A labor of love ‘beyond borders’

 

UIndy-Falfurrias-1Forensic archeologists brave harsh conditions

This was not your typical summer break from college. Five University of Indianapolis students, led by their professor, headed to southern Texas in June to spend nearly two weeks digging holes in 100-degree-plus temperatures and oppressive humidity, with more than a few snakes, spiders, and scorpions as company. Their ongoing mission, supported  in part by their own fundraising efforts, is humanitarian and not for the squeamish. These are forensic scientists, volunteering time and expertise to exhume human remains and begin the process of identifying undocumented migrants who have died in remote ranch country after crossing the U.S. border.

The worksite is in rural Brooks County, Texas, where hundreds of the missing—many of them women and children—have been buried in pauper graves in a small cemetery. Some are best described as refugees, fleeing drug-related gang violence in their home countries. The phenomenon is playing out in border communities across the Southwest, and local officials often lack the resources to identify or even properly bury the remains. Meanwhile, desperate relatives throughout Latin America and Asia await word on their missing loved ones.UIndy’s Dr. Krista Latham, assistant professor of biology and anthropology on campus and director of field operations for the project, calls it “a human-rights crisis.” The work is part of a broader initiative overseen by the International Consortium of Forensic Identification, whose members include Latham, Associate Professor Lori Baker of Baylor University, and Associate Professor Kate Spradley of Texas State University.

Humanitarians return

29This was a return trip for Latham and her four graduate students, who began work on the project in 2013: Jessica Campbell of LaFarge, Wis.; Erica Christensen of Indianapolis; Justin Maiers of Lapeer, Mich.; and Ryan Strand of Irving, Texas. All are pursuing master’s degrees in human biology at UIndy, and all are experienced in the techniques of forensic archeology. The University of Indianapolis Archeology & Forensics Laboratory is often the first call for assistance when human remains are discovered in Indiana and surrounding states, and students assist with field and lab work on those cases. Last summer, Baker invited the UIndy crew to Sacred Heart Burial Park in the small town of Falfurrias, Texas, where they helped to reclaim more than 100 sets of remains in hopes that DNA testing will someday identify the victims and bring peace to their families. They also shipped some remains back to the UIndy lab, where they conducted skeletal analysis as a preliminary step in identification.

This year, the UIndy group included rookie Cheneta Morrison, who just earned her bachelor’s degree in biology and also holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from UIndy. The work was even more challenging, as the volunteers tackled a section of the cemetery where the burials are older, deeper, and unmarked. With assistance from a number of Baylor students, whom they trained in basic forensic archeology skills, the team conducted 52 exhumations, many involving remains from more than one individual. They also assisted local officials in recovering a partially skeletonized body from a nearby ranch. Some remains are being shipped to the UIndy lab for analysis.

The crew members’ experiences are powerfully recounted in words, photos, and video at their Beyond Borders blog site. Latham, in one of her first entries, discussed the difficulty of leaving her own six-year-old son for two weeks in order to carry out the project. “But the thought that keeps me going is that I am temporarily leaving my family to reunite other families,” she wrote. “I will get to hug and kiss my son again, but there are hundreds of mothers whose children are buried unidentified in the Sacred Heart Burial Park who cannot say the same thing. . . . Their families deserve to mourn and grieve over the loved ones they have lost.”

Visit ‘Beyond Borders’

24Read journal entries, view a compelling 10-minute video, and learn how to support the ongoing Beyond Borders project at http://beyondborders.uindy.edu. See additional photos by Guy Housewright in the photo gallery below.

 

 

 

 

 

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