Cruz Velazquez was only 16 when a stranger handed down his death sentence.
In many respects, he was a typical teenager. He studied, rising to the 10th grade at the local high school. He worked, helping his grandmother run the small business that supported his family. And he looked after his younger sister, Reyna, who relied on him after their parents separated.
“He was kind of my dad,” Reyna said, “because since I was little he always helped me with homework, teach me sports, and everything he could.”
Tijuana, however, where Velazquez lived, is not a typical place. For decades, the city has been an important staging ground for the multi-billion-dollar business of moving illegal drugs from South and Central America into the United States. It is home to warring cartels who conduct business in bloodshed: there were 910 homicides in Tijuana in 2016, and with 785 homicides documented so far this year, 2017 is on pace to be one of the most violent years in recent memory.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection has a dark history of alleged mistreatment and abuse.
Rather than rein in the CBP, President Donald Trump seems poised to set them loose.
“[Tijuana is] very important,” said Steve Gomez, a former FBI agent and ABC News consultant, who spent years working against the cartels. “[It's] probably the most important city … for all of the cartels in Mexico.”
At the start of his presidential campaign, Donald Trump accused Mexico of exporting drugs and the crime that follows in their wake. He has since pledged to “build a wall” between the United States and Mexico and announced plans to deputize thousands of new U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers to police it.
“We have some bad hombres here,” said Trump of those who have been allowed to pass through the country's southern border, “and we're going to get them out.”
On the night of Nov. 18, 2013, Velazquez arrived the San Ysidro Port of Entry, the Western Hemisphere's busiest land-border crossing. Government surveillance video obtained by ABC News of his encounter with border officers shows in gripping detail just how far officers would go as they questioned a young man caught between the powerful forces on opposite sides of the cross-border drug trade.
That footage — which aired for the first time Friday on Good Morning America, World News Tonight with David Muir, 20/20 and Nightline — sparked a year-long ABC News investigation of U.S. Customs and Border Protection with the non-profit Investigative Fund that revealed a history of cases in which the agency appeared to ignore accusations of mistreatment and abuse.
“There is a clear history of agents and officers engaging in what I believe was serious misconduct, documented by my office, in many instances who received little or no discipline whatsoever as a result,” said James Tomsheck, the former head of internal affairs for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, who has become a sharp critic of the agency after being ousted amid controversy.
In response to the investigation, the agency issued a statement, saying, “CBP takes all allegations of mistreatment seriously, and does not tolerate actions that are not consistent with our core values of vigilance, service to country and integrity.”
But for Velazquez, and for other young people, the consequences of that alleged misconduct were extreme, suggesting that at least some of the “bad hombres” are not the people crossing the border, but the people patrolling it.
Velazquez was playing with Reyna at his grandmother's house when he abruptly announced that he was going to the gym.
“Why?” Reyna protested. “It's too late.”
There was a movie on television that she was eager to watch with him.
“No te preocupes,” he said. “Don't worry. I'm gonna be back.”
He shouldered his bag and left — not for the gym, but for the border.
Velazquez was carrying two plastic bottles filled with liquid methamphetamine destined for the United States, where the highly-concentrated mixture could be boiled down to solid form and sold.
A dedicated student with dreams of higher education, Velazquez might have seemed an unlikely smuggler. Reyna said the signs were subtle, starting perhaps with a new group of friends.
According to former FBI agent Gomez, the cartels frequently enlist young drug mules from the city who are willing to embrace risky work for “a quick buck.” Its members can also manufacture motivation where it is lacking. The cartels gather information about the families of promising recruits, Gomez said, so that reluctant couriers might be reminded that their families' safety depends on their success.
“That is part of the noose that they put around their neck,” Gomez said.
Velazquez was one of about 75,000 people to attempt to enter the United States through San Ysidro that day, and he would have expected an easier trip than most. He had a border crossing card allowing him to skip the long lines and enter the country through the so-called “Ready Lane.”
When he presented his credentials to the officer at the primary inspection area, however, he immediately ran into trouble. The officer was suspicious of Velazquez, so he sent him to a secondary checkpoint, a post manned by a pair of relatively new officers named Valerie Baird and Adrian Perallon, for further scrutiny.
