Translation: What Happened to José de Jesús?
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Daniel Alarcón: On May 13, 2015, Silverio Deniz decided to surprise his son.
Silverio Deniz: I went to a little ranch nearby, I ordered a cake and I asked the person who makes the cakes to write, “Happy birthday, Chuy” on it.
Daniel Alarcón: That day José de Jesús, or Chuy as they called him, turned 31. After work, Silverio sent him the cake and they celebrated with the rest of the family.
Silverio: I mean, he was really happy that day.
Daniel: But not just because of his birthday or the cake — it’s because the next day, Chuy was leaving his parent’s town on the coast of Jalisco, a state in central Mexico. He was going north, to cross the border to the US to reunite with his three children who lived in Las Vegas with their mom. Here’s Elisa, Chuy’s mom.
Elisa Sahagun: He would say, “I’m going to see my kids and I’m going to work and save money for them.”
Silverio: I gave him a hug and kiss. I said, “I hope everything goes well for you, son.” I said, “I hope that God and the Virgin Mother take care of you. And work hard, you can do it.” I said.
Daniel: The last thing they expected was that that would be the last conversation they would ever have with their son. That only a week later, Chuy would turn up dead inside a detention center in Arizona. Choked to death by a sock inside his throat. A death that was declared a suicide.
Silverio: If he wanted that in the end, we wouldn’t have been able to stop him. But he, he didn’t do it…
Elisa: I don’t think he did it, not at all, no way.
Daniel: Welcome to Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón. Today we’re bringing you Chuy’s story, and the story of his final days. The US program Latino USA has spent a year investigating the case, trying to understand this mysterious death.
And to help us tell this story…
Fernanda Echávarri: I’m Fernanda Echávarri. I’m a producer for Latin USA. I work for their investigative team and I’m from Querétano, Mexico.
Daniel: Fernanda, let’s start with that night. What do we know about the day José de Jesús crossed the border?
Fernanda: Well, we don’t know much, but what we do know, we know because of his sister Rosario. She says that José de Jesús called her twice the night he crossed.
Rosario Deniz: Well, he called me at 12 and said, “Were you sleeping?” I said, “No, what’s going on?” He said, “They’re going to take me across now.” He was happy.
Fernanda: And he was happy until all of a sudden there was a fight, there was yelling… And all of a sudden the call dropped. Some time went by and the second time he called her the situation had changed.
Rosario: When he called me back about 5 minutes later, he was running. He said they wanted to kill him, that the coyote wanted to kill him. I had never heard him so scared. He was running frantically, like he was desperate. It sounded like he needed help. I said to him, “Chuy, calm down”, I said, “Everything is going to be alright. Where are you?” And he said, “I’m going to turn myself in, I’m going to turn myself in…”
Daniel: And is that normal? People turning themselves in?
Fernanda: Well, actually, it is. It’s become more common in recent years. There are times that the crossing is so dangerous that people can’t go on anymore, because of fatigue, thirst, heat, and they end up calling the border patrol for help. Or there are also people who show up asking for asylum in the US and they turn themselves in right at the border.
And, in fact, that night, Chuy passed through a small town where many migrants stop before crossing. It’s called Agua Prieta and it’s on the border between Sonora, Mexico and Arizona in the US.
After turning himself in, they took him nearly 300 kilometers [~190 miles] north to Eloy, a small Arizona town in the middle of nowhere, in the desert, where the majority of people work in detention centers and prisons.
Daniel: And how do we know he ended up there?
Fernanda: Because when he gets to the detention center in Eloy, Chuy finally gets to call his sister to see if she can help him.
Rosario: I said “oh yes”, I said, “it’s just a matter of time, Chuy” I said, “It could take a few days or a week.” I don’t know.” I said “But” I said, “Everything is going to be fine. We’re going to find you a lawyer.”
Fernanda: But after that call he would never speak to Rosario or his brother Gabriel, who also lives in Las Vegas, again. In fact, they tried to call Chuy but they couldn’t get in contact with him.
Daniel: But how is that? Why?
