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Immigration Border Crisis

Young Guatemalan Boy’s Death Shows Grim Reality of Border Crisis

Photo of one of the leather boots found with the remains of a 11-year-old Gilberto Francisco Ramos Juarez whose body was found in brush in South Texas. Hidalgo County Sheriff's Office

The heavy leather boots found with him suggest 15-year-old Gilberto Francisco Ramos Juarez knew he had a difficult path to trudge. It turned out to be deadly.

Today, Gilberto’s father waits for a death certificate to be issued so the body of his son can be sent back to their remote farming village in the mountains of Guatemala.

Gilberto’s black leather boots, stamped on the heel with the word “Rhino” and the face of what looks like a charging rhinoceros, were found with his remains two weeks ago on the outskirts of the small Texas town of La Joya. They, along with Gilberto's dusty blue jeans with Angry Birds embroidered in red over the back pockets and the phone number scribbled on the back of his belt buckle, were used to help identify the boy and connect him to his father.

Details of Gilberto's exact journey were not available, but if he left from his village, he would have traveled nearly 2,000 miles - a distance almost equivalent to the length of the entire U.S.-Mexico border.

Gilberto’s death has reverberated not just in the United States, but in Mexico and Central America, bringing a grim reality to the crisis that until now has been mostly about those who took similar journeys and made it to America’s doorstep.

The government of Guatemala will be paying all the expenses to return his body to the farming village that was his home, San José Las Flores, Chiantla, Huehuetenango, Guatemala, said José Barillas, consul general for Guatemala in Houston.

“The government has declared this a very sad event,” Barilla said. He said the government has begun a fierce campaign to prevent children who may be considering taking the trip to the U.S. without the company of an adult. “The danger of doing it is great,” he said.

Gilberto may have known of some of the danger. The white rosary, the prayer beads of the Roman Catholic faithful, suggest he hoped for divine guidance and protection on his trip. How he died has not yet been determined, but the heat and scant vegetation of the area suggest dehydration could have played a role.

Officials, going by his birth certificate, initially said Gilberto was 11. But his father, Francisco Ramos Diaz, told The Associated Press Tuesday that he was really 15. The father explained the family waited several years to register Gilberto's death and because they couldn't remember the date, gave him the birth date of his younger brother.

Gilberto might have become one of the many bodies found along the border that is never identified, but the phone number on the backside of the leather and metal buckle put authorities in touch with his brother in Chicago. The front of the worn belt's buckle was emblazoned with the word “Elvis.” Authorities initially thought, based on the remains, that Gilberto was in his late teens.

The boy’s death has been traumatic for his brother, said Barilla. The brother, an adult, has declined media interviews, Barilla said.

There are still questions surrounding the young boy's fatal trek. According to the Hidalgo County’s Sheriff’s Office, investigators were told Gilberto was last seen and heard from crossing into the U.S. with an uncle 25 days before he was found. Gilberto’s brother said the uncle had been detained by the U.S. Border Patrol and that was the last time anyone had heard from the boy.

More than 52,000 children from Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico have been apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border, many turning themselves in to Border Patrol agents when they arrive. Thousands more are expected to make the dangerous trip.