HomeTop StoriesBarrels of drinking water for migrants passing through Texas have disappeared

Barrels of drinking water for migrants passing through Texas have disappeared

HEBRONVILLE, Texas (AP) — As one of the worst heat waves Authorities and activists in South Texas became embroiled in a mystery in this barren region near the border with Mexico, according to a record set this summer across much of the southern United States.

Barrels of life-saving water strategically placed by a human rights organization for wayward migrants traveling on foot had disappeared.

Usually they are hard to miss. Labeled with the word “AGUA,” painted in white, all caps and about waist-high, the 55-gallon (208 liter) blue barrels stand out against the undergrowth and grass, turned from green to sun-dried brown.

There is a lot at stake to solve this mystery.

Summer temperatures can reach 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 degrees Celsius) in Texas’ sparsely populated Jim Hogg County, with its sprawling, inhospitable farms. Migrants – and sometimes people smugglers – take a route through this county to try to avoid a Border Patrol checkpoint on a busier highway about 30 miles to the east. More than 60 miles from the US-Mexico border, it can take several days to walk there for migrants who may have already spent weeks traversing mountains and desert and avoiding cartel violence.

“We don’t have the luxury of wasting time in what we do,” said Ruben Garza’s, an investigator with the Jim Hogg Sheriff’s Office. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he remembered helping locate a missing migrant man who overheated in the undergrowth, cried for help but died moments after being rescued.

The exact number of deaths is difficult to determine, because deaths often go unreported. The UN’s International Organization for Migration estimates that nearly 3,000 migrants have died crossing from Mexico to the US from drowning in Rio Grande or from lack of shelter, food or water.

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Humanitarian groups began placing water for migrants in spots on the US side of the border with Mexico in the 1990s after authorities began finding the bodies of those who succumbed to the harsh conditions.

John Meza volunteers at the South Texas Human Rights Center in Jim Hogg County, where the population of about 5,000 people is spread over 2,850 square miles – larger than the state of Rhode Island. He supplies the stations with liter jugs of water, cuts away overgrown grass and makes sure that the GPS coordinates are still visible on the underside of the barrel lids.

During one of his rounds in July, Meza said, 12 of the 21 stations he maintains were no longer there.

The Associated Press compared images taken with Google Maps over the past two years and confirmed that some of the barrels that once stood there are gone.

But to where?

Wildfires are common in this part of Texas, where dry grass quickly turns into fuel. Road builders regularly push or move obstacles for their work. But as Garza, the sheriff’s detective, walked along a path designated by GPS coordinates for the barrels, there were no signs of melted, blue plastic. And nothing indicated that the heavy barrels had been moved. Although volunteers only partially fill them, they can weigh up to about 38 pounds.

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The detective drove up and down the main road where many of the water stations were installed near private property fences, noting the circumstances of each missing barrel.

Empty water bottles stood on the floor at the round impression left by the heavy barrel in one place. Another had the grass cut and fresh soil exposed to create buffers against fire.

Garza suspected road crews had moved three barrels that had been parked along a dirt road, but the Texas Department of Transportation denied this. The researcher also noted that a “massive amount” of wildfires could be to blame. He also speaks to local farmers in hopes of demonstrating that the disappearances could be a simple misunderstanding, not a crime.

“They probably have a logical explanation,” he said, with no apparent clue.

But in other states along the southern border, missing water stations are being blamed on malicious intent.

The group No More Deaths released a video in 2018 of Border Patrol agents kicking over and pouring water from gallon jugs left for people in the desert.

No More Deaths said it found more than 3,586 gallon pitchers of water destroyed in an 800-square-mile (2,072-square-kilometer) desert region of southern Arizona from 2012 to 2015.

Laura Hunter and her husband, John, began water quenching along popular smuggling routes in Southern California in the 1990s. They note that their efforts are not affiliated with any political or religious groups, but their work is often attacked.

“Every year, of course, we have vandalism, you know, people who disagree with what we’re doing,” said Laura Hunter.

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The Hunters met with Eddie Canales, the executive director of the South Texas Human Rights Center, about 15 years ago and provided the design for the low-cost water stations. In light of the news, they offered some advice.

“I would replace them all with some used barrels, just replace them all,” said John Hunter. “And then I’d put some cameras on it and get the license plates on the guy and his face.”

Canales said he plans to work with volunteers to replace the missing stations in the coming days.

The number of migrants passing through South Texas and subsequent deaths dropped this year after President Joe Biden’s administration instituted new border police. A medical research agency covering 11 counties, including Jim Hogg, has received the bodies of 85 migrants who died this year. It represents less than half the number sent to that office in 2022. Most of the migrants who died this year suffered fatal heat stroke.

But that could change, especially if legal challenges to the Biden administration’s policies are successful.

For now, the mystery of the barrels’ disappearance remains unsolved. But Meza, the volunteer who refills the barrels in Jim Hogg County, intends to continue his work

“If that was intentional, that’s pretty malicious. You know what I mean?” asked Meza. “You say, ‘Let these people die, because I don’t want to give them access to water.'”


Associated Press writer Anita Snow in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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