Evelin Gabriela Gue, center in the red chair, sits alongside other family members in Pachali, Guatemala. Daniele Volpe for The Washington Post

EAGLE PASS, Tex. — The undertaker lighted a cigarette and held it between his latex-gloved fingers as he stood over the bloated body bag lying in the bed of his battered pickup truck.

The woman had been fished out of the Rio Grande minutes earlier. Now, her body lay stiff as mortician Jesus “Chuy” Gonzalez drove away from the muddy boat ramp and toward an overcrowded freezer, passing mobile homes and a casino along the way.

Maverick County purchased the trailer during the pandemic to handle COVID-19 victims. It was designed to hold 20 bodies but on this day held 28 – the putrefied remains testifying to two dozen shattered dreams of reaching the United States. Only half had names.

Gonzalez didn’t flinch as he swung the freezer’s doors open. He has been around so much death that the stench of decomposition no longer bothers him. A large silver Virgen de Guadalupe dangled from his chest as he maneuvered the woman into a wooden barrack.

Nearby lay the body of a man whose arms were frozen as if he were blocking a blow. His jeans and shoes were still covered in river mud and his face marbled with sickly discoloration. Several members of a Venezuelan family who drowned together were also scattered inside the trailer. They had been there since mid-November.

Record-level migration has brought record-breaking death to Maverick County, a border community that is ground zero in the feud between Texas and the Biden administration over migration. Whereas in a typical month years ago, officials here might have recovered one or two bodies from the river, more recently they have handled that amount in a single day. While border crossings draw the most attention in the national debate about immigration, the rising number of deaths in the Rio Grande has gone largely unnoticed.


First responders have run out of body bags and burial plots. Their rescue boats and recovery trucks are covered in dents and scratches, scars from navigating through the brush to retrieve floating bodies. County officials say they don’t have the training or supplies to collect DNA samples of each unidentified migrant as required by state law, meaning bodies are sometimes left in fridges for months or even buried with scant attempt to identify them.

At one point in 2022, as the body count rose, officials buried migrants in a potter’s field, their graves marked with crosses made out of PVC pipes. Over the past month, the number of deaths has dropped as migrant crossings dip, but officials are still girding themselves for another increase later this spring. To prepare, they are creating a new space to bury unidentified migrants, the boundaries already demarcated with wooden sticks spray-painted red and lodged into the dirt.

Maverick County Attorney Jaime Iracheta said that the border community budgeted $100,000 of a nearly $4 million grant from Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) border security initiative, Operation Lone Star, toward handling migrant remains but that auditors now expect they will need to spend over $1 million.

“I have one now. I had one yesterday. I’m going to have more this week,” Jeannie Smith, a justice of the peace tasked with recording migrant deaths, said in February. “There is an overwhelming sense of ‘What are we going to do?’ You want to make sure they get back to their loved ones, but it’s too many people crossing the river. Where do we put the bodies?”

The crude and haphazard manner in which migrant bodies are often being stored, identified and buried here is adding to the indignity of their deaths. It is also compounding the anguish of relatives, many of whom wait months or years to learn about the fate of loved ones, if at all.

On that January afternoon, officials at least had a clue as to who the woman was. After plucking her body out of a bend downriver from Shelby Park, where Texas forces have seized city land and set up a makeshift base, they searched her body and found an ID tucked into her bra.


Her name was Irma Marivel Cú Chub. Maybe someone would inquire.

Migrants are drawn to this stretch of Texas borderland 150 miles east of San Antonio because it is perceived as relatively safe. The city of Piedras Negras across the river in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila reports fewer migrant kidnappings and extortion cases than other border communities. But the Rio Grande is a different story.

On certain days the turbid water is only knee-deep. But a dam upriver periodically releases water, changing the depth. Smooth rocks beneath the surface make it hard to find a grip. And a powerful undercurrent can drown even the strongest. Videos on social media showing migrants easily crossing lure many into a false sense of comfort.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection rescues along the nation’s southwest border have been skyrocketing, jumping from 2,920 in fiscal 2019 to 37,323 in 2023. Current data for the Del Rio sector, which includes Maverick County, isn’t available, but older records show the number of migrants in need of help has been on the rise. There were 2,000 rescues in fiscal 2021, compared with 480 in 2019.

