EDINBURG, Texas (AP) – An 11-year-old Guatemalan immigrant found dead in the brush near the Rio Grande was on his way to join his brother in Chicago, a South Texas sheriff said Monday.
Although hundreds of immigrants die crossing the border each year, the discovery of Gilberto Francisco Ramos Juarez's decomposed body earlier this month illustrates the dangers unaccompanied minors face as they cross into the U.S. in record numbers.
Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra said the boy was found near La Joya, about 20 miles west of McAllen, on June 15.
"Down here finding a decomposed body ... we come across them quite often," Guerra said. He said this was the first child immigrant his office has found since he became sheriff in April. "It's a very dangerous journey," he said.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended entering the U.S. illegally since October, creating what President Barack Obama has called an "urgent humanitarian situation." Most are from Central America and the vast majority have crossed into the Rio Grande Valley in southernmost Texas.
The surge in unaccompanied child immigrants has overwhelmed the Border Patrol here. The children by law must be turned over to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department within 72 hours of their arrest, but their numbers have made that difficult. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson was scheduled to speak on that department's efforts in McAllen later Monday.
Many of the children simply turn themselves in to the first law enforcement person they see, so Guerra said it was unusual to find a child in this more remote area.
Investigators were able to reach the boy's brother in Chicago through a phone number found written inside the child's belt buckle. That brother gave authorities his father's phone number in Guatemala. With the help of the Guatemalan consulate, the father gave a sworn statement identifying the boy's clothing, including "Angry Birds" jeans, black leather boots made in Guatemala and a white rosary around his neck.
The cause of death has not been determined, but authorities suspect heat stroke, Guerra said. An autopsy did not find signs of trauma and the pathologist estimated the body had been there for about two weeks. Until the family confirmed his age, authorities thought he was an older teenager.
The boy's family in Huehuetenango, Chiantla, Guatemala, had last heard from him about 25 days before his body was found. At that time, he was in Reynosa, Mexico, waiting to cross the border. His father told authorities the boy was traveling with a coyote.
"He was found in an area that normally the unaccompanied minors are not crossing over," Guerra. He said there were some homes about a quarter to a half mile away from where the body was found. "But not being familiar with the terrain I'm sure this child was just wandering aimlessly through the brush area and got lost and had no water and the elements did him in."