Mass graves have been discovered in a south Texas cemetery, and researchers believe they contain the bodies of immigrants who died crossing into the US illegally.
The discovery at Sacred Heart Burial Park in Falfurrias came as part of a multi-year effort to identify immigrants who have died in the area near the US-Mexico border. The remote area is often deadly for immigrants from Mexico and Central America who set out on foot through ranchlands amid sweltering temperatures to avoid a nearby US Border Patrol checkpoint.
Anthropologists Lori Baker and Krista Latham and their students 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 were also found in biohazard bags placed between coffins.
Latham called the discovery appalling. Baker said bodies that were not already skeletons 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 said.
They exhumed 110 unidentified people from the cemetery last year. 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.
Researchers said 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 paid the funeral home to handle bodies recovered in the remote parts of South Texas.
More than 300 people died crossing through Brooks County alone between 2011 and 2013 - more than 50 per cent of the deaths in Texas' sprawling Rio Grande Valley.
Brooks County chief deputy Benny Martinez said the funeral home charged US$450 to handle each body.
County Judge Raul Ramirez said the funeral home had been handling such remains for at least 16 years. Chief Sheriff's Deputy Lorenzo Benavides in neighbouring Jim Hogg County said the practice had been going on there as long as he could remember, at least 22 years.
The funeral home referred 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 said.
McDunn said the funeral home had "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".
Flights to ease Texas crush
The US Border Patrol will fly nearly 300 Central American migrants from south Texas to California for processing to ease the workload on agents at the nation's busiest corridor for illegal crossings.
The flights to California are the government's latest response to a surge of Central Americans entering Texas' Rio Grande Valley, where the Border Patrol has made more than 174,000 arrests since October 1.
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency will decide whether they remain in custody or are released while they are in deportation proceedings.
The government has been looking for more detention space - primarily for mothers with young children - since large numbers of Central Americans have overwhelmed authorities in south Texas. There is only one detention centre designed for families, an 85-bed facility in Pennsylvania that was once a nursing home. The government is planning a 700-bed centre in New Mexico for families.