One of the deadliest corridors along the U.S.-Mexico border is a remote stretch of ranchland in tiny Brooks County (pop. 7,223). Every year, thousands of migrants hike a network of remote trails through the scrub and mesquite to bypass the last Border Patrol checkpoint on U.S. Highway 281, headed north.
If migrants make it around the checkpoint on foot, it’s a straight shot by car or bus to San Antonio, Austin, and other points north. But many never make it.
At least 33 migrants have died since April in Brooks County and more than 160 have been rescued since October. The majority of deaths and rescues occur in the hottest months of summer.
This summer has been especially deadly, with unrelenting triple-digit heat and drought. In July, Border Patrol launched “Operation Heatwave” to find and rescue migrants suffering from dehydration, heat stroke and other illnesses in the rugged terrain.
Border Patrol’s Search, Trauma, and Rescue team rescues migrants by helicopter. The agency has also deployed extra agents to patrol the ground. Border Patrol agents work in tandem with the Brooks County Sheriff’s Office—often the first to discover bodies in the brush.
“It’s very sad,” says Brooks County Chief Deputy Benny Martinez. “We receive calls from all over the world from relatives searching for loved ones. Recently, we had a call from Peru looking for a missing young man in his 20s.”
Martinez says migrants often become disoriented in the heat and wander for hours until they perish. Others are rescued just in time. “Most of the people we interview already have jobs waiting for them, they have relatives in the United States,” Martinez says. “They tell us they just want to work.”
Operation Heatwave will remain in effect until the end of September, but Martinez says he will keep sending officers out to look for people after the program ends. There are more than 100 paths traveled by migrants throughout Brooks County, he says. The trails have been used for generations. Every year the trek becomes more dangerous, with the drug war in Mexico and the security buildup on the U.S. side of the border. Still, the migrants keep coming. Some never leave Brooks County, Martinez says.
“Each one of these bodies was a person with a family, with their own story and somewhere someone is still waiting for them to arrive.”