Print This Post

UIndy forensics takes expertise to Texas

Posted on 09.25.2013

UIndy students and faculty traveled to Texas for two weeks over the summer to help out with an investigation into migrant worker deaths. Assistant Professor of Biology and Anthropology, and Director of UIndy’s Molecular Anthropology Lab Krista Latham lead a team of four human biology graduate students on the trip.
According to reports by the U.S. Border Patrol, Texas has overtaken Arizona in the number of deaths of migrant workers. Border Patrol has attributed the increase in deaths to “coyotes,” hired guides who lead the workers to the Mexican border. The coyotes turn back, advising their wards to take secluded routes to avoid the Border Patrol.
One such route runs through Brooks County,Texas. According to the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, 39 migrant deaths have been investigated in the county in 2013.
Because Brooks County has limited resources, officials sought outside help to investigate the deaths. The officials called on Associate Professor of Anthropology at Baylor University Lori Baker. In February, Baker gave Latham and her students the opportunity to join the investigation.
When Latham and the students arrived,  the bodies all were buried in marked graves and placed in wooden coffins in body bags.
“We were very careful not to open the [body] bags at the cemetery,” Latham said. “Family and friends were gathered around. We didn’t want their first sight of their loved one to be only recognizable by a piece of clothing or jewelry.”
The bodies were taken to one of three capable labs. The closest was at Baylor University, the next at Texas State in San Marcos and the third was at UIndy.
“There is no morgue in [Brooks] County. They don’t have the resources to deal with the large number of deaths,” Latham said.
The examination of the bodies is a very meticulous and time-consuming process.
“We open the bag and document any personal effects:  IDs, money, jewelry. The IDs are often fake, though, so we do not take them at face value. The process of identifying this person begins with personal effects,” Latham said. “We’ve found prayer cards with some of the bodies and stuffed animals with some of the bodies of children.”
A description and photograph of the personal effects is then put on, the Department of Justice’s website for tracking missing and unidentified persons.
The body is then cleaned of dirt and any remaining tissue, leaving nothing but the skeleton. After the cleaning, the body is profiled.
A series of equations and examinations can then tell the person’s gender, approximate age, height and what part of the world he or she may originated from. This process helps to narrow down whom has been identified.
From there, lab workers take a DNA sample. However,  DNA samples are useless unless one has something with which to compare them. That is when the Missing Migrants Project comes in. The MMP contacts the families of  the missing and requests a DNA sample.
“The process is slow, because the DNA samples are all voluntary,” Latham said. “That process can take between six months to a year.”
If the DNA yields a match, the body is considered identified. Contact is then made with that person’s homeland consulate and arrangements for repatriation of the remains are made.
Second-year human biology master’s student Ryan Strand was thankful for the opportunity to work on this project, because it  allowed him to apply his skills in the real world.
“It provided an incredible glimpse of how large this crisis is. We were told to expect the unexpected, and I’m glad I could be a part of it.”
Latham said that these deaths are emblematic of a deeper issue that has yet to be dealt with: human rights and illegal immigration.
“It’s important to remember that we live in an age of globalization. Human rights are going beyond borders,” Latham said. “The only chance at a life these people have is to get out of their country. It is a political issue that [this] generation will have to deal with.”


RSS Feed  Follow Us on Twitter  Facebook Profile