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Searching for the unforgotten

Among the many illegal migrants who die crossing the southern US border, hundreds are never identified, buried without ceremony, casket, or name. Connecting the dead with those who mourn them is the mission of a cadre of college students, who aren’t about politics but about dignity — for people like Santos Interiano, who crossed into Texas a year ago and simply vanished.

Professor Lori E. Baker placed her hand on one of the bodies taken from a paupers’ grave.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

Professor Lori E. Baker placed her hand on one of the bodies taken from a paupers’ grave.

The unforgotten

FALFURRIAS, Texas

The forensic teams hacked at the unmarked graves until the shovels broke, until sweat soaked their T-shirts and clouds of brown dust choked the air. They kept their eyes on the yawning pit below them, searching for the bodies of immigrants.

“I see the corner,” Stevie Hope, one of the searchers, said last month as the wispy edge of a body bag curled from the ground.

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Beside her, Mary Katherine Tyler lay flat on her stomach and ducked her braided head deep into the grave. As another searcher held her legs to keep her from falling in, Tyler troweled the earth and soon found two bodies, not one.

“We need another bag,” she called out.

One morning as they worked, Maria Interiano awakened 2,100 miles away in East Boston from another dream about Santos, her younger brother, who vanished a year ago after crossing the Rio Grande into South Texas.

He could be in the graveyard in Falfurrias or under a mesquite tree closer to the border or somewhere else entirely. Since nobody really knows, sometimes she lets herself imagine that Santos is still alive.

The Missing

More than 6,000 immigrants have died crossing the southern border since 1998, according to federal records, and hundreds of them have never been identified.

Typically when someone is missing in the United States, family members file a police report, an investigation ensues, and then, as hope fades, relatives provide DNA samples in case an unidentified body is found.

‘It’s a total systems failure. It’s a job a medical examiner ought to do.’

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But the families of immigrants who go missing along the border — likely victims of exposure or dehydration — are largely shut out of this system. Because no one really knows precisely where they disappeared, there is no straightforward way for family members to file an official missing person report or to deposit a DNA profile in the FBI’s national database to match to the bodies found along the border.

Police often refuse to take missing person reports. Border Patrol and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials said they do not investigate such cases.

And many families of the missing have no idea where to file reports anyway, or they fear getting deported if they contact police.

As a result, hundreds of unknown bodies — including children — have been buried in Arizona and Texas, where the largest numbers of deaths are recorded.

Daniel Walden (left) and Cameron Coleman, volunteer deputies for the Brooks County Sheriff’s Department, walked toward a building where migrants often stayed as they made their trek through Texas. Both officers are part of a “rescue posse” seeking to help overwhelmed local sheriffs.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

Daniel Walden (left) and Cameron Coleman, volunteer deputies for the Brooks County Sheriff’s Department, walked toward a building where migrants often stayed as they made their trek through Texas. Both officers are part of a “rescue posse” seeking to help overwhelmed local sheriffs.

In recent years, the deaths have soared in one of the worst places for immigrants to die: Brooks County, Texas, a vast, sun-baked expanse of cattle ranches an hour north of the border on the way to Houston, a hub where immigrants can catch a ride to anywhere in the United States. The path through Brooks County is one of the routes officials say is commonly traveled by thousands of immigrants from Central America. Santos, who crossed the border near McAllen, Texas, may well have been among them.

Brooks County doesn’t have its own medical examiner. Until last year, only an elected justice of the peace declared people dead, then turned them over to funeral homes without taking a DNA sample as required by state law, partly because the county could not afford it. The funeral homes buried the dead in Sacred Heart Cemetery in the county’s only city, Falfurrias.

In 2012, the number of bodies found in the brush or on roadsides in Brooks County doubled to 129, and more than half were unidentified. The next year, according to the sheriff’s department, officials discovered 87 bodies, and 44 percent were unidentified. So far this year, they have found 43 bodies.