Meanwhile, the number of deaths is also mounting. Border Patrol agents documented 281 fatalities along the southwest border in 2018; that figure had climbed to 895 in 2022, the last year for which data is available. Those numbers are an undercount because agents are not called to every incident. The Del Rio sector reported more deaths than any other.

Some of the deaths involve migrants found in the region’s vast ranchlands – hot places where dehydration can quickly turn lethal. But in Maverick, most succumb to the Rio Bravo, as it is known in Mexico – the furious river.


National Guard members load into boats to patrol the Rio Grande. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

Firefighter and emergency medical technician Marcos Kypuros is usually one of the first to respond. His shifts used to consist of responding to car wrecks or the occasional grass fire, but now it is recovery calls that crackle on most days across the radio. During two weeks this past November, all seven drowning victims were children. He tries not to talk about it at home with his family and dreads the detailed, obligatory debriefings with his supervisors, because of what he has to remember.

“It got to the point where I’d put them in the body bags in a way so that I wouldn’t have to even see their faces anymore,” he said.

When a call comes in, he slips on two sets of gloves and grabs a rope and his pike pole. It’s normally used for tearing down walls and poking holes in burning buildings. But he discovered it also works well for pulling “floaters” – the ballooned cadavers of drowning victims – out of the brush along the river without getting wet. After two to three days in the water, gases build up inside the human body until the corpse inflates and bobs to the surface.

Two days after pulling Cú Chub to shore, Kypuros was summoned to the river again. This time the corpse of an older man was discovered facedown in the water. Border Patrol agents were using their boats to try to create waves and push the body toward land – a practice that helps emergency responders retrieve the bodies more easily from shore.

He and a colleague pulled the unwieldy body, about twice the man’s weight in life, over an embankment. It slid down the other side, flapping about like a wet banana peel. All Kypuros could think about was whether anyone was looking for the man.

The corpse was placed in Slot 14 of the morgue trailer.


Deputy Sgt. Aaron Horta is next at the scene. He searches the dead for scars, tattoos, birthmarks and clothing that might signal who they were. As illegal crossings have surged, he has built a collection of hundreds of images.

When he photographs the dead, Horta changes out of his tan uniform with a stiff collar and into old black, loose fitting polos he eventually throws out. He carries Vicks VapoRub to smear under his nose, downs menthol lozenges and sticks air fresheners in his car vents to mask the odor. It’s harder to suppress what he’s seen and heard.

“If they’ve been in the water awhile, their skin gets pruned and webby and starts to peel off. Their eyes, nose and mouth get swollen,” Horta said with a far-off look in his eyes. “For a while, I couldn’t sleep.”

By the end of 2022, Horta had recorded 225 deaths. He said it bothers him when no one claims a body, so he tries to do what he can. This past Thanksgiving, 11-year-old Cristal Tercero Medrano of Nicaragua drowned while wearing a bright yellow Tweety Bird sweater. Horta worked with Border Patrol agents to identify her. Not long after, they found the girl’s family. Relatives sent in a photo of Cristal wearing the same yellow sweater.

“I get mad, as the father of a little girl,” Horta said. “There should be a process that isn’t the river. It gets to me, but I have to be a professional.”

A justice of the peace helps with the paperwork. Oftentimes, that official is Smith, a warm, perky grandmother quick to laughter. She has been a justice for 14 years and works out of an aging blue trailer. From inside she listens to a police scanner, turning up the volume when something catches her ear.


A corpse in Eagle Pass, part of Maverick County, Tex. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

Smith decides whether a body will be sent for an autopsy – either because the corpse’s condition raises questions about how the person died or law enforcement requests it or to ensure DNA is collected to aid with identification.

For Smith, the increase in deaths has made it practically impossible to respond to each one herself. When she can’t, officers send her photos that she forwards to her work email, lest a grandchild playing with her phone accidentally comes across something graphic.

As she swiped through the images in her photo album, she landed on one of a boy in his late teens who had been in the river so long that the current had wiped the features of his face away. In another, the braces inside the mouth of a sun-scorched child were still visible. Behind Smith were rows of folders detailing each death.

“River. River. Ranch. Ranch,” she said as she thumbed through the files. “John Doe. Jane Doe. John Doe. Fetus, the mother gave birth at the river, but the baby didn’t survive. They come from everywhere. I say a little prayer for each one.”

