Mass graves have been discovered in a south Texas cemetery and researchers believe they contain the bodies of immigrants who died crossing into the US illegally.
The discovery at Sacred Heart Burial Park, in Falfurrias, came as part of a bid to identify immigrants who have died in the area near the US-Mexico border.
The remote area is often deadly for immigrants from Mexico and Central America who set out on foot through ranchlands amid sweltering temperatures to avoid a nearby US border patrol checkpoint.
Anthropologists Lori Baker and Krista Latham and their students unearthed remains in rubbish bags, shopping bags, body bags or without a container at all, according to local reports.
In one burial, bones of three bodies were inside one body bag. In another, at least five people in body bags and smaller plastic bags were piled on top of one another.
Ms Latham called the discovery appalling. Ms Baker said bodies that were not already skeletal before burial were found in varying states of decomposition.
“To me it’s just as shocking as the mass grave that you would picture in your head, and it’s just as disrespectful,” Ms Latham said.
They exhumed 110 unidentified people from the cemetery in 2013. This summer, researchers have performed 52 exhumations, but because some remains were stored together, further study will be needed to determine exactly how many bodies have been recovered, Ms Baker said.
Researchers said that some remains were found under small, temporary grave markers bearing the name of a local funeral home.
County officials said they pay the funeral home to handle bodies recovered in the remote parts of South Texas.
More than 300 people died crossing through one county alone between 2011 and 2013 – representing more than 50 per cent of the deaths in Texas’ sprawling Rio Grande Valley.
Brooks County chief deputy Benny Martinez said the funeral home charges $450 (£264) to handle each body.
County Judge Raul Ramirez said the funeral home had been handling such remains for at least 16 years. The funeral home referred questions to its parent company, Houston-based Service Corporation International.
Service Corporation spokeswoman Jessica McDunn said: “No matter if this is one of our client families we serve on a traditional basis or a migrant family’s loved one we’re serving and we don’t have any identification of the loved one, I do want to let you know it is our policy to treat the decedent with care, to treat them just like we would treat anyone else,”
Ms McDunn said the funeral home has “certain records related to these burials”, but this did not amount to confirmation that the funeral home was involved in “depositing the remains in the manner the researchers described”.
It emerged yesterday that the US Border Patrol will fly nearly 300 Central American migrants from south Texas to California for processing.