For The Baffler, Caroline Tracey reports on the important work of the humanitarian forensic anthropologists working with Operation Identification (OpID), a program helping to bring closure to loved ones by identifying migrants who died in their attempt to enter the United States from Mexico. A fascinating discipline, “. . . .humanitarian forensic anthropology starts with the Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team: ‘the world’s first professional war crimes exhumation group,’ as Thomas Keenan and Eyal Weizman write in Mengele’s Skull.”
The women were forensic anthropologists with Operation Identification, or OpID, which is based at Texas State University and conducts exhumations across South Texas, seeking to identify and repatriate migrants who have been improperly buried after dying while attempting to cross from Mexico into the United States. The hole where they were working was located in the Maverick County Cemetery, a grass plot the size of a city block. It was so close to the U.S.-Mexico border that you could smell the Rio Grande—at least when you stepped away from the hole, which smelled like decomposition.
It was the last day of work; the team had exhumed fifteen bodies in the previous two weeks, and they believed there were four more still in the ground. By the end of the day, they would uncover them all, carefully lift them out, and perform “intake” procedures, which entailed removing their clothes and placing them in Ziploc bags, taking notes on any identifying features, and preparing them to be transported to the laboratory at Texas State.
Many of the anthropologists said the hardest part of the work is not handling the remains themselves but coming face-to-face with effects—the keepsakes, talismans, and handwritten lists of phone numbers that once represented the hope of a new life. During one intake, Konda grabbed a shoe and checked inside, since that’s where migrants often store important paperwork. She found an identification card. “I happened to look at the birthday. He was only two years older than me, and his birthday was around the time he probably drowned,” she told me. “He probably thought he would have made it by his birthday.” She added: “I learned that I can’t think like that because I’ll cry. Crying is OK, but I was not hydrated enough to risk crying in that hot tent!