Professor Lori E. Baker placed her hand on one of the bodies taken from a paupers’ grave.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

Professor Lori E. Baker placed her hand on one of the bodies taken from a paupers’ grave.

Last August, Brooks County started sending unidentified bodies to a medical examiner in another county for autopsies and DNA samples. But the only people trying to identify the bodies buried in Sacred Heart, with the county’s permission, are about three dozen college students from Baylor University and the University of Indianapolis and their teachers. They are forensics specialists who say the dead should be identified, just as nations are expected to identify soldiers who die during wars.

In Falfurrias, unidentified bodies are scattered throughout Sacred Heart Cemetery, but in one particular section last month, the students found corpses stuffed into body bags, rolled in blankets, or even placed in garbage bags.

Baylor anthropology professor Lori Baker said one was in a plastic funeral home bag that said “dignity,” and another bag held three skulls. As many as five bodies were dumped in a single grave.

Baker called the scenes “horrific” and said federal officials should have helped local governments address this problem years ago as illegal immigration surged.

“It’s a total systems failure,” Baker said. “It’s a job that a medical examiner ought to do, but these counties really can’t afford to do it.”

The college students paid for the trip to Falfurrias, in exchange for college credit. They say they aren’t here to take a stand on either side of the fierce divide over illegal migration; they are here in the name of simple humanity.

“It’s beyond politics,” said Olivia Rowland, one of the Baylor students who volunteered to help exhume the bodies. “You still gotta agree that something’s not right.”

The decision to leave

Maria Interiano had begged her brother Santos not to return to the United States. When he first crossed illegally in 1998, he was 18 and strong.

Last year, as he made his return after an extended visit home to El Salvador, he had just turned 33. He was thin and walked with a limp from a construction accident. Still, he easily found a smuggler to take him across for $6,500, half up front, and half when he arrived in Boston.

“I don’t want to be in El Salvador,” he had told Maria, in a call to Boston.

The former laborer hailed from a hamlet in the Municipality of Agua Caliente so remote there is no mail delivery.

He only had a third-grade education — growing up they didn’t have running water or electricity, much less a high school — but at 18 he had found his way into the United States and settled in Somerville. He sent money from cleaning jobs home to help his dad. His mother had died years earlier of tuberculosis.

In 2001, after earthquakes devastated part of the Central American nation and made it unsafe to return, the United States granted him temporary legal residency.

For the first time, Santos had a state identification card and a Social Security number.

Five years later, he moved to Florida and bought a modest green house a short distance from the Gulf Coast, which he shared with Maria and her husband.

He found work in construction and spent free time barbecuing and telling stories on the patio. Santos was so happy that sometimes he would pick up Maria and spin her around.

A photo of Santos Interiano sat among other family photographs on a table in the East Boston home of his sister Maria.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

A photo of Santos Interiano sat among other family photographs on a table in the East Boston home of his sister Maria.

But a month after he signed the mortgage on the house, Santos fell from a ladder at work and shattered both legs, ending up in a wheelchair. A doctor rebuilt his left knee, but the recovery took months.

Unable to work, he lost the house.

Despondent, he collected an insurance payment for his work injuries and decided he wanted to go home. He missed his father and wanted to visit his mother’s grave.

He asked US officials for permission to leave the United States but left in January 2009, a month before the official letter of permission arrived.

Over the next four years in El Salvador, Santos helped his father on the farm, fathered three children, and painted his mother’s tomb blue.

But he grew restless in the cornfields in Agua Caliente after so many years in the United States.

It was depressing to see how little had improved after the long civil war in El Salvador. The war ended in 1992, but new violence had erupted, fomented by gangs, and the country now had one of the highest homicide rates in the world.

His relationship with his girlfriend fell apart. He worried about providing for his children.

Toward the end of his time there, according to his older sister, Petrona, Santos started receiving mysterious threats, written on pieces of paper tossed onto his patio, apparently seeking bribes, but he said he did not know who sent them.

