Inside volunteer and CBP efforts to recover bodies in the Borderland

Local News

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — The recovery of the body of a migrant in Hudspeth County on Monday is underscoring the intensive efforts taken to coordinate search and rescue missions in the unincorporated desert and near the border.

The Texas Rescue Patrol (TRP), a group of about 60 volunteers, is helping local law enforcement agencies that include the Hudspeth County Sheriff’s Office and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) in the recovery of injured or missing persons. The agencies take the lead and TRP assists in the rescue operations when requested.

The organization consists of licensed Emergency Medical Services (EMS) responders whose broader mission is to provide community outreach, safety education and emergency medical services. 

The volunteers most often work near Red Sands but most recently have been trekking to the rocky desert regions where many migrant remains are being recovered.

“We’re exposed to things that most people don’t get exposed to,” Chief Jamil Moutran, who runs and volunteers with TRP told KTSM 9 News.

TRP does the labor-intensive work of navigating dangerous desert terrain to locate a missing person. If remains are discovered, Chief Jamil Moutran said he and the other volunteers quietly — and somberly — bag the remains, then transport them back to the agency they are working with.

The remains are often in active or advanced decay stages of decomposition.

“Me, personally? I don’t like seeing blood, I don’t like seeing those things. But I know that I’m there for a reason,” said Moutran. 

Moutran spoke candidly with KTSM about the mental health toll it takes on him and the other volunteers to recover people who were lost and who were deeply loved.

On Monday, he and a few other volunteers were given handwritten letters from a family who thanked them for recovering the body of their loved one.

It’s often a thankless job that Moutran said is OK because the alternative is families left in agony as they wonder whether they are lost in the desert, kidnapped by cartels or worse. 

TRP is able to provide closure and a sense of dignity to the families of people who’ve died in the desert, while also alleviating some of the workload for the Sheriff’s Office and CBP.

The work is done for free, despite the emotional toll.

TRP is a non-profit organization that is a division of Texas Recreational Safety and Land Management. The organization relies on donations and some grant money to cover overhead such as fuel for its two trucks and medical equipment like neck stabilizers, tourniquets, gauze and other items that might help save a life. 

Moutran runs an ATV rental company that helps provide for the non-profit, but he says times were — and continue to be — tough because of COVID-19.

“We’re totally self-sufficient thanks to donations and a little bit of grant money,” said Moutran.

TRP typically responds to calls from Red Sands, where volunteers are often able to reach anyone in distress within a few minutes and administer life-saving aid as entities such as the Montana Vista Fire Department make their way to the scene.

“The kind of activities we’ve been seeing at Red Sands are the types of activities we’ve always seen at Red Sands,” Moutran said, noting that most often the volunteers see families and off-roading enthusiasts looking to decompress.

“Unfortunately it’s not a park, there’s no rules here, it’s not maintained — we are not security,” he said. 

The Chihuahuan desert southwest of Red Sands is seeing increased migrant-crossing activity that CBP said is resulting in multiple rescue missions. Traffickers, or “coyotes,” will trick migrants into paying large sums of money and then leave them to die.

“These people are put into these dangerous and deadly situations by the transnational criminal organizations who simply treat them as commodities,” says Greg Davis, public affairs officer for CBP’s Big Bend Sector. “They take their money, drive them through the desert — marching them, if you will — and oftentimes abandon them in very precarious situations.”

For TRP volunteers and CBP agents, the speed of their response is often a matter of life and death. 

“If they don’t run into a rancher or flag somebody down, they often expire,” Davis said. “It’s a heartbreaking thing.”

Moutran said he warns people seeking volunteer positions on the Texas Rescue Patrol who hope to save lives.

“It’s not going to be easy, but nothing worth it ever is,” he said.

To donate to the Texas Rescue Patrol’s GoFundMe Campaign, click here.

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