World News

Arrest Leads to Tragedy in the Rio Grande Valley

The family of Jorge Gonzalez Zuniga, outside of the home where he spent his final days in Alamo, Texas.
Credit…Verónica G. Cárdenas for The New York Times

EDINBURG, Texas — Officer Coltynn Williams was the first person at the Hidalgo County Jail to actually see Jorge Gonzalez Zuniga.

When he clocked in for his graveyard shift on Easter Sunday, Mr. Gonzalez was still in the drunk tank, 20 hours after his arrest.

Mr. Gonzalez, an undocumented farmworker from Mexico, had been arrested at a party the day before for public intoxication and violating the curfew imposed across parts of the Rio Grande Valley to help control the widening coronavirus pandemic. Now, he lay motionless on the detox cell’s concrete floor, his bagged lunch untouched

Mr. Williams asked him if he felt OK.

“My neck hurts,” he replied.

When he was unable to hold his head up for a mug shot, Mr. Williams sent him to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed a crushed vertebra and a body temperature of 82.4 degrees. He spent the next several weeks on a ventilator and died on July 15.

Jorge Gonzalez’s mug shot from the Hidalgo County Jail.
Credit…Hidalgo County Jail

In their report on the investigation, a partial copy of which was obtained by The New York Times, the Texas Rangers found evidence of brutal treatment during Mr. Gonzalez’s arrest, during which witnesses said he was Tased, tripped, punched and knelt on before being pushed chest-first into a patrol car.

On Aug. 20, the Hidalgo County District Attorney’s Office sought manslaughter charges against the three deputies who conducted the arrest, but the grand jury came back with a decision on the same day: no charges.

The case has sent shock waves through the Rio Grande Valley, a place that has dealt with corruption and brutality in law enforcement in the past, but where protests of the kind that rattled the country after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis are rare

More than 142,000 undocumented immigrantslive in the valley, many of whom fear detection and deportation much more than mistreatment by the police, especially those who came from countries where government power is routinely wielded with violence.

People outside the valley are largely unaware of what life is like for those who live in the shadows along the border, said Katia Gonzalez, who is Mr. Gonzalez’s sister.

“My brother had to die for people down here to know,” she said.

Ms. Gonzalez said that Mr. Gonzalez, 23, had cried when he watched a video of Mr. Floyd’s death. What happened to George Floyd had happened to him, he told her in May when it happened. Black Lives Matters protesters marched in downtown McAllen, a rare display of solidarity in support of the small Black population in the Rio Grande Valley.

Daniel Peña, a McAllen resident, was having none of it. Captured in a viral video, he could be seen chasing the protesters away with a chain saw, yelling racial slurs over the frightening buzz. “Go home,” he yelled. “Don’t let them lie to you. This is the valley!”

The Hidalgo County jail is in rural Edinburg, where horses can be seen grazing in front yards and tinfoil is placed on windows to cool mobile homes against the intense sun.

In 2008, when Mr. Gonzalez was 11 years old, he and his sister, then 9, fled the corruption and gang violence in their hometown in Tamaulipas, Mexico. They joined their father, already living north of the border, and soon after, their mother reunited with the family in Texas.

After graduating from a local high school, Mr. Gonzalez harvested cabbage and watermelons from the rich soil to support his wife and 1-year-old son, Jason.

— NYtimes