After surviving on one meal a day, Juan de León Gutiérrez left his drought-stricken village in eastern Guatemala and set out on a journey to the United States. He just wanted to earn $13 for his family to buy corn and salt.
His family says the hope of saving his siblings helped him make the difficult trek to the US-Mexico border, but he died less than two weeks after crossing it.
Juan, 16, died last week at a Texas children’s hospital after he was taken to a shelter for unaccompanied minors, said his family and Marta Larra, a spokeswoman with the Guatemalan foreign ministry. He is the third Guatemalan child to die in US custody in five months.
The deaths of two children late last year prompted congressional hearings and a decision by immigration authorities to increase medical checks for children in custody. Now US lawmakers are calling for an investigation into Juan’s death as well.
“We can all agree that this death should never have happened, and we must take immediate action to ensure other children do not suffer the same fate,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, said in a letter last week.
More than 1,000 miles away in a remote Guatemalan mountain village, members of the boy’s family told CNN en Español that his death has left them devastated.
“Juan was good, Juan was humble,” said his mother, Tránsito Gutiérrez, tearing up as she described how her son would help around the house. “He was a good son.”
For two years, Juan and his family have been struggling with failed harvests caused by severe droughts in Tizamarte, a small village in the eastern area of Chiquimula. It hasn’t rained enough for the family to grow corn and beans, and the few coffee plants they had recently started dying.
“Even though we sow the plants, nothing grows because of the drought. Even the water is drying up,” his mother said. “There are days when water comes through the tap, and days when it doesn’t. Our pitchers and mugs are empty.”
They are not alone. The “dry corridor” of Central America, which includes parts of Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua, has been hit with an unusual drought for five years. And many migrants coming from Central America to the United States have said droughts are driving them to make the dangerous journey.
Juan’s dad, Tanerjo de León, told CNN en Español that he’d tried to warn his son not to make the trek.
“I told him to stay because it was very dangerous, but he decided to leave,” the father said. “He left anticipating a harsh summer.”
Juan is the second-born son of seven brothers. He had been cleaning and measuring a field for $4 a day. His mother said Juan would help her fetch firewood, jugs with water and prep the scarce family meals they have.
The family doesn’t eat breakfast regularly, Gutiérrez said. Most days they only eat once a day or only drink coffee.
On April 4, the teen left a pair of brown boots along with a pile of jeans and plaid shirts on top of his bed and left. He had slept on the wooden bed without a mattress, on top of a twined tule mat every night.
He traveled with a smuggler, also known as a coyote, for about 15 days before he tried to cross the US-Mexico border. He was detained by the Border Patrol near El Paso, Texas, and was transferred to an Office of Refugee Resettlement shelter.
Evelyn Stauffer, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, said she couldn’t release the boy’s identity due to privacy concerns. She said last week that officials were investigating his death.
“The cause of death is currently under review and, in accordance with standard ORR policies and procedures, the case will be subject to a full review,” Stauffer said.
Officials don’t know whether the child had a pre-existing condition or got sick during his journey from Guatemala, said Silvia Samines, vice consul at the Guatemalan Consulate in McAllen, Texas.
A source close to the situation said the boy showed signs of distress the day after he arrived at Casa Padre, a former Walmart in Brownsville, Texas. The boy was taken to a local hospital twice and eventually airlifted to a children’s hospital in Corpus Christi, Texas, the source said.
Guatemala’s foreign ministry said the boy had a severe infection in his frontal lobe and had undergone an emergency operation at the hospital. The infection did not improve, the ministry said, even after surgery to relieve pressure in the boy’s skull.
Gutiérrez said her son had called her several times through the trip and had complained about a headache.
The last time she spoke with Juan, he was hiding in a warehouse and said he had taken medicine for his constant headaches but the pain would not go away. When she picked up the phone days later, doctors treating Juan tried to explain to her that he was suffering from an infection.
Outside their home in Tizamarte, Gutiérrez remembers a teen who was always obedient and close to his mother.
For now, her biggest wish is to have her son’s remains back in Guatemala. It’s the only way, she said, that she would allow herself to cry for him.
CNN en Español’s Michelle Mendoza reported from Tizamarte, CNN’s Nicole Chavez reported from Atlanta and CNN’s Catherine E. Shoichet reported from Washington. CNN’s Priscilla Alvarez and John D. Sutter contributed to this report.