Fernanda: Well, the answer is complicated. Basically, at first they told Rosario and Gabriel that they had to put money in an account so that Chuy could call them. And, other times, they called the detention center and they said that Chuy wasn’t available at that time.
And well, unfortunately, they didn’t have much time to sort out their problem with the calls because three days after having entered into the detention center, six days after having celebrated his birthday with his family, Chuy dies in his cell
The family finds out from a call from the Mexican consulate in Arizona. At first, they told Rosario that they had found Chuy dead in his cell and that it looked like a natural death. But a week later, the medical examiner did an autopsy and declared the death a suicide.
Daniel: It’s hard to believe, isn’t it?
Fernanda: Very hard. Most of all for the family. They were in shock. Here is Rosario again.
Rosario: Because he was fine. He really wanted to be here and we wanted him to be with us.
Fernanda: When he spoke to them and said, “I’m here now. I’m in the detention center”, everyone said “Ok, they’re going to protect him there, he’s not in danger anymore, whatever danger he may have been in at the border.”
Daniel: He is also under the US government’s responsibility.
Fernanda: Yes, he is.
Daniel: He’s in the custody of the US government.
Fernanda: That’s right. He is, shall we say, in the hands of the government. And they can’t understand how it is that he dies. At the same time, rumors start in the detention center, and that happens a lot when there is an incident in a detention center. Someone heard that there was shouting, they said that maybe there was a fight with the guards. But the rumors started because it was a very strange death more than anything. The thought that someone could put a sock in their throat and suffocate like that, was something that a lot of people in the detention center and the family said wasn’t possible. So the family starts to think that maybe someone killed him.
Daniel: And did they have any evidence?
Fernanda: Well the only evidence the family had at that time was the medical examiner’s report, the autopsy. And three things came out of the autopsy: One, that Chuy had been hallucinating and that a psychologist in the detention center had evaluated him. That doctor recommended that they put Chuy alone in a cell under supervision for fear that he would commit suicide. The next day they take him off supervision and leave him alone in a cell, checking on him every 15 minutes.
Secondly, the medical examiner found a piece of plastic that was about 10 centimeters long and appeared to be a piece of a toothbrush, inside Chuy’s stomach. And third, there was a video of the area where they kept Chuy and that was the video the medical examiner used to determine that it was a suicide.
But the strange thing is that when Rosario was calling the detention center at Eloy, when Chuy was still alive, no one told her about her brother’s mental state.
Rosario: They didn’t tell me that there was anything wrong. They didn’t tell me he had been evaluated by a psychologist; and the whole time I was talking to them all they told me was that he was fine and in good health.
Fernanda: And because of all this mystery and this lack of information, Chuy’s family asked to see the video the medical examiner mentioned. Here’s Elisa, Chuy’s mom.
Elisa: It might seem cruel for me to want to see what my son did to himself, but I want to see the video to see what pushed him to do that.
Daniel: But they don’t give it over?
Fernanda: No. The family ends up burying Chuy with very little information, without any video, and of course, for them it’s very, very difficult to try to understand the circumstances of his death. Rosario, his sister, tells us that at the wake she went up to Chuy’s body to speak to him.
Rosario: “Chuy, what did they do to you?” I said, “Why didn’t you defend yourself, you didn’t wait for me”, I said. I said, “I was going to come for you, but not like this,” I said to him.
News: The death of an undocumented immigrant inside of a detention center in the state of Arizona has raised questions… The victim of Mexican origin was identified as 31-year-old José de Jesús Deniz Sahagún.
Fernanda: Because it was a strange death and all of those rumors about what had happened were starting, there were people inside of Eloy who were protesting, one group said they even stopped eating…
News: More than 200 undocumented detainees in the detention center at Eloy, Arizona began a hunger strike in order to call for better conditions from immigration and customs.
Fernanda: People outside of the detention center were protesting as well.
In fact, Raúl Grijalva, a congressman from Tuscon, Arizona, publicly called for an investigation into Chuy’s death. And groups that help immigrants in the area were also trying to get national media outlets to focus attention on the death. And that’s how Latino USA got involved in the story.
Daniel: And where did you start your investigation?
