Guatemalan village mourns teen who died in US custody

«He was like my brother,» Rafael told Al Jazeera, sitting with his classmates in San Jose El Rodeo, an indigenous Maya Achi village 73km north of Guatemala City.

San Jose El Rodeo, Guatemala — Rafael* fought back tears as he searched for words to describe his best friend, Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, who died in US custody on Monday.

The two boys were born one day apart and would have both celebrated their 17th birthdays next week. But after Hernandez Vasquez left to seek work in the United States to help support his family, he fell ill and died shortly after crossing the border.

«I never imagined that this could happen to my best friend, my brother,» Rafael said.

«We loved to play football,» he recalled. «When we had time in the afternoon, we would say ‘let’s go to the field.’»

Hernandez Vasquez was the fifth Guatemalan child to die in US custody in the past six months, raising further alarm over conditions facing migrants and asylum seekers at the US border.

The Maya Achi teen was found unresponsive on Monday in a border patrol facility in Weslaco, Texas. He had been given medication for flu-like symptoms during his week in custody after crossing into the US from Mexico but was not hospitalised.

On Tuesday, border authorities temporarily stopped intake at the McAllen processing centre due to an outbreak of high fever and other flu-like symptoms among detainees. Hernandez Vasquez had been detained and processed at the McAllen facility prior to his transfer to Weslaco. Regular operations at McAllen resumed on Wednesday, officials said.

The Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General, the Customs and Border Patrol Office of Professional Responsibility and the Weslaco Police Department are investigating the incident, a CBP spokesperson told Al Jazeera in an email on Thursday.

‘I saw others on the news. I didn’t think it’d happen to me’

Hernandez Vasquez was in good health when he left in April, according to his friends and family. They now join other grieving families around Guatemala.

Seven-year-old Jakelin Caal died of a bacterial infection in early December 2018 after travelling to the US with her father. Eight-year-old Felipe Gomez Alonzo died on Christmas Eve of a flu infection. Juan de Leon Gutierrez, 16, travelled to the US after his family experienced years of hardship due to an ongoing drought. He died on April 30. Two-year-old Wilmer Ramirez died earlier this month after spending weeks in hospital.

Ten-year-old Stephanie Velazquez, also from Guatemala, died in Mexican immigration custody this month. And 10-year-old Darlyn Valle from El Salvador died in US custody last September, but her death was not made public until earlier this week when it was first reported by CBS News.


«I saw other families on the news, but I never thought it would happen to me,» Hernandez Vasquez’s father, Bartolome, told Al Jazeera.

Known affectionately by many as «Gollito», a diminutive nickname for Gregorio, Hernandez Vasquez was the second-youngest of nine children. The family has no farmland of their own, so Bartolome supported his family by working in fields owned by other residents.

Bartolome Hernandez holds a photo of his son, Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, in his hands in the family’s home in San Jose El Rodeo, Guatemala Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera

A framed photograph of the teen sat next to a votive candle and flowers outside the family home. Neighbours and relatives stopped by with greetings and condolences while Bartolome spoke about his son.

«He loves music,» said Bartolome, speaking of his son in the present tense, as many in the community still do. «He is the one who plays bass in church.»

His son also played the piano, drums, and other instruments. Music is a shared passion in the family. When Bartolome mentioned that Hernandez Vasquez’s older brother Edgar also plays the piano, he came out to join his dad on the porch, smiling and humming a tune.

Edgar is one of the reasons Hernandez Vasquez left for the US. The 18-year-old has special needs and requires extra care and attention. His younger brother wanted to help support his parents who look after him.


Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez’s aunts prepare food for his family in the family’s home Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera

Hernandez Vasquez «has always been very caring», Rene Teletor, a family friend, told Al Jazeera.

Teletor, 26, came to know the teen well through their shared love of music. Teletor is part of a community marimba band that plays at local birthdays, weddings, and gatherings, and sometimes they would ask Hernandez Vasquez to join them.

«Music is in his blood,» Teletor told Al Jazeera. «He plays almost all of the instruments.»

Extreme poverty

San Jose El Rodeo is a close-knit community, but there are few opportunities for work outside of subsistence agriculture. For those without land of their own, agricultural labour pays only $4.50 a day and there is not always work.

«It is not enough to cover the basic cost of living,» said Teletor, who migrated to the US in search of work earlier this year but was detained and quickly deported back to Guatemala from McAllen, Texas.

Hilda Ramirez, a local first grade teacher, estimates at least 25 youth have migrated to the US over the past few years from San Jose El Rodeo, home to a few thousand people.

«Some have a need to migrate due to the extreme poverty that affects the village,» she told Al Jazeera. «Many teenagers embark on the journey out of necessity.»

Guatemala Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez

Children line up for lunch in San Jose El Rodeo, Guatemala as women walk down the main road Jeff Abbott/Al Jazeera

In the Baja Verapaz department where San Jose El Rodeo is located, two-thirds of the population lives in poverty, according to the National Statistics Institute.

Elementary school covers grades one through six, and a rural distance-learning programme in San Jose El Rodeo facilitates another three years of schooling, but poverty further restricts educational opportunities.

Young children go to school, but many stop once they reach 12 or 13 years of age because their help is needed at home and in the fields for families to get by, said Ramirez. Many children do not complete sixth grade, and enrollment beyond that plummets, she added.

Hernandez Vasquez and his best friend Rafael were two of the few students to continue on to middle school. Rafael is on track to complete the equivalent of ninth grade this year, and hopes to be one of the very few to continue his education beyond that.

Hernandez Vasquez graduated from ninth grade in 2017, before his ill-fated journey in search of work in the US, where one of his older brothers lives and works.

More than anything else, their father Bartolome wants to be able to bring his 16-year-old son’s body home for burial as soon as possible.

«I am here with that pain,» said Hernandez. «It sort of breaks the mind to be thinking about it so much.»

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