CBP, Starr Co. face lawsuit in Honduran man’s hanging

McALLEN — Less than 48 hours after being apprehended while trying to cross into the United States, a Honduran man was found dead inside his Starr County jail cell. That was last year, and now the family of the Honduran man who hung himself inside that cell is suing the government and county here.

The family of Marco Antonio Muñoz, including his widow, Orlanda del Carmen Peña, filed suit Sunday against agents with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Starr County, its sheriff and detention officers in connection with what they allege are violations of Muñoz’s civil rights.

The suit further alleges that the defendants inflicted intentional emotional distress and showed gross negligence when they separated Muñoz from his family. Reached for comment, CBP officials said they do not comment on pending litigation.

Similarly, Starr County Sheriff Rene Fuentes, did not return calls for comment on the lawsuit.

The suit states Muñoz died “a horrible and preventable death as a result of being forcibly separated from his family by federal agents,” after he was apprehended attempting to enter the country near Granjeno.

“Before the nation’s attention was fixed on the horrors of family separations in South Texas, the Zero Tolerance policy was already being used as a weapon against families seeking refuge in the United States when Ms. Peña and her family arrived in South Texas in May 2018,” the document states.

The lawsuit also alleges the government’s intentional separation of Muñoz from his child, identified in the document by the initials, “D.M.A.,” and his wife, “caused all three to suffer unimaginable emotional harm.”

“The wrongful acts and omissions of (USCBP) agents following their apprehension of Mr. Muñoz caused him extraordinary mental anguish that led to his death, alone in the Starr County Jail,” according to the suit.

Muñoz was found dead inside his cell on May 13, 2018, in the Starr County jail.

Muñoz, his wife, and minor child DMA, arrived in Granjeno on May 11, 2018, after crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Shortly after the family crossed, they encountered CBP agents. Upon being detained, (Peña) and Mr. Muñoz requested medical aid for Mr. Muñoz due to blisters on his feet,” the document reads.

Muñoz, his wife, and child were transported to the McAllen Central Processing Center, also known as “Ursula.”

There, while at the CPC, Muñoz was forcibly separated from his wife and child on May 11, 2018, with medical assistance not being provided to Muñoz during his time in custody despite his pleas. The following day Muñoz was temporarily reunited with his wife and child for the purposes of interviewing and fingerprinting, only to separate Muñoz again.

As a result, CBP agents briefly allowed Muñoz to see his wife and child.

“Despite their awareness of Mr. Muñoz’s obvious and apparent severe emotional distress, CBP agents followed through with their determination to separate him from his family, reportedly physically and forcibly prying the boy from Mr. Muñoz’s arms,” the suit states. “This caused Mr. Muñoz to become even more emotional and unstable.”

That evening, CBP agents, purportedly concerned that he would injure himself or others, transported Muñoz 40 miles away to the Starr County jail.

“Shortly after arriving at the Starr County Jail, Mr. Muñoz got into a physical altercation with detention officers Hector Lopez and Crecencio Galvan. This was due in part to Mr. Muñoz’s continued emotional distress,” the lawsuit reads.

Muñoz was subsequently placed inside a padded jail cell.

Despite Muñoz’s continued erratic behavior, CBP agents, and detention officers with the Starr County jail, failed to transport him to a hospital or other medical facility, “or otherwise provide him with medical or psychiatric care,” according to the suit.

Video footage from inside the cell showed that Muñoz tied his sweater around a drain grate in the floor, looped it around his neck and turned his body around several times, cutting off his circulation and breathing.

The following day, May 13, 2018, Muñoz was found unresponsive in his jail cell with an article of clothing around his neck, a long-sleeved shirt, laying next to a drainage gate in the cell.

The 39-year-old man was declared dead around 10 a.m.

The sheriff’s office said at the time that Muñoz didn’t show any mental health problems or say anything that might have suggested he was thinking about killing himself

“Mr. Muñoz died because Starr County officials failed to take away the article of clothing, failed to provide him a safe cell, and failed and/or refused to observe and supervise him adequately,” the lawsuit claims.

In announcing the lawsuit Monday, Efrén Olivares, the racial and economic justice legal director from the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the zero tolerance policy played a role in Muñoz’s death.

“A full year has passed since the world saw the horrors of family separation and mass prosecutions at the border, but the effects of these violent policies will be forever emblazoned into the lives of the families and individuals caught in the cross-hairs of the Administration’s callousness,” Olivares said

“Unfortunately, Mr. Muñoz lost his life due to these policies but today we begin the long process of seeking justice for his family. We will not rest until the federal government ends the zero-tolerance policy once and for all and all those responsible for his death are held accountable for their actions.”