Santos wanted to return to the states but, because he had left without permission, he had no legal way back.

But he had braved it before, and, in May 2013, he left for Massachusetts.

Maria Interiano’s brother went missing while trying to cross the border.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

Maria Interiano’s brother went missing while trying to cross the border.

How immigrants get lost

In broad daylight last month near Falfurrias, a smuggler’s Jeep — the rear window spray-painted black — swerved off Highway 281 to avoid the Border Patrol. The doors flung open and everyone inside fled toward the cattle ranches, leaving behind a bag of apples and two jugs of water.

Brooks County officials call these “bailouts,” and the sheriff’s office said they happen about five times a day. The sheriff has confiscated hundreds of abandoned cars and trucks, so many that the county yard resembles a used car dealership.

Scattering into unfamiliar territory during a bailout is one way immigrants can get lost. And in Brooks County, with its hundreds of thousands of acres of cattle ranches, wild grasses, and empty country roads, getting lost can be deadly.

“You can follow trails for days and days and days and get disoriented,” said Daniel Walden, a volunteer sheriff’s deputy. “It’s very, very hard.”

Brooks County is attractive to smugglers because it is poor, littered with abandoned warehouses, and has hardly any people, just 7,000 residents in an area about the size of Rhode Island. The mostly Latino population is concentrated in Falfurrias. Besides the Border Patrol, only one sheriff’s deputy patrols the 943 square miles each shift — so little coverage that other law enforcement officers started volunteering this summer to help patrol, knocking back energy drinks to stay alert.

Tracking the missing

More than 6,000 immigrants have died crossing the southern US border since 1998, and hundreds have never been identified. One area with a growing number of bodies: Brooks County, Texas.

Country of Origin:

Mexico

El Salvador

Honduras

Guatemala

Other

Unknown

Falfurrias, the one city in Brooks County, is located 84 miles from the Mexican border. Major cities like Houston, which is 273 miles from Falfurrias, offer many more transportation options than small towns.
Go to Falfurrias

Found, GPS coordinates unknown

Country of origin (all bodies)

Unknown
Mexico
El Salvador
Honduras
Guatemala
Other

DATA: Brooks County Sheriff's Department, US Border Patrol

Russell Goldenberg / Globe Staff

The sheriff’s department has clamored for increased federal and state aid to combat immigrant and drug smuggling and to properly handle the bodies of immigrants found dead — more than 400 since 2009. Last year, the department won a state grant to pay another county, Webb County, to conduct autopsies and take DNA samples.

But Benny Martinez, chief deputy of the Brooks County sheriff’s department, said that money will run out soon.

“This shouldn’t happen,” said Martinez, who earns $28,000 a year. “The government shouldn’t allow this to happen.”

Since Brooks County is not directly on the border, Martinez said it has seen little of the federal aid that Congress has channeled to the front lines. But federal records show the county is squarely on a major smuggling route north. The county’s spine is Highway 281, a straight shot from the border city of McAllen to Falfurrias, where drivers can branch off toward Houston.

Typically, sheriff’s officials said, smugglers drop off immigrants before the Border Patrol checkpoint on Highway 281 in Falfurrias and instruct them to hike through the ranches, often for days, to the other side of the checkpoint. Smugglers, known as coyotes, or guias in Spanish, are supposed to pick up the immigrants on the other side and take them to Houston or another destination. Some coyotes show up, but others don’t, leaving immigrants to fend for themselves.

Some immigrants use GPS to find their way through the fields. And they hide in the safe houses that have proliferated throughout the county.

Authorities recently found one brazen smuggler’s compound just a few steps off the highway: a trailer reeking of urine, a cavernous warehouse, and a mattress in the backyard. A lookout perch had been built in a mesquite tree.

The interior of a building where migrants often stayed as they made their trek through Texas.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

The interior of a building where migrants often stayed as they made their trek through Texas.