They asked Velazquez to place his bag on the counter, and they removed the two bottles inside. Baird examined the bottles first, turning them over in her hands, and then passed them to Perallon. The officers would later say Velazquez claimed to be carrying only “juice,” but one bottle was labelled black tea, the other apple juice, and both of them appeared to contain the same viscous, yellow liquid.
At this point, Velazquez, and perhaps his family, were in danger. According to Gomez, the cartel would have had someone waiting on the other side of the border to confirm that he had crossed safely. If he was detained, his absence would have been reported immediately, potentially triggering a visit to his family back in Mexico.
“In his mind, the cartel is worse that the U.S. agents,” said Gomez. “A lot of times, they don't even wanna hear the excuse. They'll just kill everybody and make an example.”
There are conflicting accounts of exactly what happened next, but video of the encounter shows that Baird and Perallon did not use a nearby kit to test the contents of the bottles.
Instead, they appear to suggest, or at least permit, Velasquez to prove that the liquid was indeed juice. Baird pushed a bottle toward Velazquez and raised her right hand, suggesting he was led down a dangerous path with a familiar gesture.
Velazquez barely hesitated. He took a drink. Perallon, who maintains he always thought it was just juice, appears to tell him to take another sip. Velazquez complied.
While it is unclear whether Velazquez knew exactly what he was carrying, the officers had reason to be suspicious. In March, the agency issued a press release after a Juarez woman was caught attempting to smuggle 26 pounds of liquid methamphetamine through the border in bottles in El Paso.
Two minutes later, the officers appear to encourage Velazquez to drink more. He took two more swigs.
Baird and Perallon exchanged smiles.
In total, Velazquez swallowed four sips of a solution tests would later reveal to be more than a hundred times stronger than the typical dose of methamphetamine. According to Dr. Ben Nordstrom, chief clinical officer of the drug addiction treatment center Phoenix House, those drinks constituted a “truly massive overdose,” the biggest he had ever seen, but the effects would have been delayed as the drug was absorbed into his bloodstream.
“He's not gonna be able to feel it,” Nordstrom said. “But his blood pressure is going to be creeping up all along. He's gonna start to feel restless.”
The inspection continued as Velazquez's temperature began to rise. It was a cool day, so Velazquez had pulled a white “Hollister” hoodie over his t-shirt and blue jeans, but suddenly he began to sweat. He wiped his brow. He pulled off his sweatshirt.
But the officers did not call for medical attention. Instead, they took him into custody. After an alert from a drug-sniffing dog, they put Velazquez in handcuffs and led him into a security office, where the effects of his overdose would become obvious. Not only was he sweating profusely, but he was shaking and struggling to breathe.
- ‟He was telling me to hit him. He wanted me to hit him. And then he just said that he didn't want to die.”
“I remember putting my hand on him and just told him to, like, relax, calm down,” Baird said later. “I thought he was nervous that he was going to get caught.”
Velazquez grew increasingly frantic and fearful as his temperature spiked and his heart raced.
“When I was standing with him, he was telling me to hit him. He wanted me to hit him,” Perallon added. “And then he just said that he didn't want to die.”
He began to scream, prompting Nina Signorello, another officer who was stationed nearby, to come to his aid. Perallon was a fluent Spanish speaker, and Signorello knew enough of the language to pick up a few final fragments: “son quimicos” and “mi corazon” and “mi hermana.”
They were chemicals. My heart. My sister.
By the time paramedics arrived, Velazquez could no longer stand on his own. Officers loaded him onto a gurney. He was delirious, they said later. His eyes were rolling. He was thrashing so violently that they handcuffed him to the guardrails.
At one point, his temperature reached 105 degrees and his heart was beating 220 times per minute.
Velazquez lost consciousness in the ambulance on the way to the Sharp Medical Center in nearby Chula Vista, where doctors tried and failed to resuscitate him. Velazquez was pronounced dead, at age 16, less than a half hour after his arrival.