Fernanda: Well the truth is it’s not easy to investigate these kinds of cases. The detention system in the US is very bureaucratic and a little secretive as well.
There is a minimum of 30 thousand immigrants in detention every day. There are around 100 places where the government can detain immigrants. Some places are inside US jails or prisons, and others are buildings that are made specifically to detain immigrants and are run by ICE –that is the US federal organization that detains and deports immigrants. But even though they are the ones who have custody over the people who are detained, sometimes they send them to places that are run by private companies that have nothing to do with the government.
Daniel: And Eloy is one of those?
Fernanda: Yes, the Eloy center is run by a private company called CCA, Corrections Corporation of America. And, in fact, Eloy has one of the worst reputations in the migrant community, because there have been many complaints from the detainees about sexual abuse and it is the detention center with the highest number of deaths in the past 13 years. And it also has the highest number of suicides.
Daniel: Alright, getting back to Chuy’s case, how did you manage to get more information about what happened?
Fernanda: We formally asked the government to give us the reports on Chuy’s case, including the video that the medical examiner saw in order to declare the death a suicide.
And while we waited for an answer we went to Eloy, where, for a very short time, they allowed us in the detention center.
María Hinojosa: Your name please?
Juan Manuel: Juan Miguel Cornejo Millán. First, he asked them to let him see his family.
Fernanda: We spoke with some detainees about Chuy, but the truth is no one was able to tell us anything we could prove. So we left them our phone number in case anyone knew anything more concrete.
And from there, we went to Mexico.
Chuy’s parents live in a bungalow about two hours from Puerto Vallarta on the Pacific coast of Mexico. And there they showed us Chuy’s room.
Silverio: Here are his photos… He always slept here..
Elisa: And this is the Virgin of Talpa, I keep her as a guardian angel for my son…
Recording: Lord, open my lips… And my mouth will proclaim your praise…
Daniel: And what is that we’re hearing here?
Fernanda: It’s like a digital rosary that Chuy’s parents use to help them pray the rosary, and they have it there at the same alter they made for Chuy in his room.
Silverio: When he was going to leave he told me “Dad, if God grant it that I make it to the US, I am going to work hard and I am going to send you money.” So now I say, “Son, don’t send me money. Today send me blessings if you are in your divine glory.”
Here is my son…
Fernanda: We ended up going to the cemetery were Chuy is buried. It’s a very small cemetery on the outskirts of town. And what caught my attention when we got there to see Chuy’s tomb was seeing that parts of it were broken, and there was a piece of the cross that wasn’t set right. And the family told us it’s because the original tomb was damaged in a storm.
Silverio: All this was a little house that came up to here, and it held the remains, it was a nice little house.
Elisa: He here was the picture of my son…
Silverio: We kept his picture inside…
Fernanda: The issue of the suicide came up again and how it was hard for them to believe that their son had taken his own life.
Silverio: I think it’s the greatest sin one can commit to do that harm. If he had hung himself, committed suicide or suffocated himself with a sock, if that’s what the video shows, well we would have to accept that. It would be painful but my wife and I would accept it.
Elisa: I don’t think he did it, at all, no way. Not swallowing the sock or tying himself up with it. He didn’t do it.
Pepito: I was very sad to see that they had killed him there. That was what I felt.
Fernanda: One of Chuy’s nephews, Pepito, who is only 11, went with us to the cemetery and told us that he got along very well with his uncle and that he missed him very much.
Pepito: I played with him a lot and we always talked like brothers because he was the only uncle I had here…
Fernanda: He also told us that he saw that his uncle was very sad in the time before he left. That he didn’t come out of his room very much. And that seemed a little strange to us, really, because it did not fit with the image of the happy man the family was presenting to us.
Before leaving, we asked his parents if they knew someone else we could speak with.
Juan Manuel Aragon: I’m Dr. Juan Manuel Aragón. I have been practicing medicine in this community for 41 years.
Fernanda: And they suggested we look for his doctor.
Juan Manuel Aragón: The parents brought Chuy to me because he had been very sad and hadn’t wanted to do anything. He was depressed. He had the characteristic symptoms of someone with moderate depression. He had insomnia. He wanted to take his own life at that time, the first consultation.