Sometimes the bodies are found with ID cards and passports. Other times a surviving witness or inquiring family member helps identify them. Then there are the cases where there are no names and few clues.

In those cases, DNA offers the most promising tool to find out who died. Texas requires law enforcement agencies to collect DNA from any unidentified body and submit it to the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a public database with information on John and Jane Does. However, interviews with law enforcement, migrant families and forensic researchers indicate that officials are not always taking DNA samples before burying the dead.


Mohammad Dahhan, a Syrian war refugee, drowned while trying to cross the Rio Grande in August 2022. He had been living in Brazil with his wife and three sons for the past decade. Together they ran a popular Arab restaurant out of their São Paulo garage. But the pandemic hurt sales. Then Dahhan’s mother turned gravely ill.

She was living in the United States as a refugee, and he grew desperate to see her.

Dahhan had tried several times to get a visa, even hiring a lawyer to prepare documents, but his requests were repeatedly denied his wife, Razan Suliman, said in an interview. A friend had successfully crossed the border illegally. Dahhan contacted the smuggler. The coyote agreed to help once he flew into Mexico.

But the man stopped answering Dahhan’s calls as soon as he arrived, his wife said. He traveled to the border alone, Suliman tracking her husband using an app on her iPhone. They were in contact up until the moment he reached the river.

“I asked him, ‘How is the water?’ and he said, ‘It is fine, it’s knee height,’” she recalled of their final conversation. “‘I can see the children doing it.’”

After he waded in, the app could no longer find him.


At the time, Maverick County was running out of space to store unidentified bodies and was overwhelmed, three county officials said. Within weeks, Dahhan was buried in a potter’s field. A cross made out of white PVC tubes marked the spot of his tomb. A small metal plate with a number was the only thing to identify him. No DNA sample was taken.

His body remained there for months until Texas State University researchers offered to help the county identify migrants buried at the cemetery. The graves had sunk in from recent downpours. In all, there were 26 people believed to have perished while trying to reach the United States. The county had not taken DNA samples for any of them, according to county officials and funeral home workers.

The team had just started examining Dahhan’s exhumed corpse when his father showed up. He was searching for his son and suspected he might have drowned near Eagle Pass. He walked up to the cemetery and asked what was going on, two people at the dig recalled.

Much to their surprise, researchers found Dahhan’s passport when they exhumed his remains. Despite having identification on him, officials had not used it to try to confirm his name. Don White, a law enforcement officer on the dig, took a DNA sample from the father in hopes of confirming the identity of his son. That same day he told them what they had suspected: The man inside the grave was indeed Dahhan.

After the identification was made, the forensic team gave the father a moment with his son to grieve, recalled Kate Spradley, a forensic scientist at Texas State who has spent a decade helping authorities identify migrant remains across South Texas. The father did not return messages from a Washington Post reporter regarding the case.

Delays in identifying migrant remains continue. It wasn’t until early March that law enforcement officials began collecting DNA from unidentified migrants in the trailer, some of whom had been there for months.


“There’s no dignity in this,” Spradley said. “But this is what our state deems acceptable.”

Maverick County Judge Ramsey English-Cantu said mistakes in failing to properly identify migrants such as Dahhan happened under his predecessor. He said he is making changes to ensure those errors don’t happen again.

“There is a more coordinated effort,” said English-Cantu, the county’s highest-ranking elected official. He said it’s unfair that his tiny jurisdiction would be expected to handle so much without help. “It’s been a challenge, but we have finally gotten to the point where everyone is at the table.”

The haphazard process of identifying remains leaves families to do much of the work themselves. Funeral homes also fill the void. Relatives looking for family members call searching for clues. When remains are identified, morticians work with consular officials to repatriate the body.

Clothing caught in razor wire fencing on farmland near the Rio Grande in Quemado, part of Maverick County, Tex. Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post

At first, Memorial Funeral Chapel processed the cases for free. Now it is invoicing the county $1,200 for every cadaver transport. It’s unsustainable, elected officials said.

“How can a tiny county survive with 200 cases of immigrants dying a year?” said County Treasurer Rito Valdez III, who is also one of the three morticians handling the bodies.


By early March, the number of bodies in the trailer holding Cú Chub’s corpse had grown to 40. The county commission requested two additional refrigerators to handle the overflow after inquiries from The Post. For now, their plan is to continue storing bodies until more money becomes available for transportation and autopsy fees, according to three people who attended a recent county meeting to discuss the issue.

