On this day celebrating Mexico’s Independence, I toast the Oxford American for publishing my essay “Code 500,” about witnessing the aftermath of a border-crossing in the desert jungle of Brooks County, Texas. Below is an excerpt; please email me for the full story.
The first thing Brooks County lead investigator Danny Davila wants to know is whether I have a weak stomach. We are sitting in his cramped office at the sheriff’s department in Falfurrias, Texas, on a sweltering July afternoon. Before I can respond, he slides a three-ring binder my way. “The Dead Book,” he calls it. Inside are dozens of laminated photographs of the remains of the 34 undocumented immigrants who have died in the county’s scrub brush in 2012, presumably while sidestepping the nearby U.S. Customs and Border Patrol checkpoint.
“This is the American dream,” Davila says, spreading his arms wide, as if to signal beyond the cedar-paneled room, “and this is where it stops, right here.” He thumps the binder with his forefinger.
I grasp the Dead Book with both hands and open to a random page. A dark-skinned man in yellow briefs is curled in the fetal position atop a blanket.
“We find them naked sometimes, but it’s not because they were abused or anything,” Davila explains. “It’s just their last-ditch effort to try to cool off. They don’t know that makes it worse.”
It almost looks as though the dead man was caught in a moment of contemplation; his muscles are relaxed and his gaze is soft. But then I look closer, and I see that ants are swarming his eyeballs. I turn the page quickly, scan some typewritten reports, then stop at the next batch of photographs. An engorged hand, roasted purple and protruding from the dirt, its fingers extending skyward. A face that is half-skull, half-meat, and a full set of teeth. A belly so swollen it has split like a chorizo on a grill. Every image traumatizes me further, yet I keep flipping the pages to prove that I can handle the gore. Twenty minutes ago, a rancher called in a Code 500; the thirty-fifth body of the year has been discovered. If my stomach is up to it, I can accompany Davila on the retrieval.