Most graves in the large municipal cemetery on the outskirts of the Mexican border town of Piedras Negras are well-tended by loved ones and the place has an elegance and peace about it, as a place of rest.
Tombs feature headstones or metal crosses, bearing pictures of Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe, and many are decorated with bursts of color from vivid pink, orange and blue artificial flowers (that don’t wither in the summer’s brutal heat).
But dotted amid the decorated graves there is the sudden, jarring sight of plain, wooden crosses.
One has scrawled on it in Spanish: “24 April 2019. Unidentified male recovered from the Rio Bravo approximately 300 meters from the black bridge in the Morelos neighborhood.”
It’s one of three pauper’s graves in the cemetery that this year became the final resting place of last resort for migrants who drowned in the nearby Rio Grande, which in Mexico is known as the Rio Bravo, but who could not be identified by Mexican authorities.
As drownings have increased in the treacherous river amid the Trump administration trying to block all undocumented people from crossing into the US, even to seek asylum, Piedras Negras has had to bury unidentifiable bodies after they were hauled out of the water by first responders.
It is another stark reminder that while images earlier this week of a father and his toddler daughter – Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and Valeria – who had drowned further east, shocked the world, they are far from the only victims of the chaos and desperation Trump has precipitated at the border with his hardline policies.
Many die alone at various points along the border that divides Mexico from the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas, whether in water or desert, and end up barely accounted for.
Mario Ávila Martínez administers the cemetery in Piedras Negras, called the Villa de Fuente.
He said that burying unidentified bodies in pauper’s graves there has become almost a routine. Last year seven people who were almost certainly trying to migrate into the US and drowned in the river could not be identified and all ended up in his cemetery under a mound of soil hardening in the hot sun and the simplest, unpainted wooden cross. So far this year Ávila Martínez has had to bury three drowned people, all of them men.
“It’s very sad when there is nobody here to claim the body and give their family member a proper burial. I’ve been administering this cemetery for 16 years. I’ve become used to burying people, even the people with no names.”
Ávila Martínez provides a dignified burial in individual graves for those unlucky enough never to make it across the river to the US and whose families will probably never know with certainty what happened to them.
He added: “When they fish somebody out of the river, the public prosecutor takes photos and also DNA samples. About a week later they bring the body to me at the cemetery for burial.”
Last week one Honduran family managed to find out that their relative, Denis Arcenio Pineda Muñoz, 23, had been buried in a Piedras Negras pauper’s grave. His family identified his body by clothing and a tattoo on his leg, shown in media reports.
The Honduran ministry of foreign affairs authorized the procedures for exhumation and repatriation and a government official came to Piedras Negras to accompany the body back home.
Arcenio Pineda eventually received a proper burial in Honduras. And Martínez Ramírez and Valeria, the father and daughter who perished in the Rio Grande in Matamoros earlier this week, will at least have a funeral in El Salvador, surrounded by family members.
Ávila Martínez said: “Óscar and Valeria were lucky because a family member nearby could identify them. The people who drown in the river, and whom I have to bury, don’t carry identification and don’t have any kin nearby. It’s sad but at least I can give them a dignified burial.”
The desconocidos (unknowns) under the mounds of soil dampened by recent rains in the Piedras Negras graveyard were buried in a cardboard or thin plywood coffin with no markings and, despite Mexico’s deep religiosity, no ceremony of any kind.
“Each funeral parlor in town has to take turns preparing the unidentified bodies for burial. Obviously there is nobody to charge for their services. The city of Piedras Negras pays the costs of burying the unknowns in the cemetery,” Ávila Martínez said.
Drowned bodies are often in an advanced state of decomposition when they get to the graveyard and the diggers never open the coffins.
When the original words on the wooden crosses fade, cemetery workers paint the tip of the cross black so they can identify that the grave has an unidentified body, in case they ever need to be disinterred. On the horizontal piece of wood, they paint on the Spanish word desconocido Some of the crosses in the cemetery had keeled over with time and lay on the ground, grass starting to cover them.
The cemetery is filling up and its graves date to the early 20th century. But the authorities squeeze the unidentified bodies in, digging graves, wherever they can. Although there is little room left there is also little doubt that there will be more pauper’s graves that need to be dug in the months to come.
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