YALAMBOJOCH, Guatemala – White flowers and flickering candles sat atop a low table inside the simple wooden home in remote, rural Guatemala. Nearby was a small pair of rubber boots, sized to fit an 8-year-old.
Taped to the wall were three photos, alternately smiling and serious, bearing a simple epitaph for the boy whose memory the makeshift altar honored: “Felipe Gomez Alonzo. Died Dec. 24 2018 in New Mexico, United States.”
On Christmas Eve, Felipe became the second Guatemalan child this month to die while in U.S. custody near the Mexican border. The deaths prompted widespread criticism of President Donald Trump, who has sought to deflect responsibility toward Democrats even as his Homeland Security secretary vowed additional health screenings for detained migrant children.
In the boy’s village of Yalambojoch, in western Guatemala, the political fallout in the United States seemed a world away and there was only deep sadness over his death. Relatives said they had no idea that such a tragedy could occur. Nor had they heard about U.S. policies that led to thousands of migrant children being separated from their parents earlier this year.
“We don’t have a television. We don’t have a radio,” Catarina Gomez, Felipe’s sister, said Saturday. “We didn’t know what had happened before.”
The hamlet, set on a plain and surrounded by spectacular, pine-covered mountains, is a place of crushing poverty and lack of opportunity, home to a single small school, dirt roads that become impassible during the rainy season and rudimentary homes without insulation, proper flooring, water or electricity.
The community is populated by families who fled to Mexico during the bloodiest years of Guatemala’s 1960-1996 civil war but returned after the signing of peace accords. There are no jobs, and people live off meager subsistence farming and local commerce. Residents say the Guatemalan government has turned a blind eye to their plight, a complaint that can be heard in other impoverished villages in the country.
Felipe’s sister, Catarina, said that in recent years “everyone started heading for the United States,” so much so that a local project to boost education financed with Swedish help was abandoned because there were practically no more young people to take the classes.
It was extreme poverty and lack of opportunity that drove Felipe’s father, Agustin Gomez, to decide that he and the boy would set off for the United States. Others from the community had been able to cross the U.S. border with children, and he figured they would have the same luck. Felipe was chosen because he was the oldest son. It didn’t occur to anyone that the journey could be dangerous.
“I didn’t think of that, because several families had already left and they made it,” the boy’s mother, Catarina Alonzo said, speaking in the indigenous Chuj language as her stepdaughter translated into Spanish.
Felipe was healthy when they left, according to the family. The last time he spoke with his mother was a day before they were taken into detention by border agents. Felipe told her he was well, that he had eaten chicken, that the next time they talked would be by phone from the United States.
Instead, the call that came Christmas Day was from her husband, who said Felipe had died the day before.
The two had been apprehended a week earlier, on Dec. 18, near the Paso del Norte bridge connecting El Paso, Texas, to Juarez, Mexico, according to border officials. Father and son were held at the bridge’s processing center and then the Border Patrol station in El Paso before being transferred on Dec. 23 to a facility in Alamogordo, New Mexico, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) away.
After an agent noticed Felipe coughing, father and son were taken to an Alamogordo hospital, where Felipe was found to have a 103-degree fever (39.4 degrees Celsius), officials have said.
Felipe was held for observation for 90 minutes, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, before being released with prescriptions for amoxicillin and ibuprofen.
But the boy fell sick hours later and was admitted to the hospital on Christmas Eve. He died just before midnight.
New Mexico authorities said late Thursday that an autopsy showed Felipe had the flu, but more tests need to be done before a cause of death can be determined.
The other Guatemalan child, 7-year-old Jakelin Caal, died Dec. 8 in El Paso. She showed signs of sepsis, a potentially fatal condition brought on by infection, according to officials.
On Saturday, Trump claimed that Felipe and Jakelin were “very sick” before they reached the border, though both young migrants passed initial health screenings by Border Patrol.
Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Kevin McAleenan said last week that prior to this month, no child had died in the agency’s custody in more than a decade.
On Sunday he called for a “multifaceted solution” on immigration, including not only better border security and new immigration laws but more aid to the Central American countries the migrants are fleeing from.
Referring to the U.S. pledge earlier this month of $5.8 billion in development aid for Central America, McAleenan called it “a tremendous step forward.”
“There are green shoots of progress both on security and the economic front in Central America. We need to foster that and help improve the opportunities to stay at home,” he said on ABC’s “This Week.”
Outside the Gomez family home in Yalambojoch, women gathered wearing lavender skirts in the intricate patterns typical of indigenous garb in Guatemala. Colorful tapestries hung on a clothesline above the muddy yard.
Taped to the door were a pair of Felipe’s artworks. One was a rendering of a blue balloon with a green string; in the other, a white horse jumped over a fence against a yellow sun and tangerine sky.
Among the villagers grieving Felipe’s death was his 7-year-old best friend, Kevin. Two days before Felipe and his dad left, the two boys quarreled.
“They were crying because they had fought,” said Felipe’s sister, Catarina.
By the time Kevin came back to look for his friend, he had left for the United States. Kevin now knows that Felipe has died, the family said.
Trying to fight back tears, Catarina Alonzo said her son promised before leaving that when he was grown, he would work to send money home. Felipe also wanted to buy her a cellphone so she could see pictures of him from afar.
Now she hopes for only two things: That Felipe’s body is returned as soon as possible for burial, and that her husband can remain in the United States to work off debt and support their other kids.
The Guatemalan Consulate in Phoenix has said that Agustin Gomez was released on a humanitarian license allowing him to remain in the United States for now. Felipe’s body is expected to be sent back to Guatemala around mid-January.
Associated Press writers Nomaan Merchant in Houston and Zeke Miller and Colleen Long in Washington contributed to this report.