Bodies exhumed near border may be returned to families

IMG_1336 FTWBy Rebecca Flannery
Staff Writer

Several unidentified bodies found in graves near the Mexican border may soon find their way to families due in part to acts of diplomacy by Dr. Lori Baker, an associate professor of anthropology.

In a meeting with the Mexican Consulate last week, Baker discussed gaining access to their missing persons database. This would be an integral step in the process of identifying the bodies of suspected immigrants.

“Their database contains information of Mexicans thought to be in the United States,” Baker said. “About 400 families are in the database with DNA samples already collected.”

Baker said it may take a couple weeks to know if they will gain access to the database, but as of now it’s very likely.

“After we gain access to the Mexican database, then we will start working with other Latin American governments to see about sharing their information as well,” Baker said.

Baker and several Baylor students in the field of anthropology have worked the past two summers exhuming bodies from shallow graves in the Rio Grande Valley sector as a part of Baker’s Reuniting Families Project. Their findings have totaled 171 bodies, of which three have been identified.

“The exhumations were very successful, and we’ve continued to work on those cases but they take a very long time,” Baker said.

Dr. Kate Spradley, an associate professor of anthropology at Texas State University, works with Baker to exhume the bodies along the Texas and Mexico border. She said they are confident to assume the bodies belong to immigrants.

“It’s why we do such thorough research,” Spradley said. “We try to match the data we collect from the bodies to the U.S. federal unidentified persons database, and if they don’t match, we have to check with other countries.”

Baker and Spradley said they are trying to create a system that would integrate databases between the U.S. and Latin American countries. She said this is key in the effort to identify missing persons near the border.

“In Texas we have a much more diverse group of people coming across the border,” Baker said. “We have about 50 percent Mexican nationals, but also an increase in the number of Latin American immigrants, as well as Chinese, African and Middle Eastern people coming across our southern border.”

The bodies have to be examined to create biological profiles, which could take months to complete, Baker said.

“We do an assessment to see if there’s any trauma that someone might have sustained during life that would give us an indication of who they were – like a broken leg or a reconstructed knee,” Baker said. “We also look for determination through the skeletal remains for the age, sex or stature of a person.”

All of the factors examined help narrow down who the person might have been, Baker said.

The ultimate goal for the Reuniting Families Project is to determine identities and return the deceased to their families, according to the International Consortium for Forensic Identification website.

“We are collecting data on how to better understand the human variation across all these different nations,” Baker said. “My students are so willing and interested in giving of themselves to something that could benefit humanity.”