets of human remains were found and buried by Brooks County officials (Spradley et. al. 2018: 2).  Human remains are most often found by ranch owners and their staff while out on the property. The Brooks County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) responds, along with a Border Patrol agent, and the Justice of the Peace for that area. Photographs are taken, and any personal effects are logged on the police report. The JP records the cause of death and the local funeral home is called out to retrieve the remains. If the decedent has identification, then the funeral home will try to contact family for repatriation. If no identification is found, then the remains are sent to one of the local cemeteries for burial (Anderson & Spradley 2016: 434). These burials are frequently undocumented and unmarked within the cemetery. 

Operation Identification took in its first set of remains in 2013. Initial exhumations were performed by Baylor University and Indianapolis University. Today Operation Identification works with south Texas local cemeteries and BCSO to identify UBC burials. About twice a year, OpID travels to Falfurrias, Texas, to exhume potential UBC’s. There, Dr. Spradley, graduate, and undergraduate volunteers exhume human remains and take them back to the Texas State Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF). These exhumations take place in several local cemeteries. 

Processing and Repatriation

The counties in which the UBC’s are most frequently found are small rural areas that lack the funding to fully handle a disaster of this magnitude. Texas has counties that are covered by medical examiners, but those counties are few and far between. The smaller and less populated counties are under the jurisdiction of justices of the peace. The JPs are responsible for more than just identifying human remains. They oversee cases involving hot checks, traffic violations, and other municipal duties. 

Counties such as Brooks do not have the money needed to cover costs associated with multiple death investigations. The counties are responsible for covering costs when it comes to unidentified human remains. This includes the 270 cases recovered by OpID. This changed in 2012, when the immigration crisis and the struggle within Brooks county was brought to the attention of Texas lawmakers. More funding has been allotted to Brooks County to ensure that all remains that are unidentified are sent to a medical examiner’s office for further investigation (Anderson and Spradley 2016[RNH1] [KW2] ).

As part of my internship, I was given the opportunity to complete a full case report on one of the unidentified individuals that had been brought back to Texas State during one of the exhumations at Falfurrias. A full case report includes completing a skeletal inventory, documenting personal effects, performing a biological profile, and creating a missing person report in NamUs.

Performing a skeletal inventory on remains of this type can be tricky. The point of the process is to document condition the remains are in and whether any skeletal pieces are missing. My background in osteology makes this process easier, but sometimes the smaller bones are hard to find within the body bag. With the assistance of several other students, I was able to complete the skeletal inventory. Next, the bones were placed into a kettle for further processing.  Once the bones were ready, they were hand washed for further analysis. 

Personal effects are removed at the same time the skeletal inventory is being completed. OpID volunteers hand wash and photograph everything that was found along with the remains. Personal effects include every item that was retrieved with the remains, and items range from pieces of clothing to prayer cards to bottles of cologne.  Regardless of how trivial an item might seem, it is documented, cleaned, and photographed. The pictures are then uploaded into the National Missing and Unidentified Person system (NamUs) for public viewing. The use of this tool is paramount in the identification process. Families of missing loved ones will often use NamUS to search for any items that may belong to those they are looking for. 

After the bones of my case had been cleaned and dried, I was ready to start the biological profile. The profile consists of several steps. This is when the sex, age, ancestry, and stature are estimated. Scoring can be difficult though, especially if there are any missing elements or deterioration. I began my biological profile with sex estimation. The sex estimation is completed using observation procedures found in the book Standards for Data collection from Human Skeletal Remains (Buikstra and Ubelaker 1994). The book describes and gives scoring metrics for several key sites on the os coxa, or hip bone. The os coxae of women are usually broader than men’s, due to their ability to give birth. Based on my measurements, the remains were those of a man. 

Next, I estimated stature. These measurements are made by examining and measuring several skeletal elements, such as the skull, vertebrae, and several long bones. Once the measurements were completed, I input the data into a spreadsheet, and it calculated the stature for me. The estimated stature of the case I was processing was 5’1” to 5’4”. 

My next step was to do a full set of cranial and post-cranial measurements. The instructions for performing each measurement are found in Data Collection Procedures for Skeletal Material 2.0 (Langley et. al. 2016). I took the measurements with an osteometric board, sliding calipers, and spreading calipers. Once the measurements were taken, I entered them into a software program called Fordisc. This program uses statistical methods to estimate sex, stature, and ancestry. According to my data, the remains belonged to a man that was biologically close to those of Hispanic ancestry.

