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updated: 6/21/2014 10:15 PM

Mass immigrant graves uncovered in Texas cemetery

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Associated Press

FALFURRIAS, Texas -- Volunteer researchers have uncovered mass graves in a South Texas cemetery that they believe contain the bodies of immigrants who died crossing into the U.S. illegally, according to published reports Saturday.

The discovery at Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias came in the last two weeks, as Baylor University anthropologist Lori Baker and Krista Latham, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Indianapolis, and their students worked as part of a multi-year effort to identify immigrants who've died in the area near the U.S.-Mexico border.

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Teams unearthed remains in trash bags, shopping bags, body bags or without a container at all, according to the Corpus Christi Caller Times. In one burial, bones of three bodies were inside one body bag. In another, at least five people in body bags and smaller plastic bags were piled on top of each other. Skulls also were found in biohazard bags placed between coffins.

They exhumed 110 unidentified people from the cemetery in 2013. This summer, researchers have performed 52 exhumations, but because some remains were stored together, further study will be needed to determine exactly how many bodies have been recovered, Baker said.

Researchers told the newspaper that some remains were found under small, temporary grave markers bearing the name of local funeral home Funeraria del Angel Howard-Williams.

Brooks and Jim Hogg county officials said they pay the funeral home to handle bodies recovered in the remote parts of South Texas, an area that's often deadly for immigrants from Mexico and Central America who set out on foot through ranchlands amid sweltering temperatures to avoid a nearby U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint.

More than 300 people died crossing through Brooks County alone between 2011 to 2013 -- representing more than 50 percent of the deaths in Texas' sprawling Rio Grande Valley.

Brooks County Chief Deputy Benny Martinez said the funeral home charges $450 to handle each body. County Judge Raul Ramirez said it been handling such remains for at least 16 years. Chief Sheriff's Deputy Lorenzo Benavides in neighboring Jim Hogg County says the practice has been going there as long as he can remember, at least 22 years.

A message left Saturday at Howard-Williams was not immediately returned. The funeral home referred the newspapers' questions to its parent company, Houston-based Service Corporation International.

"No matter if this is one of our client families we serve on a traditional basis or a migrant family's loved one we're serving and we don't have any identification of the loved one, I do want to let you know it is our policy to treat the decedent with care, to treat them just like we would treat anyone else," Service Corporation International Spokeswoman Jessica McDunn told the newspaper.

McDunn said the funeral home has "certain records related to these burials, but this does not amount to confirmation that Howard-Williams was involved in depositing the remains in the manner the researchers described." The funeral home would not give the newspaper access to those records.

Still, Latham called the discovery appalling. Baker said bodies that were not already skeletonized before burial were found in varying states of decomposition.

"To me it's just as shocking as the mass grave that you would picture in your head, and it's just as disrespectful," Latham told the Caller Times.

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