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Teenager Dies In Border Patrol Custody


There are new, upsetting details in the death of Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez, a 16-year-old Guatemalan who was found dead last May in a cell at a Border Patrol station in south Texas. He was the fifth of six children to die in the custody of the U.S. Border Protection Agency in less than a year.

Hernandez Vasquez had developed the flu after he'd been in custody for several days. The evening before his death, he was seen by a nurse who recommended he be reevaluated and taken to a hospital if his symptoms worsened. The next morning, according to the Border Patrol, his body was discovered in his cell during a welfare check. But video obtained by ProPublica contradicts that account.

Maryam Jameel is one of the reporters who worked on this story, and she joins me now. Welcome.

MARYAM JAMEEL: Hi. Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How did ProPublica get this recording?

JAMEEL: Well, initially, reporters on the story were trying to get the recording from Customs and Border Protection, but they said that they couldn't release it because it was under investigation - this case. But FOIA was filed to the Weslaco police station who - which had investigated the case briefly, and so they had it in their possession and were able to give it to us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And what does it show?

JAMEEL: It shows a really, really difficult and sad scene of Carlos Gregorio being neglected. You see him in what is clearly a very uncomfortable room. There are two benches, there are two boys and there is a toilet. You see Carlos Gregorio basically - he's in pain. He is on the floor at times, which is - I'm told is common because kids who are sick try to - it's colder on the floor, so they try to lower their temperature. He is clearly in need of medical attention.

It shows his last moments, the last time he moves. And it also shows that nobody checked on him in - at least going inside the cell. Border Patrol had said that they found Carlos unresponsive, and that's how they discovered that he was dead. But we see that his very distraught cellmate actually had to come to the door and wave for attention and for somebody to come in. And that's when they found Carlos.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this essentially refutes the official version of events.

JAMEEL: It does indeed. And we also know from other records we got that there were a few welfare checks allegedly done, three of them throughout the time that Carlos was likely still alive and in need of help. We don't have footage for that part of the night. We're not sure why. And so if there were welfare checks, it appears that nothing was done as a result of those checks.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You also quote a doctor who reviewed the video and the medical records and defended how the Border Patrol handled the situation. She said, quote, "I was a little surprised that this kid, as sick as he was in the cell, never just knocked on the door as his roommate did because as soon as the roommate did, they opened."

But if they were monitoring him, if they were looking at him as frequently as they say they did, why wouldn't they have done a physical check as soon as they saw him on the floor?

JAMEEL: That is something that I hope becomes known and is explained as this case is further investigated. But Border Patrol would not answer any of our questions about the specifics of what did and didn't happen and why.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Carlos Gregorio Hernandez Vasquez was buried in Guatemala. How is his family doing?

JAMEEL: I have not spoken with his family since the video came out, so I can't really say. But the Texas Civil Rights Project did issue a statement Friday basically saying that this video's release and it going viral and not having a chance to see this video beforehand has been very, very difficult for them, and it has been additional source of harm in their grieving process. So I don't think they're doing very well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What was Carlos Gregorio doing when he was coming to America?

JAMEEL: He wanted to basically help support his family. He only wanted to come for a short amount of time, and he was thinking of working in construction. He has a brother who has special needs and has pretty expensive medical needs. And the part of Guatemala that he is from is very under-resourced. It's very hard for people to get jobs that can provide a living wage.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you think this story says about what is happening right now with Customs and Border Patrol?

JAMEEL: I think there is a state of great neglect. This was not a freak accident. This was the result of many systemic problems which have been documented, which have been called out. His death was not the first. There is little accountability that is being taken by the government for this thus far, and I think this is a reflection of a broken and neglectful system.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maryam Jameel is a reporter for ProPublica. Thank you very much.

JAMEEL: Thank you, Lulu.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE DOT SESSIONS' "WATERMARKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.