Another hideout is in a little-traveled section of the 13,000-acre El Tule Ranch, where dozens of empty water jugs and pieces of discarded clothing are strewn under mesquite and oak trees. In one pile, someone had written directions in Spanish on tiny slips of paper, “From here to Tuxtla, take a taxi to the Hotel Plaza Chiapas,” and “From here to Acayucan, take a taxi to the Hotel Ancira, porte de Ramiro.”

For many immigrants, the trip through Brooks County is unexpectedly dangerous.

Officials say the land is crawling with rattlesnakes and poisonous spiders. Immigrants wear heavy clothing to guard against cactus thorns and spiky burrs, but those precautions make it easier to overheat in the hot sun. The sandy terrain makes the trek feel like hiking on a scalding hot beach.

Lavoyger Durham, the manager of the El Tule Ranch, where President George W. Bush went quail hunting in 2004, said that sometimes immigrants knock on his door when they are hungry or lost.

He said he gives them food and water and calls the Border Patrol, so that they don’t die on his ranch or someone else’s. Some immigrants run for the fields to continue their journey.

“That’s danger,” Durham said.

As a Republican, Durham said he wants the government to curb illegal immigration. But this year, he also built a water station on the ranch, marked with a flag, to help immigrants.

“I’ve been accused of aiding and abetting illegals, but I don’t care,” he said, his jaw set under a cowboy hat. “The good Lord and I know what we’re doing.”

Rancher Lavoyger Durham walked past clothing left behind by immigrants. Last year, Durham was rounding up cattle when he found a body on his ranch.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

Rancher Lavoyger Durham walked past clothing left behind by immigrants. Last year, Durham was rounding up cattle when he found a body on his ranch.

On June 12, Brooks County was the scene of another bailout. Two trucks going at speeds reaching 100 m.p.h. on Highway 281 eventually came to a stop and unloaded their passengers near the Walmart in Falfurrias.

The Border Patrol chased the passengers — and the drivers — into the fields and officials towed the trucks away.

A volunteer sheriff’s deputy, Cameron Coleman, watched from the road as the Border Patrol swept the fields with searchlights and a helicopter hovered overhead.

“They take it serious,” said Coleman. “Otherwise people will die out there. The coyotes don’t care about them.”

“There’s no air”

On June 9, 2013, Santos Interiano and 14 others were standing on the Mexico side of the southern border.

He had traveled more than 1,400 miles through three countries in as many weeks, from El Salvador, through Guatemala, and north through Mexico.

From his perch, he could see the United States again.

He texted his sister Maria in Boston, describing his fear of the Border Patrol:

Santos at 10:58 A.M. on 6/9/13

We're underneath some trees, looking out for the migra.

Maria brushed flour off her hands in the kitchen of the Mexican restaurant where she worked and called her brother. He sounded ready to cross the Rio Grande. She said a prayer that he would cross safely.

More than four hours later, he texted her from a hideout somewhere around the border city of McAllen. He had swum across the Rio Grande and then jumped into a truck and was driven for 40 minutes.

Santos had made it into the United States.

Santos at 3:40 P.M. on 6/9/13

Tell papa, please.

Maria at 3:40 P.M. on 6/9/13

Ok, Thank God.

But Santos quickly realized that this trip would be even harder than his last. He told Maria the smugglers had packed him into a warehouse with 105 people. He hadn’t eaten since the day before.

Maria urged her brother to rest and gather his strength.

Maria at 4:05 P.M. on 6/9/13

Even if it's on the floor, sit down to rest.

Santos at 4:06 P.M. on 6/9/13

There's no room.

Maria at 4:07 P.M. on 6/9/13

Oh, wow.

The next night, he told her the smugglers were feeding them once a day, at 7 p.m. Santos worried constantly about food and water — and his telephone.

Without the phone, he would be cut off from his family and anyone who could help him.

Santos at 5:29 P.M. on 6/10/13

We're getting dehydrated. There's no air.

