In the summer of 2012, longtime community organizer Eddie Canales received a call for help from California. Rafael Hernandez—founder of The Desert Angels, a San Diego-based humanitarian search-and-rescue organization—told Canales he’d received several calls from immigrant families whose relatives had gone missing in South Texas’ rural Brooks County. “‘People are lost, they’ve disappeared. I’m getting all of these calls. Can you help me find out what’s going on there?’” Canales remembers Hernandez asking him.
The 66-year-old Canales lives in Corpus Christi, just 80 miles from Brooks County, yet like most Texans he was unaware that hundreds of bodies of unidentified migrants had been found on the county’s rugged ranchlands over the past decade. In 2012 the number of deaths began to climb. Violence and poverty in Central America and Mexico, and a crackdown on other corridors along the U.S.-Mexico border, had funneled even more migrants through Brooks County, 70 miles north of the Rio Grande.
They must hike through the brush to avoid a Border Patrol checkpoint near the small town of Falfurrias, in Brooks County. Smugglers drop off migrants south of the checkpoint, and they must walk north for several hours through scrub brush and deep sand to escape detection by immigration agents. Many get lost or sick in the rugged terrain and perish from heat exposure and dehydration. In 2012, 129 bodies were recovered from ranches in the area, and in 2013, 87 bodies were found. Many of them remain unidentified.
“People are dying out there,” Canales says. “We need to rescue them.” Some human rights organizations and advocates decided to get involved, including Maria Jimenez, a human rights activist from Houston, and the nonprofit Texas Civil Rights Project. The first step was to push the county to conduct DNA tests on the unidentified bodies so families could locate their loved ones. They made great strides, but Canales realized that there was no one on the ground in Brooks County to keep the movement going. Jimenez, a longtime friend, suggested the recently retired Canales do it. “My friend Maria the organizer organized me,” he says, laughing.
In November 2013, Canales opened the South Texas Human Rights Center in Falfurrias. The one-room office across from the county courthouse has become the center of a concerted humanitarian effort to save lives. Canales, who subsists on his union pension and Social Security, is the sole employee. He relies on his own money and donations to keep the doors open. At least three days a week, he makes the hour-long drive from Corpus Christi to work in the center, and he has big plans for the future. For the past year, Canales has been working with local ranchers to put out water stations along the migrant routes to help prevent dehydration and save lives, especially during the summer when the temperature soars above 100 degrees. He’s also working with a coalition of volunteers in 13 South Texas counties to make sure that unidentified bodies receive DNA tests and that the information is put in a database so families can find their loved ones. “There’s no telling how many unknown graves with John Does are out there,” he says.
Canales also hopes to change the mindset of residents in rural Brooks County and surrounding areas about the undocumented people passing through their ranches, which many see as a nuisance or a threat. “It’s a complicated issue that many families are divided on. Some ranch owners don’t want anything to do with setting up a water station on their land. They see it in only black and white: [immigrants] broke the law coming into this country,” he says. “While others are more sympathetic to their situation. Most of these people just want to work.”
To learn more or donate to support water stations this summer, visit the South Texas Human Rights Center site.