‘I lost my son’: Guatemala mum mourns boy who died in US custody

Transito Gutierrez last saw her son at the beginning of April
Transito Gutierrez last saw her son at the beginning of April [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]
by Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera

Tizamarte, Guatemala – Transito Gutierrez did not want her 16-year-old son, Juan de Leon Gutierrez, to migrate to the United States from their small town in southern Guatemala, near the border with Honduras. But Juan assured her he would make it.

“He told me, ‘Mommy, I am going to cross over the border and I will send you money. It may not be every day, but I will when I can.'” Gutierrez, 46, told Al Jazeera.

Juan was one of Gutierrez’s six children. He was hoping to join his older brother who migrated to the US in 2011.

The teen left the small village of Tizamarte in the arid, rain-starved mountains over the town of Camotan, Chiquimula on April 4 with a friend from a nearby village. They travelled with a migrant guide, commonly known as a coyote.

He was detained by US authorities as he tried to cross the US-Mexico border a little over two weeks later. He was eventually sent to a migrant youth shelter, and on April 30 he died following surgery to relieve pressure in his head caused by an infection, according to local media.

16-year-old migrant boy dies in US government custody in Texas

Juan is the third minor from Guatemala to die in US custody along the southern border since the beginning of December. His death has left the family devastated.

“I’ve lost my son, but his soul is still with us,” Gutierrez said, as she held back tears.

The family is waiting for the return of Juan’s body to Guatemala. This is especially important for his mother, who laments that she does not have a photo of her son.

‘He was healthy’

Juan was detained on April 19 as he attempted to cross into the US near El Paso, Texas by US Customs and Border Protection. According to US media, he was transferred a day later to Southwest Key Casa Padre, an Office of Refugee Resettlement facility in Brownsville, Texas built in an old shopping centre.

In an emailed statement to Al Jazeera, Evelyn Stauffer, spokesperson for the Administration for Children and Families of the US Department of Health and Human Services said “no health concerns were observed” prior to the teen being transferred.

7-year-old Guatemalan girl who died in US custody is laid to rest

On April 21, Juan woke up with chills, a fever, and a headache. According to Stauffer, he was taken to the hospital, where he was treated and released. His condition did not improve.

On April 22, he was taken to the emergency room and placed in intensive care. He died eight days later. The exact cause of death is currently under review, Stauffer said.

According to Gutierrez, Juan’s pain began to develop while he was en route to the US border, but he was taking medicine to limit the pain.

“When it use to rain here, he would go work in the field and return saying that his head hurt,” Gutierrez said. “But he was healthy.”

Gutierrez didn’t want her son to travel to the US [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

While Juan was sick, his mother was informed of developments in his condition by US officials. At times they came in Spanish, other times they came in English, which she didn’t understand.

Juan’s older brother, who was already in the US, also kept his mother informed of the teen’s condition, Gutierrez said.

At one point, officials from the Guatemalan Ministry of Foreign Affairs called to ask her if she would be interested in travelling to the US, but this only brought her more concern.

“I don’t have the money to travel or to pay for a passport,” she said.

Poverty and climate change

Juan was one of many migrating from the southern regions of Guatemala, an area known as the dry corridor.

The situation has grown worse in the last two years. According to Gloria Amador, a 41-year-old nurse who has worked in the village of Tizamarte and the surrounding region for nine years, people began to migrate to the US in July 2018.

“Many people are migrating due to necessity,” Amador told Al Jazeera. “There is little work, there are families with few resources, and there is a severe drought.”

The region where Juan is from is experienced a drought and severe poverty [Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera]

The drought has heavily affected the region, Amador said, adding that farmers in the area lost 80 to 90 percent of their crops last year due to drought.

The dwinding capacity to work the land also drove Juan to seek opportunities in the US.

“Now that it doesn’t rain, we cannot produce anything,” Gutierrez said.

“[Juan] told me that the coffee plants were dying. He said he was desperate,” she added. “He said he could earn more there in the United States than here. He could earn more than the $4 a day working in the field.”

Sixteen-year-old Juan de Leon Gutierrez travelled to the US to join his older brother and send money home to his family.

Guatemalan boy detained at border dies in US custody

A group of Central American migrants surrender to US Border Patrol agents after jumping over the metal barrier separating Playas de Tijuana in Mexico from the US, 2 December 2018Migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border say they are fleeing persecution, poverty and violence

An eight-year-old boy from Guatemala has died in US government custody, officials say, the second migrant child to die in US detention this month.

The border agency says the boy died on Monday night hours after showing signs of illness. A Texas congressman named him as Felipe Alónzo-Gomez.

The child was detained with his father on 18 December after illegally crossing the US-Mexico border.

A seven-year-old girl died earlier this month just hours after being detained.

Jakelin Caal, also from Guatemala, developed a high fever and died of liver failure. Her funeral was held in her village on Tuesday.

Thousands of migrants have travelled from Central America – mainly from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – to the US border.

Many say they are fleeing persecution, poverty and violence in their home countries and plan to seek asylum in the US.

What do we know about the latest case?

In a new, lengthy statement, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) said the boy, whose identity has not been officially confirmed, died at 23:48 local time(06:48 GMT) on 24 December. The cause of death is still unknown.

After being detained in El Paso, Texas, he and his father were taken to a local processing centre, where they spent two days. They were then sent to El Paso Border Patrol Station, where they were held for another two days.

On 22 December, they were transferred to Alamogordo Border Patrol Station, in neighbouring New Mexico.

On Monday morning, an agent noticed that the boy “was coughing and appeared to have glossy eyes”. He was taken with his father to a hospital where he was diagnosed with a common cold and given Tylenol (paracetamol).

Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo, New MexicoThe boy had been taken to this hospital but later died

While being evaluated for release, he was found to have a fever of 103F (39.4C) and held for more observation. He was released shortly afterwards with a prescription for an antibiotic and ibuprofen.

The boy and his father were taken to a temporary site at the Highway 70 checkpoint, where the child received the medication. Two hours later, he vomited.

His father declined further medical assistance, the CBP said, as the child had been feeling better.

The child appeared lethargic at around 22:00, when he was sent back to the hospital. While being transported, the boy vomited and lost consciousness, and doctors at the hospital were unable to revive him.

The CBP earlier said the boy died just after midnight. It did not explain why they were held for so long.

His father remains in custody. The Associated Press news agency reported they had plans to go to Johnson City, Tennessee.

What has the reaction been?

CBP Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said the death was “tragic” and announced that the agency would conduct further medical checks on all children in custody, with a focus on those under the age of 10.

He also said the CBP would review its policies and work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to improve custody conditions.

Families apprehended on US border
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Human rights groups criticised the CBP and Guatemala’s foreign ministry called for an investigation.

Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro called for a congressional investigation, saying the administration’s policy of turning people away at the border “is putting families and children in great danger”.

What is happening at the border?

The Trump administration has tried to deter asylum seekers from crossing the border irregularly between ports of entry, warning that they could face arrest, prosecution and deportation.

But, at the same time, it is restricting access to those trying to cross through official ports of entry, creating a long wait for applicants.

Among them are thousands of Central American migrants who travelled together in so-called “caravans”, and arrived at the border with California in recent weeks.

President Trump has vowed to keep each migrant on the Mexican side of the border until courts have decided their cases.

Map of caravan route