In East Boston, Maria felt helpless. Texas was supposed to be safer than Arizona, where she had crossed in 2001, a few months too late to qualify for the legal residency the United States granted Santos and their sister.

One night during Maria’s crossing, she twisted her leg in the dark and limped in pain. She was already bleeding from long cactus thorns sticking into her arms and legs.

The smugglers did not help her. Instead, they abandoned her and three immigrants from Ecuador, whose feet were too swollen to keep going.

Maria’s husband refused to leave her and helped her finish the journey. He taught her how to nibble on leaves or tree branches and suck the moisture from them.

But the pair could not persuade the Ecuadorans to go on with them. They last saw them laying down on some rocks.

One night, Maria recalled, while trying to sleep in the mountains she looked down into a pit in the darkness and saw what looked like a collection of human bones.

Santos was alone.

Maria urged Santos to be patient. The Border Patrol had doubled its forces over the past decade, so it was harder to move people north. And the smugglers were feeling the pressure. She and her father had heard stories of smugglers assaulting and robbing migrants, or holding them for ransom.

Santos was wary of the smugglers, too, who used nicknames like Jaguar. On June 12, 2013, he warned his sister the smugglers were threatening to confiscate the migrants’ phones.

The next day, he texted that the smugglers had moved a group from the warehouse, but the Border Patrol had caught them. He had been in the warehouse for days, with little food or hope of getting out.

Santos at 7:15 P.M. on 6/13/13

What do I do with this desperation?

Santos asked Maria if a friend from Texas could come and get him, but the friend refused because he was far away — and worried about picking up someone crossing illegally.

After a week in the stifling warehouse, three people fled and Santos watched as the smugglers left to find them.

Maria at 4:10 P.M. on 6/17/13

What are you going to do? Are you going to leave, too?

Santos at 4:13 P.M. on 6/17/13

Yes, I can't stand it anymore.

Minutes later, Santos texted her one more time. It was Father’s Day in El Salvador.

Santos at 4:39 P.M. on 6/17/13

If you don't hear from me don't send anyone money, ok?

Searching for bodies

The college students were eager to go to Sacred Heart Cemetery last month. Cadavers do not frighten them. Many are budding forensic scientists; they scrutinize bones, observe bodies, and yell at the TV when true-crime shows get the facts wrong. The Baylor students showed up in Falfurrias wearing matching T-shirts emblazoned with skulls.

“We’re the creepy people that people don’t understand,” joked Rebekah Cameron, a 19-year-old senior at Baylor.

They were also doing work that nobody else had done.

For 10 days, in 100-degree heat, the students labored in the potter’s field with shovels, trowels, brushes, and their gloved hands. The immigrants were buried in a patch of land under a few silver markers that read “Unknown,” surrounded by graves adorned with granite headstones, ceramic angels, and daffodils.

The effort is part of the Reuniting Families project, an organization that Baker founded in 2003 to help identify the remains of immigrants. Baker, a forensic scientist at Baylor who specializes in analyzing skeletal remains, had suspected since she was a college student that local officials were burying immigrants without trying to identify them. Years ago, she was chatting with a Texas sheriff about the lack of skeletons to work on in her college classes. He told her he had plenty of bodies of immigrants that “nobody wants.”

“That’s when the hair on the back of your neck stands up and you say, ‘Really?’” she said. “Of course they have people who want them back.”

Xavier Colbert, 22, a Baylor senior, was helped by a professor as he lifted a body out of a grave. He is part of a team of forensics students working to exhume bodies of unidentified migrants.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

Xavier Colbert, 22, a Baylor senior, was helped by a professor as he lifted a body out of a grave. He is part of a team of forensics students working to exhume bodies of unidentified migrants.

After finishing her studies and landing a job at Baylor, Baker created a lab and started helping Arizona and Mexico identify remains. Then, in 2012, she organized a team to exhume bodies in Del Rio, a border town in Val Verde County, Texas. Because the graveyard was so rocky they needed pickaxes to exhume six bodies, including an infant.