The autopsy report would rule his cause of death to be acute methamphetamine intoxication. The medical examiner determined “the manner of death is accident.”
Critics say the Velazquez case is another example of misconduct by officers of a troubled agency.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) obtained the files of 149 cases from 2011 to 2015 in which unaccompanied minors reported threats of or actual physical abuse, including sexual abuse, by border officers.
“It's really very shocking,” said Mitra Ebadolahi, a lawyer with the ACLU's border project in San Diego. “It's a story of egregious abuse of children who are vulnerable.”
In 2010, a San Diego high school student named Jahveel Ocampo, then 15, was detained by border officers because of an expired visa. She claims that a male officer threatened to rape her unless she agreed to voluntarily deport herself.
“I was scared,” Ocampo said. “He said that they could take me into the backroom and they can rape me and no one was going to do anything about it. Nobody could hear me. Nobody was going to come and save me.”
According to internal documents, this complaint, and almost every complaint the ACLU reviewed, was closed after the officers “provided accounts that she was not mistreated, verbally abused, or intimidated,” even though the young woman was never interviewed during the investigation.
In one of the most serious alleged cases, two sisters who asked that their names be withheld fled violence in Guatemala in the summer of 2016 only to be violated, they say, by a U.S. border officer.
“He told me to take off my bra and he started touching me,” one said. “Then he told me to take off my pants and he touched my privates.”
“The agent came back with my sister and then said to me, 'It's your turn,'” said the other, “Pull down your underwear. He reached his hand out and put his hand in between my legs. And the worst was when he told me, 'Turn around.' 'Bend over.' And I bent over.”
Their complaint, like many others, the ACLU says, was closed, when the officer denied he did anything wrong. The agency initially told the ACLU the case was closed but in response to questions from ABC News issued a statement saying the investigation is still ongoing.
According to the ACLU, none of the case files they reviewed indicate that an officer was reprimanded, suspended or terminated as a result of any complaint.
“As far as I can tell,” Ebadolahi said, “there hasn't been a single complete investigation on any of the allegations I have seen.”
Efforts to reform the agency appear to have met with resistance. Tomsheck, a longtime U.S. Secret Service officer who served as the head of internal affairs for U.S. Customs and Border Protection for eight years, says the lack of robust internal investigations has allowed rogue border officers to operate with impunity – sometimes with deadly consequences.
“Within that large organization are many who believe they're held to a different standard and won't be held accountable for engaging in misconduct,” Tomsheck said.
Early in his tenure, Tomsheck raised concerns about the process of hiring new border officers. The rapid expansion of U.S. Customs and Border Protection had not only made it the largest law enforcement agency in the country but also put stress on his office's means of screening applicants and investigating misconduct.
“While the integrity threat has increased,” he wrote to his superiors in 2008, “we have decreased one of our best means of detecting corruption in our workforce.”
Tomsheck believes that pressure to grow resulted in the hiring of scores of unqualified or unsuitable candidates. His concerns about those new officers, he says, seemed to “fall on deaf ears.” At the same time, he said, some officers reinforced the notion that border officers are on the front lines of a conflict in which extreme measures are not only justified, but encouraged.
“They see themselves deployed in a military tactical operation,” Tomsheck said, “not in a law enforcement security operation.”
In recent years, there have been several cases since in which agents' use of deadly force has been called into question — but not criminally prosecuted.
In one case, another Mexican teenager, 15, was shot and killed by a border agent in 2010, supposedly for throwing rocks from the Mexican side of the border. The agent was not prosecuted.
In another infamous case from 2012, a border agent patrolling the Rio Grande in an air boat shot at a family on a picnic on the Mexican side of the river, killing the father before speeding away. Even though the episode and its aftermath was caught on video, no criminal charges were filed. Agents later claimed someone in the group was also throwing rocks.
Gil Kerlikowske, who served as commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection in the Obama administration from 2014 to 2017, acknowledged that the rapid growth of the agency might have resulted in the hiring of unqualified officers, but he disputed Tomsheck's characterization of the agency and its officers and defended his handling of disciplinary matters.
