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Reporter's notebook: Visiting the graves of fallen immigrants

Despite a dramatic drop in illegal immigration nationwide, south Texas, along the Rio Grande, is now seeing a rise in immigrants crossing the Mexican border, as many flee the poverty and violence in Central America. NBC's Mark Potter reports.

By Al Henkel, Producer, NBC News 

FALFURRIAS, TEXAS --  Benny Martinez, the Chief Deputy of the Brooks County Sheriff’s office, gets out of his truck to give us a tour of the Falfurrias Burial Park.  

It’s depressing and sad. 

We’re just across the road from the Brooks County Fairgrounds.

Headstones are neat, well-maintained. Most date from the turn of the century, resting places for the founders of this region, hardscrabble ranchers who fought dust and heat and drought to build huge cattle ranches and oil fields in the fields of scrub brush and thorny mesquite trees.


Tucked in several corners, and now spilling over to the very edge of the property, are more than 100 lost souls. No headstones, just cheap metal markers, most with an ID number and some variation of the words: “Unknown Remains,” “Bones,” “Unknown Female.”

Last year the county buried 68 unknown people here, presumably undocumented immigrants trying to walk north, who didn’t make it.  Officials found a total of 129 people dead in the brush.

“Some of them are what you call OTM, 'Other Than Mexicans,' from Central America,” said Martinez.  “They die because either they get ill during the walk, or they weren't aware as to what it was going to take to do the walk.”

Benny Martinez, Chief Deputy Brooks County,Texas points out unmarked graves of  to NBC's Mark Potter and explains the frustration of illegal border crossing through his county.

The “walk” is the trek from the border into the interior of the United States. Brooks County is well north of the Rio Grande. There is one main road, U.S. Highway 281, going through the area, which sports a Border Patrol checkpoint just south of Falfurrias.

Immigrants try to beat the checkpoint by walking around it. So far this year, 73 people have not made it.  The terrain is hostile at best, with few landmarks and little available water.  But it is the shortest route to the major cities, San Antonio, Houston, Austin, where immigrants can get lost in the population, and effectively disappear.

“They all want to get into the United States. This is the ‘land of the free’ and ‘get solid wages and make a life for yourself,’” said Martinez.  “The trending is going up, still up and maintaining.  It hasn't gone down at all, not here.  I’m guessing the flow is going to continue, or increase more.”

The Rio Grande Valley sector of the US-Mexico border is the most active spot in the nation for illegal immigrant traffic. Last year saw an increase of 65 percent in the number of people caught, and this year already shows a 55 percent increase over that.

“It’s overwhelming,” said Martinez, shaking his head. “And we are 75 miles north of the river.”

Martinez, a life-long resident of Brooks County, says talk of immigration reform, or hints of any policy remotely resembling amnesty, means more people trying to make “the walk,” with no way to stop it. 

“I don't see us really shutting this thing down.  I don’t see it.  Because I just think it's going to increase the volume,” he said. “It has to, it just makes sense it'll increase the volume of people coming across."

And with that increase in traffic, comes the possibility of more bodies found out in the brush.

In the past week, three more were found.