The Real Death Valley

Producer’s Note, by Solly Granatstein

In “The Real Death Valley,” we tell the story of Fernando Palomo, a 22-year-old Salvadoran who happened to be a talented artist, and who was beaten within a centimeter of his life when he refused to design a gang’s tattoos. He and his older brother, like tens of thousands of others, fled their homeland and journeyed north to what they saw as the relative safety of the United States. They made it across the Rio Grande into Texas, but that hardly put an end to their troubles.

This joint investigation by The Weather Channel, Telemundo, and the Investigative Fund is about people who have already made it across the border, but whose lives are still very much at risk. Brooks county is 70 miles north of the Rio Grande. Migrants must go through it if they want to continue north to the jobs of cities like Houston. But there’s an obstacle to their journey, right in the middle of the road. The county’s main north-south axis, U.S. 281, is bisected by a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. If you’re undocumented and you need to make it past the checkpoint, you have to go around it, on foot. So, in groups of 20 to 30, organized by human smugglers known as coyotes, they hike through 40 miles of the vast, sandy brush of private ranches on either side of the highway.

The Brooks County checkpoint is nothing new. It’s been around for decades. The vast flood of immigrants trying to evade it is. Meanwhile, high temperatures around Brooks County soar over 90 degrees for nearly half the year, over 100 degrees for more than two months. This is exacerbated by a drought that’s been wracking the region for six years, making the ranches all that drier for thirsty migrants.

Our team witnessed this gruesome reality at close range. One day we accompanied a county justice of the peace, a sandy-haired woman named Oralia Morales, as she took part in the recovery of the bloated and maggot-covered body of a young woman. As she records the scene on her clipboard, Oralia comes off as tough and competent. But a part of her seemed to wither in the 110-degree heat. She told us that in the summer, she has to process a new corpse every other day.

“Does it wear on you?” Our correspondent, John Carlos Frey, asked.

“Of course it does,” Oralia said. “You can always picture your own family laying there. I mean, I want something better for these people… Can you imagine going 10 years without knowing that your daughter has already died somewhere?”

In my conversations with people in Brooks County, I found that no matter where they stood on immigration policy, they were all deeply disturbed by the plight of the men, women and children struggling through their backyards and sometimes perishing on the way.

A trio made up of a retired law enforcement officer, a paramedic and experienced rescuer — men who are conservative on the larger immigration issues — has recently formed a group called Texas Border Rescue, known informally as “Brooks County Rescue Posse.”

One of them, a barrel-chested man in a white cowboy hat named Clell Gresham, spent a fair part of his career working for the Department of Homeland Security, physically deporting undocumented immigrants, ferrying them on DHS planes back to their home countries. Clell is no bleeding heart, but he’s clear about the mission of his volunteer posse. “We’re not here to deport,” he says. “We’re here to save lives.”

Then there’s veteran ranch manager, Lavoyger Durham, a towering fourth-generation cowboy who sports a brocaded vest, a bolo tie and a black 10-gallon hat. When Lavoyger comes across desperate migrants – people who may not have eaten or drunk water in days – he takes them in, feeds them, then sets them on their way.”It sounds to me like you might be an advocate for the migrants,” our correspondent John asked him. “If you actually let them in.”

“I’m not an advocate, no,” Lavoyger shot back in a thick drawl. “If they’re illegal, they’re illegal. The law has to be enforced. But I do try to save their lives. I’m not gonna let somebody rot out there that I know is gonna die, no. I will help him.”

The entire time I was in Brooks County, whomever I happened to be speaking with, I was always aware that at that very moment some thirsty migrant was stumbling around lost and perhaps on the brink of death. The migrants keep coming, and they keep dying.

On our walk through the Tule Ranch he manages, Lavoyger Durham led us through a thicket of trees where a group of a couple dozen migrants had just camped. We found clothes, torn backpacks, water bottles, even someone’s Guatemalan ID card. The migrants had just been here, and we had the feeling that a new group would be back later that night.

“So year after year,” John asked, “I’m assuming, you’re finding dead bodies on this ranch?”

“Yes,” Lavoyger replied. “And it’s not stopping.”


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