For estimating ancestry, I used the Fordisc software. It is a helpful tool but certainly has its limits. The software contains skeletal measurements from individuals in several ethnic categories, such as American White, American Black, Guatemalan, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic. For my specific case, the measurements gave me an ancestry estimation of “Hispanic”. This category is problematic. The samples used for the “Hispanic” estimations are based on measurements taken from migrant deaths located on the U.S.-Mexico border between the years of 2000-2012. While some of the individuals found at the border are indeed from Mexico, many of them are not. Arizona sees the largest amounts of deaths from Mexico, while Texas identifies individuals from other countries, such as El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. If we are using Fordisc to help repatriate individuals to their home countries, an estimation of “Hispanic” is not very helpful (Spradley 2014).

The next part of the case report was focused on the teeth of the individual. OpID is fortunate to have forensic odontologists on staff to assist with investigations. Dr. JP Fancher and I worked together to complete a full set of dental radiographs on my specific case. These radiographs can tell us a lot about the age and overall health of the individual. For example, maxillary and mandibular molar 3’s, or wisdom teeth, usually start to erupt around the age of 16. If my case was found to have had unerupted wisdom teeth, then we could assume that he was 16 years of age or younger. We also looked at the dental morphology and overall condition of the teeth. There are certain traits that appear on teeth that can be tied to specific geographic regions. These traits are important to identify, as they can give us clues as to where individuals come from.  

The last task I needed to perform was age estimation. As with the sex estimation, I needed to observe certain key areas on the os coxa. I used the guidelines found in the Data Collection Procedures for Skeletal Material 2.0 (Langley et. al. 2016) to make my estimation. The preservation for this case was good, so it was easy for me to observe and score these areas. When I was observing the os coxa, I was looking for signs of wear and tear. At a young age, certain features are more prominent, and as a person ages those features wear down. I estimated the age of the case I was working on as between 24 and 38 years of age.

Once the biological profile was complete, it was time to take pictures.  Photographs of the skeleton are taken to add to the final anthropology report and to upload to NamUs. Photographs include one overall photo, pictures of the dental arcade, and any pathologies or abnormalities that may be displayed on the remains.

 Pathologies, trauma, and other skeletal alterations are important to include, because they can help in the identification process. For example, reporting that a person has a hip replacement or dentures along with the biological profile can greatly increase the chances of identification. Pathologies that are typically identified on skeletal remains include diseases such as tuberculosis, syphilis, and spina bifida. Trauma can be seen in bones that have been broken and healed before death.

With the biological profile completed, a DNA sample is taken and sent to an outside facility. OpID sends the sample to University of North Texas for processing. Once UNT has completed the DNA test, the information is uploaded into NamUS. This process can take anywhere from 2 weeks to several months. 

Family members of missing persons can submit their own DNA samples to allow for cross referencing in the system and are assisted through this process by a nongovernmental organization. These organizations are the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team, South Texas Center for Human Rights, Colibrí Center for Human Rights, foreign consulates, and the USCBP Missing Migrant Program. It is because of these NGO’s that several unidentified remains have been identified and repatriated. 

My next and final tasks were to complete the anthropology report and upload all my collected data into NamUs. The report consists of taking all my estimations and compiling them into one document. The document must be completed and uploaded with the photographs and radiographs into NamUs. Each estimation is discussed and justified within the report. Along with the report, I uploaded pictures of clothing, the radiographs of the teeth, and several other pictures of the skeleton. I then entered the decedent’s estimated age, sex, ancestry, and stature. The pictures of the teeth and skeleton are made private, and are only viewable to those with either medical, legal, or other type of special clearance. 


With the completion of my case report came the ending of my internship. I learned about the hardships immigrants face and the dangers involved in trying to find freedom. I was introduced to several new methods of osteological measurements, which I know will be useful further into my career. My internship allowed me to work with professionals whose tasks include duties I wish to perform once I graduate and find employment. My skill set, and my knowledge were both improved upon during this internship. Overall, I am honored and grateful for this opportunity to be a part of a program such as Operation Identification. 

References Cited

Anderson, B. E., and Spradley, M. K. 

 2016   The Role of the Anthropologist in the Identification of Migrant Remains in the American Southwest. Academic Forensic Pathology, 6(3): 432–438.

Buikstra, J. E., and Ubelaker, D. H. 

1994     Standards for data collection from human skeletal remains. Fayetteville: Arkansas Archaeological survey Research Series NO. 44.

Langley, N.R., Jantz, L.M., Ousley, S.D., Jantz, R.L., and Milner, G.

2016    Data Collection Procedures for Forensic skeletal Material 2.0. Knoxville: Tennessee

Spradley, M. K. 

2014    Toward Estimating Geographic Origin of Migrant Remains Along the United States-Mexico Border: Origin of Migrant Remains Along the United States-Mexico Border. Annals of Anthropological Practice, 38(1): 101–110.

Spradley, M.K., Herrmann, N.P., Siegert, C.B., and McDaneld, C.P.

2018    Identifying migrant remains in South Texas: policy and practice, Forensic Sciences Research, DOI: 10.1080/20961790.2018.1497437