The next year, the group moved to Brooks County, where deaths of migrants had soared. Last year, they found 63 graves and 69 bodies.

Last month, they hoped to find as many as possible. But the work was arduous. They could not use heavy machinery because it could damage the bodies, so all the digging had to be done by hand.

First, the students scraped the top layer of weedy grass and divided the section of the cemetery where the immigrants were buried into quadrants with strings and spikes. Each team dug about a foot deep, and then carved deeper holes the diameter of coffee cans. They lowered sticks into the holes to feel for bodies, to see if they should dig deeper.

Once they saw the body bags — few of the dead were in coffins — the students lay face down over the graves and gently brushed dirt off the bags. To take their minds off the gruesome work, the students told jokes or sang songs. Despite the tanks of Gatorade nearby, some grew sun-parched and nauseated and suffered headaches. A few ended up at a nearby hospital.

But every day, most showed up at dawn, and some before then, to start digging by flashlight.

Members of the forensics team began digging in the Falfurrias paupers’ gravesite before daylight, in an effort to avoid the brutal afternoon heat that had sickened some the day before.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

Members of the forensics team began digging in the Falfurrias paupers’ gravesite before daylight, in an effort to avoid the brutal afternoon heat that had sickened some the day before.

Each time the students lifted a body from the ground, they fell as silent as pallbearers. They put the bodies in fresh bags and carried them to a shady spot under the live oak trees. They marked each one with the date and location and placed a plastic flower on top.

“We’re trying to remember that they had a life and we want to get them back to their families,” said Cameron, a forensic anthropology student at Baylor. “I don’t like to leave questions unanswered. The question is, who are they? The answer is, we’re going to find out. We’re going to give them back their identity.”

‘Don’t doubt it’

The first week of July in 2013, Santos’s father in El Salvador received a phone call late at night. He stepped outside onto the patio, struggling to hear.

“I’m informing you that your son Santos died,” the voice said in formal Spanish, and hung up.

Santos Pineda, a 61-year-old farmer, thought it was a trick.

“In three or four days, they’re going to ask me for money,” he said to himself.

He went back to the farm to sow corn and beans, and then to the well to draw water. Pineda had urged his son to stay in El Salvador, but Santos said it would be better if he left. He could find work and send money home.

Four days later, the same man called again from an untraceable phone. He spoke kindly, and told Pineda he could have a funeral Mass said for Santos.

“Mr. Pineda,” the voice said. “Don’t doubt that your son is dead.”

Suspicious, Pineda asked him how he knew for sure. The man recited Santos’ full name, the tiny hamlet where he grew up, the year he was born, 1980.

The man said he had Santos’s Salvadoran identification card.

“Don’t doubt it,” the man said again. “Your son died.”

The man said Santos had collapsed at night under a tree, but he did not say where. Pineda asked the man to send him Santos’s identification card, but he never did.

The uncertainty gnawed at Pineda. He could not sleep. He thought he heard Santos’s voice. He asked the smuggler in El Salvador for the name of the guide who was supposed to take Santos from McAllen to Houston, but she refused to provide it.

Rumors abounded. A month after Santos disappeared, a man who said he had met him in the warehouse told the Interiano family the smugglers had taken Santos from the hideout on June 24, 2013; Santos did not tell his family because the smugglers allegedly confiscated his phone. The man, who called himself Luis, had called them from a borrowed phone; they have not been able to find him since.

“My son was very close to me. He talked to me,” Pineda said. “I know if he was lost and he could call, he would have called me.”

Pineda said the only way to know Santos is dead is to find his remains.

“I’d like to have the bones of my son,” Pineda said.

Digging before dawn

On the last of the college students’ trip to Falfurrias, they hit Sacred Heart Cemetery with flashlights before dawn. One of the team leaders, Jim Huggins, a Baylor lecturer and retired Texas Ranger known as Sarge, had given them a hard deadline of 10 a.m. to finish. The night before, four of the diggers had gone to the hospital because they felt ill after working in the heat. He didn’t want anyone else getting sick.