“The number of complaints that come in are high,” Kerlikowske said. “I'd say under my watch, we've increased dramatically our ability to do these investigations.”
If there was corruption at the agency, Kerlikowske said, it is Tomsheck who should be held accountable for it.
“The buck stopped with him for eight years,” Kerlikowske said.“If you can't do the job in eight years, you really need to look in the mirror.”
But Tomsheck says that rather than address problems with excessive use of force, the agency's administration attempted to silence criticism out of fear that it could ruin reputations and damage careers.
In 2010, Tomsheck says he was ordered to falsify reports about the death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a Mexican man who died after being repeatedly tasered by border agents at the same San Ysidro border crossing station where Velazquez was stopped. Tomsheck says his superiors insisted that he make it appear as if the man was “standing and combative” when he was beaten, even though the facts suggested otherwise.
“The truth [was he] was restrained,”Tomsheck said.“Handcuffed behind his back, face down on the ground.”
Tomsheck refused to cooperate. It was an attempted cover-up, Tomsheck says, and it wouldn't be the last time he would clash with his superiors over inconvenient facts.
In a 2014 email, Tomsheck raised concerns to Kerlikowske about several “disturbing cases” of sexual abuse “that appear to exist in disproportionate numbers in our workforce.”
The commissioner never responded, Tomsheck says, but shortly after he sent the email he was criticized by a superior officer for putting his concerns in writing and then given the choice to resign, retire or accept reassignment to a position where, he says, he couldn't cause any more trouble. He chose to retire, he says, his career another casualty of corruption.
“I think they wanted to silence me,” Tomsheck said, “to put me in a position that if I continued to speak out within the organization, I could be ordered to stop.”
Kerlikowske, however, denied the suggestion that he or the agency suppressed allegations of misconduct.
“I don't see any cover-up,” Kerlikowske said, “especially by me.”
While he says he was disappointed that his career in law enforcement ended so abruptly, Tomsheck believed, at least, the Velazquez case would be handled properly.
“I was definitively told that the two officers involved would be punished,” Tomsheck said. “It would simply be a question of what level of discipline they received.”
It was Reyna who picked up the late-night phone call from the Mexican consulate in San Diego.
The man on the other end of the line was trying to reach her parents, so she passed the phone to her father. He began to scream.
“Cruz is not with us anymore,” he told her. “They say he died trying to cross the border.”
Reyna refused to believe it.
“You're lying,” she said. “He can't be dead. I just saw him. He went to the gym.”
She travelled, with her mother, to view her brother's body, likely crossing through the same border station where her brother had died.
“They opened the door so my mom could get in,” Reyna said. “I see [the] face of my brother. And then I realized everything was true.”
They told her, she says, that while attempting to smuggle bottles of liquid methamphetamine across the border, he had taken a drink from a bottle voluntarily.
She refused to believe that, too, but this time, she wasn't alone.
- “What you see, I think, is a basic lack of compassion and decency toward a 16-year-old boy.”
The Velazquez family hired Gene Iredale, a San Diego-based attorney whose firm specializes in civil rights litigation, and filed a civil lawsuit against Baird, Perallon and the U.S. government, alleging that the officers “intimidated and coerced” Velazquez into drinking from one of the bottles and failed to “render timely medical assistance,” actions that “proximately caused his death.”
“What you see, I think, is a basic lack of compassion and decency toward a 16-year-old boy,” Iredale said. “Almost a delight that you would see in children who just pull the wings off flies slowly, a smile when he's being asked to drink something and being put in this position.”
The U.S. Attorney's Office declined to bring criminal charges and the internal investigation resulted in no discipline, but during their depositions, Iredale sought to highlight the contradictions in each officer's tale to dissect what he called “the anatomy of a lie.” Under that pressure, the officers' efforts to shift blame for Velazquez's death got messy. (Both officers, through their attorneys, declined to be interviewed by ABC News.)
While video of the encounter shows that both officers made hand gestures that seemed to encourage Velazquez to drink from one of the bottles, during their depositions, both officers denied under oath that they had done anything wrong.
