Eddie Canales can’t forget the moment he saw the decomposed body of a young man in his 20s hanging from an oak tree on a south Texas ranch last September.
The intense heat and humidity in this arid scrubland had quickly rotted his flesh to expose much of the skeleton, which had been at the scene for at least a week.
Clearly visible in a graphic image the sheriff’s office provided to the Guardian was the skull, lolling to one side. And both his feet are missing, probably eaten by wild animals.
The man was from Mexico, according to ID documents found. Police explored the possibility it was a lynching, but concluded it was suicide.
“Most of the bodies I encounter are already skeletonized,” said Canales, who runs the South Texas Human Rights Center, a non-profit based in Brooks county, Texas, working to put an end to the avoidable, harsh deaths, and reunite families with the remains of loved ones.
“But this was particularly harrowing. That image will stay with me forever,” he added.
Brooks county covers almost 1,000 square miles of sparse, brush-covered, sandy ranch lands not far from the eastern end of the US-Mexico border and is at the heart of a deadly migration crisis that is seeing desperate people die in record numbers.
So high is the grim toll that the surrounding region, spanning several Texas counties near the Rio Grande, has been called the other Death Valley.
Data bears out that terrible nickname: the Missing Migrants Project, an initiative by the Swiss-based International Organization for Migration (IOM) that tracks migrant deaths and disappearances globally, recorded 715 deaths of people trying to cross the US border from Mexico in 2021 – more than double the figure in 2015, making it the deadliest land crossing in the world.
Of the four US states along the border, Texas has the longest stretch and the highest number of migrant deaths, according to a report by the University of Texas’s Strauss Center. Brooks county, where authorities recovered 119 bodies last year, has had more deaths than any other Texas county over the last three decades.