“Keep time on your breaks, people,” Sarge said, patrolling the edges of the pit to make sure the students took breaks and drank water.

The air filled with dust. The sun burned in the sky.

“I’m tired,” said Lindsay Bone, a Baylor senior. She bent over, touched her toes, and minutes later, was back in the hole digging.

By 8:30 a.m., they thought they were almost done. But as the students dug, more bodies emerged. The 10 a.m. deadline came and went.

“It’s just more and more and more,” Erica Christensen, an Indianapolis graduate student, said of the bodies.

Helen Garcia spent the day digging a hole that yielded no bodies, but she said she didn’t mind. The soft-spoken Baylor student said her own parents, now US citizens living in Texas, had crossed the border illegally decades ago. The people buried here could have been people just like them, compelled by the dream of a better life.

“It’s amazing what parents do to help their families, even if it means breaking the law,” she said, leaning on her shovel.

By the end of the 10 days they had recovered 52 body bags, Baker said — and probably more bodies than that — but there wasn’t time to find them all. Graves are still scattered throughout the cemetery, near the edge of the road, and, Baker said, in other counties along the border.

Baker said Baylor and Texas State University students and professors will clean the remains and send pieces of bone to the University of North Texas, which has a federal contract to extract DNA and upload a profile into the FBI’s DNA database.

“I, and anyone else, could probably work on this until the end of our career and still not have found everyone,” Baker said. “It’s just devastating.”

Missing, but no report

More than a year after her brother disappeared, Maria Interiano had not been able to report him missing to authorities — because she hadn’t found a government agency in the United States willing to take the report.

Though she is also here without papers, Maria said she would help police. Over the past year, she has called the Border Patrol, ICE, and police in Boston, Everett, and McAllen. Almost every government official referred her someplace else.

According to Lucy Pineda, executive director of the nonprofit Latinos United in Massachusetts, Boston police said in February that they couldn’t take a report on Santos because he disappeared while breaking the law.

“I said he’s a human being,” said Pineda, who is not related to the Interiano family but is helping Maria. “Are you trying to say because he was undocumented we cannot make any report that he was missing?”

Without help from authorities, family members cannot get their DNA into the FBI’s database to see if it matches bodies found in Texas or Arizona, or post a missing person report in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a searchable public database of open cases.

Forensic specialists say cooperation from law enforcement is crucial to identifying bodies. Of the dozens of bodies Baker and her teams have exhumed in the past three years, only one has been identified so far.

Ashley Roy, who works for the Waco Police Department, helped members of the Baylor team to exhume bodies.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

Ashley Roy, who works for the Waco Police Department, helped members of the Baylor team to exhume bodies.

In Pima County, Ariz., where the medical examiner’s office obtains DNA profiles from all unidentified bodies, some 700 to 800 found since 2001 are still unidentified. The medical examiner said the FBI could work with nonprofits to get family DNA samples for its database, known as the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

“They make the rules and they won’t let other people play,” Chief Medical Examiner Gregory Hess said of the FBI. “If we can’t get a family reference sample into CODIS, then really, how much good is it doing us?”

Boston and Everett police said they investigate only cases in their jurisdiction, but said they would help connect immigrants to authorities in other states. The FBI says it will not generate a DNA profile in a case unless it is submitted by a law enforcement agency.

Officials at the National Missing and Unidentifed Persons System said people searching for relatives in the United States should file reports with them. They said they will try to arrange for a free family DNA sample and a missing persons report.

Maria had never heard of the national missing persons system. She and her father finally reported Santos missing to the Salvadoran government, which confirmed the report to the Globe.

Through the Globe, Maria searched the national missing persons system and contacted the Webb County medical examiner’s office in Texas, which is now conducting autopsies for Brooks County, for help in finding Santos.

