As one of the worst heat waves on record set in across much of the southern United States this summer, authorities and activists in South Texas found themselves embroiled in a mystery in this arid region near the border with Mexico.
Barrels of life-saving water that a human rights group had strategically placed for wayward migrants traveling on foot had vanished.
Usually, they are hard to miss. Labeled with the word "AGUA" painted in white, capital letters and standing about waist-high, the 55-gallon (208-liter), blue drums stand out against the scrub and grass, turned from green to a sundried brown.
The stakes of solving this mystery are high.
Summer temperatures can climb to 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43.3 degrees Celsius) in Texas' sparsely populated Jim Hogg County, with its vast, inhospitable ranchlands. Migrants — and sometimes human smugglers — take a route through this county to try to circumvent a Border Patrol checkpoint on a busier highway about 30 miles (48 kilometers) to the east. More than 60 miles (96 kilometers) from the U.S.-Mexico border, it can take several days to walk there for migrants who may have already spent weeks crossing mountains and desert and avoiding cartel violence.
"We don’t have the luxury of losing time in what we do," said Ruben Garza’s, an investigator with the Jim Hogg Sheriff’s Office. Tears streamed down his face as he recalled helping locate a missing migrant man who became overheated in the brush, called for help but died just moments after his rescue.
Eduardo Canales, of South Texas Human Rights Center, checks a barrel to see how many jugs of water for migrants are left in Falfurrias, Texas, on October 11, 2022. (Photo by allison dinner / AFP) (Photo by ALLISON DINNER/AFP via Getty Images)
Exact counts of those who die are difficult to determine because deaths often go unreported. The U.N. International Organization for Migration estimates almost 3,000 migrants have died crossing from Mexico to the U.S. by drowning in Rio Grande, or because of lack of shelter, food or water.
Humanitarian groups started placing water for migrants in spots on the U.S. side of the border with Mexico in the 1990s after authorities began finding bodies of those who succumbed to the harsh conditions.
John Meza volunteers with the South Texas Human Rights Center in Jim Hogg County, where the population of about 5,000 people is spread over 1,100 square miles (2,850 square kilometers) — larger than the state of Rhode Island. He restocks the stations with gallon jugs of water, trims away overgrown grass, and ensures the GPS coordinates are still visible on the underside of the barrel lids.
On one of his rounds in July, Meza said, 12 of the 21 stations he maintains were no longer there.
The Associated Press compared images captured by Google Maps over the last two years and confirmed that some barrels that were once there were gone.
But to where?
Wildfires are common in this part of Texas, where dry grass quickly becomes fuel. Road construction crews frequently push or move aside obstructions for their work. But as Garza, the sheriff's investigator, walked along a path designated by GPS coordinates for the barrels, there were no signs of melted, blue plastic. And nothing indicated the heavy barrels had been moved. Though volunteers fill them only partway, they can weigh up to about 85 pounds (38 kilograms).
The investigator drove up and down the main highway where many of the water stations were installed near private property fence lines making note of the circumstances of each missing barrel.
Empty water bottles sat on the ground near the round impression left behind by the heavy barrel in one site. At another, the grass was trimmed, and fresh earth was laid bare to create buffers against fire.
Garza suspected state road crews moved three barrels that had been along an unpaved road, but the Texas Department of Transportation denied it. The investigator also noted a "tremendous amount" of wildfires could be to blame. He's also speaking with area ranchers in hopes of showing the disappearances may be a simple misunderstanding, not a crime.
"They probably have a logical explanation," he said, with no apparent lead.
But in other states along the southern border, missing water stations have been ascribed to spiteful intentions.
The group No More Deaths in 2018 released video of Border Patrol agents kicking over and pouring water out of gallon jugs left for people in the desert.
No More Deaths said that from 2012 to 2015, it found more than 3,586 gallon jugs of water that had been destroyed in an 800-square-mile (2,072-square-kilometer) desert area in southern Arizona.
Laura Hunter and her husband, John, started putting out water along popular smuggling routes in Southern California in the 1990s. They note their effort is not affiliated with political or religious groups, but that their work is often attacked.
"Every single year, we have vandalism, of course, you know, people that don’t agree with what we do," Laura Hunter said.
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," John Hunter said. "And then I would put a couple of cameras on those and get the guy’s license plates and his face."
Canales said he plans to work with volunteers to replace the missing stations in the coming days.
The number of migrants crossing through South Texas and subsequent deaths decreased this year after President Joe Biden's administration instituted new border polices. A medical examiner's office who covers eleven 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 strokes.
But that could change, especially if legal challenges to the Biden administration’s policies are successful.
For now, the mystery about the barrels' disappearance remains unsolved. But Meza, the volunteer who restocks the barrels in Jim Hogg County, plans to continue his work
"If that was intentional, that’s a pretty malicious thing. You know what I mean?" Meza asked. "You’re saying, ‘Let these people die because I don’t want to give them access to water.’"