As they wait for answers, relatives mine Facebook pages dedicated to reuniting dead migrants with their loved ones. They post photos of bodies. Sometimes a jacket or a tattoo offers a hint. Other times, news organizations broadcast images of identification cards found with bodies.

That is how Cú Chub’s daughter found her.

It started with a shakedown. Extortion is common in Guatemala, and families with little money are frequent targets. Cú Chub, a Mayan seamstress, mortgaged her house to pay the gang harassing them the equivalent of $4,000, said her daughter, Evelin Gabriela Gue. However the family struggled to pay the loan and was on the verge of losing their home.

They weighed their options and landed on sending someone to America to earn money. Deciding who should go was more complicated. Gue had a young child. Her father, Cú Chub’s husband, was ill. As the matriarch, Cú Chub was the pillar of the family.

Cú Chub grew up in Cobán, a rural Indigenous community in Guatemala’s northern coffee-growing region, where mountains are laden with orchids. At 15, she traveled to the capital, where she met her husband and found grueling work in textile factories. The couple had four children and settled in a cinder block home in a far-flung suburb among other Mayan-speaking families, commuting up to four hours a day to work long hours for poor pay.


She was a gifted modiste, her family said and chronicled the milestones of her growing family by pasting 5-by-7-inch photographs inside a wrinkled notebook. She kept spools of thread at her sewing table for her own projects, primarily for her grandchildren.

It’s unclear why the family was targeted. But this year they took out another bank loan, this time to pay $10,000 to a smuggler.

On Jan. 15, Cú Chub left at 4 a.m. without telling anyone. In frequent WhatsApp messages to her daughter, she described a lengthy and harrowing journey to the border.

One stash house was filled with cockroaches and rats. People urinated on themselves inside the tractor-trailer they were traveling in through Mexico. There were times she neither ate nor drank water.

“Make sure you wash your father’s clothes the way I do. Feed him please,” she said. “Take care of each other, respect each other, and don’t mistreat one another.”

Gue used WhatsApp to try to track her mother’s location, but the smugglers would sometimes order the migrants to turn off their phones. Cú Chub’s daughter sent photos and videos of her grandchildren to keep her spirits up. One showed them running into their grandmother’s bedroom one morning expecting to have their ritual bread and coffee together.


But “Tete” wasn’t there. The child began sobbing.

“Tell them not to cry,” she texted back. “Everything is going to be okay.”

As they approached the border, the smugglers divided the 40 migrants into two groups. One was sent to the desert, the other to the river.

Cú Chub would cross by water.

“I can’t deny it, I am nervous and trembling,” she said in a Jan. 25 audio message. “But I know God will give me the strength. … We have suffered, but here we are, in God’s hands. I am confident that He is with me no matter what happens.”

Cú Chub told her daughter to pray because the river had risen and was high.


“En el nombre de Dios nos vamos,” Cú Chub said in the last recording she sent her daughter. “In God’s name, here we go.”


Gue sent her mother messages but got no response, each single check mark indicating her notes hadn’t gone through, amplifying her worry.

Then, six days later, Gue stumbled across a Mexican television station report on YouTube stating that five migrants had died crossing the Rio Grande. It broadcast a close-up photo of her mother’s identification card – her ghostly grayscale mug shot blown up against a light-blue-and-white background, Guatemala’s national colors.

Gue refused to believe it. Why did the report show only her ID? The journalist could have just found it, she thought. It doesn’t mean she drowned. Her mother was a good swimmer. The 21-year-old reasoned that she needed more proof.

But as the days passed with no word from her mother, acceptance crept in. Then Guatemala’s Department of Foreign Affairs called to let them know a funeral home in Eagle Pass had Cú Chub’s remains.

“I never should have let her go,” Gue told herself. “It should’ve been me.”

Gue said she and her relatives are still struggling with denial and hoping that the body Texas officials found was not her mother. They want her home, if for nothing more than to be absolutely sure it is her as they grieve. Consular officials have confirmed to the family that it is her body, though they have not submitted DNA for further verification.

Cú Chub’s family is still in debt. To pay off the loan they took out for her to migrate, they may soon make the same journey that cost them their matriarch.

Related Headlines

Comments are no longer available on this story

filed under: