tv 2020 ABC July 28, 2017 10:00pm-11:00pm PDT
you can connect with us any time. like us on facebook and follow us on twitter. that's our program for tonight. don't go tonight, the tape the government doesn't want you to see. 90 full minutes at countdown to tragedy. a teenager in tenth grade, two suspicious bottles, filled with what amounts to poison and two customs officers at the border, do they goad him to drink something that could kiln him. not once, not twice, but four times. >> it's something that should never be done. >> so why are they smiling. >> two more since and you see the smile. they're playing with him. and they think it's funny. >> heart beat by heart beat. what his body is going through. >> he's obviously in terrible physical distress.
>> how this officer later described him. >> i remember putting his hand -- >> and what he faces from a drug cartel back home if he doesn't deliver. >> they don't want to hear the excuse, they'll just kill everyone to make an example. >> if you don't cross the border we're going to kill your sister. tonight, the "20/20" investigation. life and death at the border. good evening. i'm david muir. >> and i'm elizabeth vargas. days ago, horrific discovery in san antonio. dozens of migrants found packed inside a sweltering trailer. >> right here tonight, a separate case of someone crossing the border, very different circumstances but another tragic ending. that shocking video you just saw at the center of a year-long "20/20" investigation.
here's brian ross. ♪ ♪ >> reporter: this is the border crossing with mexico at san ysidro, california, just south of san diego. more than 75,000 people a day coming into the country at the busiest border crossing in america. among them, smugglers. it's 6:21, on a monday evening, and the man, in the white sweatshirt, is a smuggler. and tonight, he will be caught on tape trying to smuggle drugs into the country, methamphetamine, hidden in two plastic bottles in his shoulder bag. >> they are bringing drugs. they are bringing crime.
>> reporter: the kind of activity that will later lead candidate donald trump to call for tougher border security. >> we have some bad hombres here and we're going to get them out. >> reporter: the target on this night is a high school student, 16-year-old cruz velazquez of tijuana, believed to be making his very first run as a smuggler. over the next 1 hour and 38 minutes, this video, now obtained by "20/20" 3 1/2 years after it happened, will show for the first time, in gripping detail, just how far u.s. border officers will go in an encounter that will end up as a matter of life and death on the border. >> 16-year-old children will do things that are very stupid. >> reporter: gene iredale is the lawyer hired by the young man's family to sue the government. >> cruz was recruited we believe as a mule. here, we'll give you a $100 or $200 if you just take these two bottles across the border.
>> alpha 35. whiskey 8, whiskey 15. >> reporter: the border between southern california and mexico is a place where u.s. agents face a culture of smuggling, that no wall has ever stopped. >> all these squares, all these repairs that you see are where the smugglers cut the fence in order to cross migrants or drugs. >> reporter: the cartels have also used elaborate tunnels to go under the border, catapults to heave drugs over the border, as well as boats, even submarines, to go around the border by sea. >> the area has been known for generational smuggling. meaning the grandfather did it, the father does it, now the son is doing it. >> reporter: but when we met with the family of cruz velazquez, his parents and sister reyna, they told us he was the first in the family to be involved in any criminal activity. >> he wanted to finish university and then have a
family. he always wanted kids. >> reporter: cruz was a high school tenth grader. he had never been in trouble before, his sister told us, but she noticed a change when he started dating and got a new circle of friends. >> maybe he wanted a little bit more money. and then he got the -- some bad friends and they say, "oh, come on. it's cool. everyone -- everybody's doing it." >> reporter: it is now 6:24, and the young man expects to be able to quickly get through customs with a special border crossing pass. it's for those who regularly cross the border for work or for quick trips of a few days. but not tonight for velazquez, to the everlasting regret of his sister. >> i know that my brother -- he made his choice. it wasn't a good choice, i know. now and thing are already going bad. >> reporter: instead of a quick clearance, velazquez is stopped at what's called the primary inspection position where he appears
nervous and the desk officer becomes suspicious. and soon, velazquez is escorted to what's called soft secondary, for fuller scrutiny and questioning. things are about to get worse as he comes face to face with cbp, customs and border protection, officers adrian perallon, on the right, and valerie baird, on the left, who both will later be accused in a lawsuit of outrageous conduct that put this young man's life in jeopardy. >> ms. baird, what were you taught was the role of cbp officers at the port of entry? >> that we inspect passengers and conveyances and baggage and enforce immigration and customs laws. >> officer perallon, you received training in controlled substances, is that right? >> yes, we did. >> you learned what methamphetamine is? >> yes.
>> reporter: the methamphetamine in cruz velazquez's shoulder bag is just a small part of a multibillion-dollar criminal business driven by a growing demand in the u.s. for the highly addictive drug. as depicted in the television series "breaking bad," it is a drug made, or cooked, from chemicals. incredibly profitable. >> $672,000. >> all in? >> no. each. >> each? >> each. >> reporter: 7:04 now, and officer baird opens velazquez's bag to pull out the two bottles inside. in the preceding months, the cbp became aware of a new smuggling technique for methamphetamine, dissolving the powdered form in a concentrated liquid solution. >> you were suspicious of that bottle, were you not? >> not at the time.
>> reporter: but the video suggests otherwise as baird and perallon look closer, they seem to suspect something is not right. >> this smaller bottle is supposed to be black tea, and the larger bottle is supposed to be apple juice, and yet, you can see that the liquid in the two looks exactly the same. so they know that there's something funny, there's something fishy. >> you handled the bottles repeatedly and looked at them repeatedly, did you not? >> correct. >> you noted that the two bottles had a fluid that was syrupy and viscous, right? >> correct. >> reporter: now, the agents are about to make a fateful decision about how to handle this nervous teenager and the two suspicious bottles. >> at this point, if they are suspicious of what's in the bottles. the former head of internal affairs at customs and border protection, james tomsheck, says
officers are taught a set protocol for just such situations. >> if they truly suspected there was a controlled substance in the bottle, they should've conducted a field test. >> they have the equipment available to do a field test? >> absolutely. >> am i correct that at the port of entry there are available the test kits, the reagents that you need to do tests? >> yes, there is. >> and all you had to do if you wanted to use one is ask? >> uh, you can get one yourself. >> you can go and get one yourself? >> reporter: but the two officers don't go and get one themselves. instead, they seem to encourage or at least permit the 16-year-old to do his own test. to drink it. hi. can you tell me about these new social security alerts i keep hearing about? sure, just sign up online.
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♪ >> reporter: for the most part, it has been a normal night at the san ysidro, california, border crossing. people lined up to enter the country, their papers examined and then cleared to go. but not for cruz velazquez. he has been held at the soft secondary inspection position for just over five minutes now. officers baird and perallon
continue to examine the two bottles from his shoulder bag, and velazquez is becoming increasingly nervous. he knows he is in trouble, and not just with the border officers, but with the people in the cartel who paid him. >> in his mind, the cartel is worse that the u.s. agents. >> reporter: the brutality and ruthlessness of the cartel that controls the tijuana border knows no limit. bodies hanging from overpasses, mass executions, more than 30 journalists killed in the last five years alone, all to send a message. >> they're well-armed. they will kill people. >> reporter: former fbi agent steve gomez, now an abc news consultant, says the cartels do not tolerate failure. >> a lot of times they don't even wanna hear the excuse. they'll just kill everybody and make an example. >> reporter: so he's in a bad place? >> a very bad place. >> reporter: so now, velazquez is about to get one last chance to bluff his way out of his
predicament, to prove what's in the bottle is not drugs, as the family lawyer took us through the video. >> cruz now points at the bottle, and she's saying, "okay, drink it." and she makes the gesture that we associate with "to drink." now, watch the male agent. he says, "drink another one." you see them exchanging glances and smiles, because they know what's going on. this is a game in which he's being played with by these officers. they want to see what his reaction is. they're playing with him, and they think it's funny. >> reporter: perallon later claimed he always thought it was just juice. but tests will show that what cruz swallowed -- what was in the bottle -- was more than one
hundred times greater than a typical dose of methamphetamine. dr. ben nordstrom of the phoenix house drug treatment program. >> this is a truly massive overdose. >> reporter: in terms of what you have seen before, how does this level compare? >> it's higher than anything i've ever seen in my career. >> were you ever taught that it's standard operating procedure, if you are suspicious about an item of food or drink, you should have the traveler consume it as part of your job as an officer? were you taught that -- >> i don't -- >> -- at the academy? >> i don't recall. >> you don't recall? you don't remember that? [ light laughter ] >> i don't recall. >> and were you ever told, "well, if you suspect something is a drug, why don't you ask the person to consume it and watch their reaction?" >> no, sir. >> you shook your head "no," and you made a pained expression.
that's obviously something that is not an appropriate technique, correct? >> correct. >> it's something that should never be done. we can agree on that, can we not? >> yes. >> reporter: but now, at 7:07, two minutes after the first drinks, it happens again. >> two more sips. and you see the smile. >> reporter: a total of four swallows in all of the highly toxic solution. >> what you see, i think, is a basic lack of compassion and decency toward a 16-year-old boy. almost a delight that you would see in children who just pull the wings off flies slowly. a smile when he's being asked to drink something and being put in
this position. >> reporter: watch this. >> inexplicable. it's just outrageous conduct. >> reporter: james tomsheck, the former customs internal affairs head, ousted amid controversy and now a critic of the agency, calls it a complete violation of the agency's protocols and training. >> if they had any suspicion that it was a controlled substance, it is truly outrageous conduct. >> reporter: completely inappropriate? >> absolutely. >> reporter: yet, our "20/20" investigation, conducted with the nonprofit investigative fund, found it's hardly the only case involving alleged abuse and mistreatment by the very agency president trump is counting on to carry out his border policies. >> for too long, your officers and agents haven't been allowed to properly do their jobs. you know that, right? do you know that? absolutely.
>> reporter: well before president trump took office, there had been at least ten suspect deaths, including the case of another mexican teenager, a 15-year-old shot dead by a border agent in 2010, supposedly for throwing rocks. to the outrage of the young man's family, the agent was not prosecuted. in another infamous case, five years ago, caught on home video, a border patrol agent in an air boat on the rio grande river, shot at a family on a picnic on the mexican side of the border, killing the father, and then speeding away, later claiming someone in the group was also throwing rocks. again, no criminal charges. >> there is a clear history of agents and officers engaging in what i believe was serious misconduct. >> reporter: and at the same san ysidro border crossing where
cruz velazquez was stopped, this remarkable phone video from 2010 revealed what tomsheck says really happened when officers beat and repeatedly used a stun gun on a suspect lying on the ground, claiming he was resisting arrest and high on drugs. he suffered a heart attack and later died at a hospital. no action was taken against the officers. when he was being tasered, was he resisting? >> i don't believe that was the case. i believe he was on the ground, restrained. >> reporter: was that a justified use of force? >> it certainly did not appear to be so. >> reporter: so they were trying to cover up what really happened here. >> absolutely. >> reporter: in the case of cruz velazquez, officers will later claim he volunteered to drink the methamphetamine solution. now, 7:11, six minutes after
velazquez took the first drink from the bottle, officer baird puts the bottles back into his bag and inspects his passport. officer perallon goes through his wallet and now the teenager can be seen wiping his forehead. >> what's happening in his body is that that is working its way up to his brain. >> reporter: as another officer pats him down, he again wipes his forehead. it's getting to him. >> you'll see that he begins to sweat profusely. he takes off his jacket. and it's about to get a lot worse. >> when that hits, how much of a punch is that? >> it's not going to be one punch. it's going to be a series of punches. >> reporter: it's 7:29 p.m. nowe season. on the agile mkc. on the versatile midsize lincoln mkx. or go where summer takes you in the exhilarating mkz.
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>> reporter: but there still have been no calls for paramedics at this point, as the concentrated methamphetamine the young man swallowed is being digested in his body. >> he won't be able to feel it. but his blood pressure is going to be rising. but it's still going to take a couple of minutes for it to actually get through the wall of your stomach or intestine and into your bloodstream and then from your bloodstream up to your heart and your brain. >> reporter: now, velazquez is put in handcuffs and a drug-sniffing dog arrives and alerts, indicating he has been in contact with some kind of illegal substance. even so, as a 16-year-old, velazquez's legal jeopardy would not have been so severe, one reason the cartels like to recruit teenagers as their mules. >> he would've probably been -- put in custody for three months to six months, and then returned to mexico. >> reporter: but to admit what he has done and return to mexico and the cartels, could be a
death sentence for the young man. and now his body is in panic mode. >> it's getting every signal that it can that something bad is happening and that you need to get ready to either run away or fight for your life. >> reporter: but there is nowhere to run, he is under the control of border officers whose action or inaction will determine his fate. no one is smiling now, and officer baird will later reluctantly admit she was concerned he had swallowed liquid methamphetamine after just the first two sips. >> i -- i don't recall but i'm sure i had some concern, yes. >> yes, because if it were liquid methamphetamine, he could get very sick. >> correct. >> or he could die? yes? >> yes? >> correct. >> reporter: but at the time, officers baird and perallon had little to fear for any possible misconduct. congress and civil rights groups
accused the agency of tolerating rogue officers and agents who crossed the line. >> within that large organization are many who believe they're held to a different standard and won't be held accountable for engaging in misconduct. >> reporter: with hundreds of alleged victims, including teenagers travelling without parents, whose complaints were given short shrift. >> translator: he told me to take off my bra and he started touching me. >> reporter: just last year, these two sisters who had fled guatemala to escape violence and seek asylum in the u.s., say they were violated one after the other by a u.s. border agent, supposedly searching for contraband. >> translator: the agent came back with my sister and then said to me, "it's your turn." then he said, "pull down your
underwear. he reached his hand out and put his hand in between my legs. and the worst was when he told me, "turn around. bend over." and i bent over. >> reporter: but their complaint, like scores of others, according to the aclu, was quietly closed, when the agent simply denied he did anything wrong. he said, they said and he was the one who was believed. >> they just take the agents word for it? >> that's correct. >> reporter: mitra ebadolahi works in the aclu's border program in san diego. >> so, if the agent says, "i have no knowledge of this." >> that's it. >> that's it. >> i don't remember that. >> these are just some of them. there are hundreds and hundreds of complaints filed by unaccompanied minors to your own agency. >> reporter: gil kerlikowske, the commissioner of customs and border protection under the obama administration, says the complaints only involved a small number of officers and agents. >> these don't trouble you? >> well, the number of complaints that come in are high. but i'd say under my watch,
we've increased dramatically our ability to do these investigations. >> so you don't see any cover-up of allegations by you or anyone in this agency? >> well, i don't see any cover-up especially by me. >> reporter: in the wake of our questions, customs and border protection now says the complaint filed by the two sisters is not closed but remains under investigation. which will make it a first in over a hundred cases the aclu says it has analyzed. >> as far as i can tell there has not been a single complete investigation of any of the allegations that i've seen. >> not even one? >> not one. >> reporter: now 7:38 p.m., at the border station in san ysidro, and cruz velazquez is led away in handcuffs to a back room, the security office. it's more than a half hour now since he drank the poison. and there still has been no medical attention for this young man, sweating heavily.
>> he's really walking into kind of a chemical buzzsaw. that flushed feeling is going to turn into something like a fever, not going to be able to cool down or get comfortable. >> he should be in the e.r. you think at this point? >> ideally, yes. the sooner somebody can get to an emergency room after a situation like this, the better their chances are going to be. >> so if there's a delay? >> a delay is going to be catastrophic. >> reporter: it's 7:43 p.m. and time is running out to save him. ready, ok! when we say "study"! you say "haul"! study! haul! study! haul! when we say "study"! you say "haul"! study! haul! study! haul! everything you need to ready, set, go! back to school.
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security office, where he is clearly in trouble, and where officer valerie baird has followed the young man she suspected of carrying or smuggling drugs. >> i noticed some labored breathing, and he was shaking a lot. i remember putting my hand on him and just told him to -- to, like, relax, calm down. i thought he was nervous about -- that he was going to get caught in the body carry -- and to just relax when he came to the table. >> his body is sending him the signal that something horrible is happening. he's obviously in terrible physical distress. >> reporter: still handcuffed, velazquez is being steadied by
officer adrian perallon, who repeatedly wipes the teenager's face as he sweats profusely. >> when i was standing with him, he was telling me to hit him. he wanted me to hit him. and then he just said that he didn't want to die. >> reporter: a third officer, nina signorello also comes to his aid. >> i recall hearing him scream and i wanted to go assist in calming him down. >> did he scream a word? >> he was screaming in spanish and i'm not fluent in spanish, and i did understand a few of the words that he was saying. >> what words did you understand? >> i understood him to say "my heart" in spanish, "my sister" in spanish, and "my cousin" in spanish. >> reporter: my sister. my cousin.
cruz knows the cartel could now go after his family because he did not make it through with their drugs. >> from what i know, someone told him, "if you don't cross the border and get this to the other side, we are going to kill your sister." >> reporter: later that night, velazquez's sister says a strange man showed up at her house in tijuana asking for cruz. >> there's always somebody that's waiting there for them and there's immediately a phone call that goes back to the cartel. and they're notified that there's a problem. something has happened. >> and would the cartels really go after his family just for that, for a small amount like that? >> absolutely. the cartels don't care. they just are concerned about their business operations and ensuring that their deliveries go through and nothing happens coming back to them. >> reporter: 7:48 now, and cruz is having a hard time standing, and the screams continue, described by officer signorello as heart-wrenching. >> the way he was screaming
it didn't sit well with me. it just made me sad the way that he was screaming. >> and the screams, did they appear to be screams of pain? >> yes, sir. >> because the drug's making the heart beat so fast, the heart needs more oxygen. it essentially almost can't get enough oxygen. as a result the person develops chest pain, very similar to as if they were having a heart attack. >> reporter: now at 7:49 p.m., a medical first responder finally shows up, taking off his backpack of equipment. cruz is barely able to stand. 7:51, a san diego fire department team of paramedics arrives. they report he had suffered from agitated delirium. he is handcuffed to the gurney for the trip to a hospital. still conscious with what were described as rolling eyes. >> what do think he is feeling at this point? >> abject terror. >> abject terror? >> absolutely.
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>> reporter: it was 8:20 p.m. when the ambulance arrived at the chula vista medical center with cruz velazquez. he had left the san ysidro border station conscious, handcuffed to a stretcher, suffering from the massive overdose. his temperature rising to 105 degrees, his heart racing at 220 beats a minutes. >> the first thing i'd be think ing about are trying to get control of the heart rate and trying to get control of the blood pressure and trying to get his temperature down. >> reporter: it had been just over an hour earlier, that the teenage smuggler had begun to drink the toxic solution of dissolved methamphetamine. four swallows in all.
the officers would not call for medical attention for at least 34 minutes, a fateful delay in any case involving an overdose. >> the first thing to do is to call 911 to get medical help immediately. all other consequences are meaningless relative to helping preserve someone's life. >> reporter: by comparison, her colleagues made sure officer valerie baird got to the hospital after she got just a bit of the toxic liquid on her fingers. >> and so you felt you should go to the hospital too? >> correct. i had washed my hands right away. and then, at the advice of -- of some other -- other officers, they pointed out that i was acting -- i was talking very rapidly.
>> reporter: now she could hear the screams of agony from the teenager throughout the emergency room. >> at some point, did you hear cruz screaming? >> yes, i could hear cruz. >> you could hear him in pain. >> i can't -- i heard him screaming. >> reporter: at 8:24, velazquez became unresponsive with fixed pupils. at 8:39, he was put on a a respirator. >> and were you told that he was coding, that he was dying? >> no, i don't recall. >> do you recall losing your composure?
>> i do recall having to go back outside. i didn't want to -- i didn't want to be there. >> reporter: according to the san diego county medical examiner, 16-year old cruz marcelino velazquez acevedo died at 8:57 p.m. of acute methamphetamine intoxication, less than two hours after he first drank from the suspicious bottle. >> you felt guilty that mr. velazquez died, didn't you? >> no. >> no? >> no. >> didn't you cry? >> i did. >> yes. >> yes. >> did you not feel guilty that he was dead? >> no. >> he's not without fault.
he was doing something he ought not to have been doing. the issue is in such a circumstance, is the death penalty, and a death that was so quick and cruel, is that deserved? he cooked within his own body, and he died in terrible pain. >> reporter: another death on the border, for a young life that seems to have meant little for either u.s. border officers or the drug cartel bosses that sent him. >> he was just another piece of the game, but no one see that he was a person. >> reporter: at headquarters in washington, officials at customs and border protection promised a full investigation. >> i was told definitely that the two officers involved would be punished. it would simply be a question of what level of discipline they
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>> reporter: as difficult as it was to watch this video of the final minutes of cruz velazquez's life, his family wanted as many americans as possible to see it. video his sister reyna says shows the truth of what happened to her brother. >> they have to pay for what they did. >> reporter: but within hours of her brother's death, cbp officers absolved valerie baird and adrian perallon from any blame. the official report prepared that night with input from their colleagues said the "manner of death was an accident," and that velazquez "voluntarily took a drink from one of the bottles." actually it was four drinks. >> at any point, did you speak with cruz velazquez and ask him to take a drink from the bottle? >> i never asked him to. he volunteered to, and i believe
i gestured to him to go ahead. >> reporter: but the government video obtained by "20/20" seems to contradict that, as perallon puts the large bottle in front of the teenager and makes this hand gesture. >> did you gesture to him with your hand in some way suggesting that he drink? >> no, sir. i never suggested or asked him to drink. he volunteered to drink. >> reporter: officer baird made the same claim to the velazquez family lawyer gene iredale. >> you told him to go ahead and drink on more than one occasion, did you not? >> no. >> and you're sure of that? >> i'm sure. >> reporter: but the video also appears to contradict her testimony, showing her making a kind of hand gesture. and officer baird's version of events was further contradicted by the testimony of the cbp officer who was right there and later talked about what happened as she drove baird to the
hospital, nina signorello. >> when you say you discussed the situation, she told you she was worried that she was going to lose her job? >> yes, sir. >> you say she -- quote, she continued to ask if i thought she was going to get fired for asking him to drink the liquid. that is true? >> yes, sir. >> i recall cbpo baird telling me, "oh, my god, i asked him to drink it." that was true? >> yes, sir. >> did you say words to the effect of, "oh, my god, i asked him to drink it"? >> i don't believe i said those words. i don't -- i -- i think whatever was spoken, she -- she
misunderstood. i don't -- >> i see. you never told her words to the effect of, "i said to him if it's juice, then prove it"? >> no. >> reporter: despite what the video appears to show, the officials at customs and border protection, apparently believed the claims of the two officers instead. >> officer perallon, was any discipline ever imposed on you for the events that occurred on the 18th of november 2013? >> no, sir. >> even as a result of the death of cruz velazquez acevedo, no discipline was ever imposed on you, was it? >> no. >> not even a reprimand? >> i've never gotten a
reprimand. >> no? >> reporter: baird and perallon remain on duty to this day, in fact, when "20/20" was given an escorted tour at the san ysidro facility, there was officer perallon, on the job. >> we're told that the agents involved in that case remain on the job. >> that -- that very well may be the case. >> reporter: the incident happened in 2013 before gil kerlikowske took over as commissioner, but the decision to let the two officers off the hook was under his watch. >> i think some people may wonder why the agents are still on the job? >> and, and i wouldn't have a particularly good answer for them because i'm not really familiar with the facts and where it is. >> and in your view, there's no sense that the agents were right or wrong? >> in my view, i don't have the knowledge and the specific about the case itself. >> do you think you should have?
>> no, i actually don't think i should have. >> reporter: the former commissioner told us he had never seen the video of that fateful night and did not care to now. >> so what's the message that sends to other agents? >> well, it's a very simple lesson, do what you want. so long as the person who's hurt doesn't have political power, or juice, doesn't speak english, from a foreign country, have a good time. >> reporter: earlier this year, the united states government paid the family of cruz velazquez $1 million to settle the lawsuit they had brought. there was no apology and no admission of wrongdoing. >> they were laughing. until my brother started shaking and screaming. he was in pain. he passed through all that pain before he died.
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