Santos is not in the national missing persons system yet. But Maria said she has a list of clues that could help find him: He is 5’6”, missing a tooth on the upper left side of his mouth, and has a bullet lodged under his heart, from a gun accident on the farm in El Salvador.

When he left El Salvador on May 16, 2013, he wore a black shirt, jeans, a black belt, and black tennis shoes. He always wore his watch and two black rubber bracelets, even to bed.

Members of the Baylor team unloaded equipment from their trailer before sunrise.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

Members of the Baylor team unloaded equipment from their trailer before sunrise.

Bibles, photos, rosaries

Forensic scientists say DNA testing is vital because bodies can decompose quickly. Wind, rain, and wild animals scatter the remains.

Of the 206 bones in a human body, sometimes the scientists find only one.

“You got coyotes. You got bobcats. Vultures and wild pigs,” University of Indianapolis anthropology professor Krista Latham said. “I don’t think people really understand what happens to a body after it dies.”

In Brooks County, the only records of the dead are in a storage closet, in binders marked “human remains.”

A book details the remains of each victim.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

A book details the remains of each victim.

Inside are the stories of their final moments, next to photos of bodies melting in the summer heat. In days, a body can fade to a skeleton.

Officials found clues in the things they carried, Bibles, photographs of beaming girls, rosaries, and phone numbers for people like Margarito the smuggler and someone’s Uncle Rafael.

Each body has a police report, but because the department is short-staffed, few are recorded in the Namus database.

On June 22, 2013, Durham, the manager of El Tule Ranch, was rounding up cattle when he found a body. He couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman.

On July 3, 2013, officials found a man’s body on the Larry Dickey ranch, about a third of a mile into the brush.

Sheriff’s Deputy Brett Zable said in his report that the body looked like a Hispanic male, in his 40s. He had a mustache, flecked with gray. He wore black tactical boots, blue jeans, a brown belt, and a green friendship bracelet around his right wrist. A cellphone cover was nearby.

On July 9, 2013, a man was found on Las Palomas Ranch wearing blue jeans and Cifuentes brand brown tennis shoes. His jaw was found 75 feet from his body.

On July 15, 2013, a human skull was discovered in a drained reservoir.

Martinez, the chief deputy of the sheriff’s department, recalled that in a moment of frustration last year he showed the photographs to congressional aides in Washington, in hopes that they would understand the seriousness of the situation. Instead, he said, they left the room.

Sometimes family members come to flip through the binders. Martinez says he takes their missing person reports, though he doesn’t have money to investigate them.

“They’ll sit here in front of my desk and just start crying,” he said.

“What do you do? We don’t have the words to comfort them. There’s no money. There’s nothing.”

Petrona Interiano of East Boston is embraced by her daughter Nataly, 5,  after she began crying while talking about her brother Santos.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

Petrona Interiano of East Boston is embraced by her daughter Nataly, 5, after she began crying while talking about her brother Santos.

Dreams of a reunion

A few months ago Maria Interiano visited a curandera, something like a witch doctor, in East Boston. The woman laid out a deck of playing cards on a red towel in her living room. The woman told her Santos was alive, that he had suffered a head injury and lost his memory. Another curandera in Texas had told a cousin the same thing.

Maria dismissed the coincidence, but she cannot stop the dreams about Santos. In one dream, they walked along a river, laughing, and Santos grabbed her hand so that she would not fall in.

Then last month, she dreamed that she spotted Santos on the Red Line while on her way home from work. She burst into tears and hugged him, then smacked his head lightly for not calling her.

In the dream, Santos looked at her uncomprehending, as if he had amnesia.

Maria does not believe in psychics, but she also does not know for sure that her brother is dead. In her dreams, he is always alive.

“The problem,” Maria said, “is when you wake up.”

To report a missing person, contact the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System at 855-626-7600 or www.namus.gov. The nonprofit Colibri Center for Human Rights also takes reports at 520-243-8644 or info@colibricenter.org.
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