Perallon blamed Velazquez: “I never suggested or asked him to drink,” he said. “He volunteered to drink.”
But Baird blamed Perallon: “He proposed to me that he should ask Cruz if he would be willing to take a drink,” she said. “He said he does it all the time in primary, and I said, 'If that's what you want to do.'” Perallon denied this interaction took place.
Nina Signorello, the officer who tried to help Velazquez while he was in the security office and later drove Baird to the hospital, provided what Iredale considers the key piece of evidence, testifying that Baird was initially worried that she would lose her job if someone ultimately blamed her.
“Oh my God, I asked him to drink it,” Baird said, according to Signorello's testimony. Baird denied that, saying her fellow officer must have “misunderstood.”
Asked multiple times if she felt guilty that Velazquez was dead, Baird responded, repeatedly,“No.”
“Because you also realized what the cause of his death was, right?” Iredale asked.
“The cause of it? No. The specific cause?” Baird responded. “No. He was just – He just died.”
Neither Baird nor Perallon were subject to discipline as a result of their involvement in Velazquez's death, and both officers remain on duty to this day. Kerlikowske, who took over as commissioner after the incident but would have inherited oversight of the officers involved, struggled to explain why.
“I don't have the knowledge and the specifics about the case itself,” Kerlikowske said. He told ABC News he had never seen the video and declined an offer to watch it now.
For the Velazquez family attorney Iredale, the message is as clear as it is devastating.
“Well, it's a very simple lesson,” Iredale said. “Do what you want. So long as the person who's hurt doesn't have political power … doesn't speak English, from a foreign country, have a good time.”
Rather than rein in the agency, President Donald Trump seems poised to set them loose.
The leadership of the union representing the border patrol agents endorsed him during the campaign, and he repaid them with two new executive orders calling for tougher immigration enforcement measures, including the hiring of 5,000 new border patrol agents.
“This is a law enforcement agency,” Trump said during a speech delivered to the Department of Homeland Security shortly after taking office,
“but for too long, your officers and agents haven't been allowed to properly do their jobs.”
If the message got lost, Sean Spicer, Trump's then-press secretary, hammered it home about a month later.
“The President wanted to take the shackles off individuals in these agencies,” Spicer said.
According to Tomsheck, those words sent shockwaves throughout the agency and could ultimately lead to more aggressive practices.
“I've listened carefully to some agents that I still enjoy a friendship with, and have heard from them that many in the border patrol believe that their actions are going to be subjected to even less scrutiny than they were before,” Tomsheck said.
It's possible, however, that Trump has already made his biggest impression on the U.S.-Mexico border. Words, Iredale says, like the “bad hombres” label, reinforce the notion that the lives of those who would cross the border are somehow less valuable.
“It allows stereotyping to have the imprimatur of the most powerful person in the country,” Iredale said. “It says it's all right to feel scorn, to feel superiority, to have a slightly sarcastic sense of bigotry toward these people because, after all, they're not like us.”
Reyna, now 16 herself, knows too well those words can have unforeseen consequences. Her brother was buried on a hill in Tijuana, where Reyna and her family visit him every month.
Earlier this year, the U.S. government paid the Velazquez family $1 million to settle their lawsuit, but there was no apology and no admission of wrongdoing, baffling those who knew Velazquez as more than a stereotype.
“How can the government allow that? It's like, OK you can kill someone,” Reyna said.“They took him as a fool, as who cares. Well, that fool, he was the greatest person I ever knew.”
This project was conducted in partnership with The Investigative Fund.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER: RHONDA SCHWARTZ
INVESTIGATIVE FUND EDITOR: ESTHER KAPLAN
ADDITIONAL PRODUCERS: ANDREW FREDERICKS & RANDY KREIDER
FIELD PRODUCER: CHO PARK
DIGITAL PRODUCER: PETE MADDEN
RESEARCHERS: MARGARET KATCHER & ERIN GALLOWAY
GRAPHICS: JAMES HOLBROOK & ANDREW VANWICKLER
- “What you see, I think, is a basic lack of compassion and decency toward a 16-year-old boy.”