Fernanda: And the truth is we couldn’t believe it when we heard…
Daniel: Of course, because they had taken their son to the doctor themselves for depression, so why didn’t it occur to them that he could have killed himself? I mean, it doesn’t make sense. And why didn’t they mention that to you?
Fernanda: The truth is I don’t know, but things are so delicate. It is even a little taboo to speak to strangers about depression and mental illness. I mean, we are journalists who came to ask them about their son and, well, we understand why they didn’t want to tell us anything. But at the same time, they gave us the doctor’s information knowing that the doctor was going to tell us that he even eventually gave medication to Chuy.
Juan Manuel Aragón: An antidepressant that is now used world-wide, it’s not one that is controlled, it’s called Mirtazapine.
Fernanda: Chuy took this medication for about three or four weeks and came back to see the doctor.
Juan Manuel Aragón: And he came in a very different mental state. He said “I’m working now. I feel really good.” And I started chatting with him and he said that he had been depressed because his wife had left him, or that they had separated. And it hurt him, the children he had with her were in the US and he couldn’t see them; he spoke with them but he wanted to see them.
Daniel: Do we know if he was still taking that medication when he crossed the border?
Fernanda: We don’t know and in part it’s because since you don’t need a prescription it’s impossible to know. What we do know is that in the autopsy report it said Chuy didn’t have any antidepressants in his system.
Daniel: But then, does that mean that he could have wanted to kill himself? Or maybe that it was all an effect of not having taken the medication?
Fernanda: We don’t know. Really, we are getting into an area that is a little confusing.
Yes, it changes the story to know that Chuy had gone through depression. But according to the doctor, Chuy was much better when he left Mexico. But when Chuy arrives at Eloy, the doctor at the detention center sees something different.
We don’t have that doctor’s exact diagnosis. We only know, because of the autopsy, that the people who worked at Eloy said that Chuy was having delirious thoughts — like that someone was after him, that they were going to kill him — and then they decided to put him under supervision, saying that they wanted to keep him from committing suicide.
But, considering everything that happens at the border, it is totally possible that someone was after him and that what Chuy was saying was not a delirious thought at all.
Daniel: But a totally realistic thought.
Fernanda: It’s possible.
Daniel: And also considering what it means to be detained in a center like Eloy…that must really affect someone who is already in a fragile state.
Fernanda: Of course, because that person goes into a place that looks like a prison. There are people who spend days, months, even years there. So when Chuy arrives and speaks with the other detainees who say they’ve been there for years, of course he is going to feel a little more frustration and desperation.
Daniel: And panic.
Fernanda: And panic.
Daniel: Of course, and why is so much uncertainty allowed? I mean, that is not part of the normal legal system.
Fernanda: Normally, no. If you go and rob a store and the police catch you, normally they are not going to keep you in jail without telling you for how long and without giving you a court date.
Daniel: You’re going to go before a judge, you’ll be put on trial, and they’ll give you a year, two years, five years, whatever it may be. In this case…
Fernanda: No. In detention centers there are people who…I have heard of people saying, “Please deport me, I don’t want to be here anymore. If you’re going to deport me after a year and a half here, why am I still here?”
In Chuy’s case, well, we don’t know if that uncertainty could have had an effect on him. It is possible that it brought him to despair, even to suicide. But the family insists that they are not going to believe it until they see the proof. In other words, the video.
But, in the end, the US government denied us access to all of the documents we asked for, including the video.
At that time we didn’t know how to continue the investigation. Until a few weeks later we got an unexpected tip: a text message.
Daniel: Who was it from?
Fernanda: From someone we didn’t know. Do you remember how we left our phone number at the detention center at Eloy? Well, that number, somehow, makes it to the hands of a person who sends us this message and tells us that he was the person in the cell facing Chuy’s when he died.
Juan Castillo: Hello?
Fernanda: Hello, how are you? Is this Juan Castillo?
Juan: Yes, at your service…
Fernanda: Hello, how are you Juan? This is Fernanda.
