BROOKS COUNTY, Texas (Border Report) — Eddie Canales lifts a sun-baked plastic jug and pours out sand instead of the water he left in a bright blue barrel labeled “agua” to help lost migrants in these remote South Texas backlands.
Every day, Canales and volunteers with the South Texas Human Rights Center check and replenish some 175 watering stations that they have placed throughout the thick and unrelenting brush of Brooks County, Texas, providing a lifeline for migrants who might be in trouble.
So far this year, the remains of over 60 migrants have been found in Brooks County, which is about 70 miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. They are on pace to meet or exceed last year’s total of 119 skeletal remains found here, Canales said.
“Brooks County is the apex of migrant deaths,” he said. “Everyone is trying to go through here to get around the checkpoint.”
On Thursday, Canales took Border Report on a four-hour rid- along as temperatures topped 100 degrees for the 15th day in a row.
The terrain here is punishing.
The heat is relentless.
And every day, more migrants go missing.
Seven migrants had gone missing on Thursday, and Canales had to call one family in Mexico to tell them their 28-year-old son had died.
“They were expecting him to be deceased. Because that’s what they want to know. They want to know if he’s deceased. They want closure.” said Canales.
At 74, this retired Chicano activist is tan and fit from days out in the sun and on the road hauling water for migrants he doesn’t see.
He drove mile after mile through the bumpy county roads, which at times were no more than dirt trails, to replace water jugs at these remote life-saving stations.
“What we’re trying to do with these stations is try to prevent as many people from dying. It’s an uphill battle,” said Canales, who runs the nonprofit organization that is based in the small town of Falfurrias, Texas. “We’ll never have enough water stations.”
He also works with frantic families who call his center for help locating their lost loved ones.
Every day he finds backpacks, shoes, empty cans and other remnants where migrants camped under huisache tree canopies and beside prickly pear cacti.
Also left behind are empty water bottles that migrants paint black so as to not draw the attention of the Border Patrol.
Migrants paint water jugs black to prevent them from shining so as to elude law enforcement. And they leave behind backpacks and other debris from spots where they rest and camp in Brooks County, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)
Migrants head north and most are instructed to meet their guides, or coyotes, far east or west of the main interstate by walking through dangerous ranchlands that are full of rattlesnakes, wild boar and barred by fences they have to try to climb over.
Some walk over 20 miles to elude the U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint in Falfurrias.
Many ranchers allow Canales and his volunteers to put up the water stations.
But Brooks County Sheriff’s Deputy Jay Arredondo said some do not.
“Some of them are fine with it. Some of them say it attracts more attention because it’s water,” Arredondo said. “It’s 50/50.”
Arredondo said he’s certain, however, that the water has saved many lives.
”This area here is very active right now. So I’m glad you guys are putting some water there,” Arredondo told Canales on Thursday.
Arredondo was one of only two vehicles we passed during the four-hour ride along.
Canales says some of his water stations have been vandalized. And he says some have had cameras put on nearby trees to watch those who try to access water.
An area off County Road 217 was littered with empty stew cans, shoes, and garbage bags used as fanny packs.
More migrants are taking water from stations on the farthest eastern and western fringes, he said. That indicates they are walking miles farther in either direction to evade law enforcement.
“What we get a sense of in terms of usage is the pattern of where people are coming through,” Canales said. “It seems like people are coming further east and further west on water usage. They’re always moving around because Border Patrol is trying to catch them.”
Border Patrol told Border Report that so far in 2022 there have been over 140 migrant deaths in the Rio Grande Valley Sector.
“And as we enter the summer months, we expect 911 calls from distressed migrants to increase,” Border Patrol Agent Gregory Aldaya said.
“For anyone who is thinking of entering the United States illegally along the Southern border: Don’t do it. When migrants cross the border illegally, they put their lives in peril. The terrain along the border is extreme, the summer heat is severe, and the miles of vast remote ranchlands migrants must hike after crossing the border in many areas are very unforgiving. We have begun an extended heat season of extreme summer temperatures of 100 degrees or more each day from now until early September. The Rio Grande Valley can be very unforgiving and a daunting trek due to the thick brush, the quicksand like ground, the relentless heat and humidity and the wildlife,” Aldaya said.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has launched the Missing Migrant Program, in which it partners with local law enforcement, governmental agencies, foreign consulates, forensic specialists, and non-governmental organizations, like the South Texas Human Rights Center, to help find and locate migrants and/or their remains.
Canales lives in Corpus Christi, an hour drive east of Falfurrias, and travels almost daily to Brooks County to help migrants.
He carries two phones and makes sure he has plenty of water. But most migrants don’t have these luxuries. And that’s part of why they get hurt and go missing.
“A phone is their lifeline. And knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t be caught in this brush without two phones and a charger,” Canales said.
Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com