Fernanda: What he told us is that he is sure that he is the last person who spoke with Chuy before Chuy died. They spoke briefly when the guards took Chuy to shower.
Juan Castillo: “You’re so young, man” I said “life is so beautiful”, I said, why did he want to kill himself…
Fernanda: And according to Juan Castillo, if the guards had kept watching Chuy, he may not have died.
Daniel: For you, Fernanda, as an investigator, as a reporter, how important is this witness’ account?
Fernanda: The part that is most valuable to me is that Juan Castillo is in that area when they realize that Chuy isn’t moving. He sees the guard’s reaction, and, according to him, no one hurried and they waited too long to open the door and to try to save him.
Daniel: But, do we really know how long they took?
Fernanda: At the time Juan told us this, we didn’t know. But a little while later, we had another stroke of luck in the investigation.
And yes, the government did deny us the documents and videos relating to Chuy’s death, but another way of getting them occurred to us. When someone dies in the United States, in a private home or in prison, wherever, generally, someone calls 911. The local police investigates the death in order to see if there had been a crime. So we called the local police in Eloy to see if they would send us the documents from their investigation.
And a few weeks later, the telephone rings here in my office in New York, and I answer and it’s the Eloy police department. And very calmly, they say: “Ms. Fernanda we have the documents you requested here. How would you like us to send them to you? Would you like us to send them by mail, fax or email?” So I said, “Email of course.” So I sat at my computer wait for it, wait for it…
Daniel: Refresh, refresh, refresh.
Fernanda: Refresh, refresh, refresh. The email arrives, I opened it and it was 48 pages — all of the details about what happened during those three days in the detention center.
It said that Chuy was alive when they found him in his cell. It said that they handcuffed him, that no one saw a sock in his mouth, and that they thought he was having an epileptic seizure.
But what is most important is that they also sent us copies of the two videos — the same videos that Chuy’s family had been asking for, for almost a year.
Daniel: Let’s talk about these videos.
Fernanda: Ok. The first video we open is the video from the security camera in the area where Chuy was being held. There is no sound, but it’s 4 hours of video in which we see people enter and leave, we see guards come by and check in on him every 15 minutes.
And the second is a very intense video that was recorded by one of the people that worked there, one of the guards. And he went in with a small camera, into Chuy’s cell, and recorded almost 3 minutes of what happened when they went in, handcuffed him, and tried to see what was happening to them.
Daniel: So, with these videos in hand, what did you decide to do? Did you show them to the family?
Fernanda: Well, what we decided was not easy at all. But we called Gabriel, Chuy’s brother, to tell him we had some videos that were very powerful and that it was going to be very difficult, but if he wanted to see them, we could show them to him. And that if he also wanted to see them maybe with his family, that he should think about it and tell us what he wanted to do.
Gabriel: Yeah I talked to them already and we all want to see it all at the same time. [In English] I told them we all want to see it at the same time.
Fernanda: So first we showed them the video from the security camera.
Daniel: Can you describe what you saw in those videos?
Fernanda: In this video, even though there is no sound and the image is a little fuzzy, you see how Chuy’s door is closed the whole time except for when they take him to shower. So you see that no one entered or left his cell. You also see the guard check in on him every 15 minutes, even if it’s for about 10 to 20 seconds; he turns to look through the little window of the cell, he checks and makes a note that he checked. And you also see the moment they take him to shower. And in fact when we showed it to the family, it was a moment they asked us to go back to, that they wanted to see one or two more times because it is the last moment you see him alive and walking.
It had a big impact on them seeing him walking and alive for the last time. And it also had an impact on them seeing the state he was locked up in.
Rosario: Well, I believe that if he was, what’s the word, mentally altered like they say, why did they lock him up like that? What he needed was communication with someone else. Not to feel…
Gabriel: They treated him like someone he wasn’t.
Elsa: They locked him up, they made him feel worse than he really felt…
Silverio: Than what he was going through…
Fernanda: And there is a moment they realize that there is a problem in Chuy’s cell, that he wasn’t responding. The documents say he was asleep. But the most difficult part is seeing the guard look at him and not open the door.
Gabriel: He wasn’t responding; he wasn’t responding…
Rosario: He didn’t do anything…
Silverio: He’s just standing there…
Gabriel: And he tells the others to get in their cells…
Fernanda: And there you see the guard, standing at Chuy’s cell door, grabbing his radio and calling the paramedics, but he still hasn’t gone in to look Chuy over.
Gabriel: Wow, and they haven’t opened the door?
Daniel: And for how many minutes?
Fernanda: From the time the guard realizes that Chuy isn’t moving, 7 minutes go by until they open the door to his cell.
Daniel: How brutal. I mean, 7 minutes is an eternity.
Fernanda: It is an eternity. And for the family, seeing this video and seeing so much time go by without opening the door or anyone helping Chuy is a horrible trauma.
Daniel: So, now the second video, are there more details? Even worse details, I imagine…
Fernanda: Yes, we asked the family about the second video several times, “are you sure? Because it’s very impactful.” But they said they wanted to see.
Silverio: It’s like my wife said… She says, “no matter how hard it is…”
Gabriel: We’ve already been through the hardest part, I think…
Silverio: “No matter how hard the video is, I want to see it”, my wife says.
Fernanda: And you?
Silverio: I do too.
Fernanda: Are you sure?
Fernanda: This video is the one that one of the guards recorded with a camera. And he recorded from the moment the guards open the door and go in, and they put the shield on top of Chuy, and Chuy looks like he’s sleeping, he’s not even moving. They put his hands behind his back, they handcuff him and then someone comes and they grab his face and realize he’s not responding. His eyes are half open. They turn him over and put him resting on his side. And they see that he can’t breathe. It sounds like he’s choking. And his face starts to turn a little purple. The people who work there check his blood pressure, they check that he is breathing with their fingers, they check his pulse on his neck, but no one opens his mouth. And someone shouts: “Take off the handcuffs.” And one of the guards takes almost a minute to find the key and take the handcuffs off. After they take the handcuffs off, you can see the hand of someone who comes and puts a stethoscope on Chuy’s chest, and right after that, the video ends.
So we don’t know what happens once the videos is over, and what kind of medical help they gave Chuy.
Daniel: And you were with the family when they saw this video?
Daniel: I can’t even imagine the reaction…devastated…
Fernanda: Yes, the family, the truth is, well they didn’t stop crying. Those three minutes…were three minutes in which they were seeing their brother and their son suffocate and die. For Rosario, his sister, it was… She couldn’t even look at one point. She was crying and she didn’t want to see.
Daniel: And in your case as a journalist and investigator, and for your team, you’re all there, did you doubt your decision to show them the video?
Fernanda: Truthfully, yes. It was the most difficult decision I’ve made in my career. It was one that from the start, among the team, we knew it was going to be very, very, very intense. But it wasn’t until the video really started, and we saw the reaction of the family, that we understood what was going on. And they asked us for it. They begged us to please share with them whatever we found in our investigation. We know they wanted answers, but maybe they didn’t think they were going to be these kinds of answers.
Daniel: While we were finishing this story, ICE –the US federal agency for immigration and customs– published their official report on Chuy’s death.
The report confirms that his behavior was at times aggressive and erratic, but concludes that there were several errors in the handling of his case. For example –and this is important– Chuy clearly explained on three occasions that he wanted to kill himself. However, the authorities did not take appropriate measures for someone in that mental state.
José de Jesús Deníz Sahagún is one of 160 immigrants who have died since 2003 in ICE custody.
Fernanda Echávarri is a producer and journalist with Latino USA. Along with Marlon Bishop and Maria Hinojosa, she is part of the team that investigated this story with support from The Marshall Project. You can find the original version of this story in English at latinusa.org, where you can also find their podcast.
Our version was produced by Martina Castro and edited by Martina and Camila Segura. Martina also did sounds design.
The rest of our team includes Silvia Viñas, Luis Trelles and Barbara Sawhill. The executive director is Carolina Guerrero.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American To here more go to radioambulante.org.
I’m Daniel Alarcón, thanks for listening.