Leaders in Congress react to ABC News investigation of border agency

A video obtained by ABC News has shed new light on a tragic 2013 incident.

ByABC News
July 28, 2017, 7:38 AM

— -- A government surveillance video obtained by ABC News has shed new light on a tragic incident at the U.S.-Mexico border, sparking outrage from members of Congress who help oversee U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

The video shows that in 2013 two U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers appeared to encourage, or at least permit, a 16-year-old Mexican high school student to drink from a bottle that tests would later reveal contained concentrated liquid methamphetamine.

The young man, Cruz Velazquez, died within two hours of drinking the substance, but the two officers involved, Valerie Baird and Adrian Perallon, remain on the job today, with no disciplinary action taken against them.

A former head of internal affairs at U.S. Customs and Border Protection, James Tomsheck, told ABC News the two officers violated agency protocols by allowing the young man to drink from the bottle, and that he was told at the time they would be punished.

“If they truly suspected there was a controlled substance in the bottle,” Tomsheck said, “they should've conducted a field test.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a Democrat from California and the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Immigration and Border Security, condemned the officers’ conduct.

“Drug smuggling is wrong and is a crime, but this teenage boy did not deserve a death sentence,” Lofgren told ABC News. “For CBP officers to inflict a summary death sentence is not only immoral, but also illegal.”

Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi and the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee, echoed those sentiments.

“In order for CBP officers to prevent smuggling, ensure public safety, and do their difficult job at the border properly, CBP must have the appropriate protocols in place and officers must follow them,” Thompson told ABC News. “While there is no excuse for attempting to bring illicit substances into the country, it is absolutely clear from the video that there were numerous failures in judgement and procedure that led to the senseless death of a 16-year-old boy. CBP must ensure that such a tragedy never occurs again.”

Rep. Adriano Espaillat, a Democrat from New York, said this incident highlights the need to pass legislation he introduced earlier this year that would require border officers to wear body cameras while on duty.

"Undocumented immigrants and green card holders are terrified,” Espaillat said in a statement, “and it is critical that we hold officers accountable and ensure that the civil rights of these individuals are not violated.”

The video, which aired for the first time Friday on Good Morning America, World News Tonight with David Muir, 20/20 and Nightline as part of a year-long investigation of U.S. Customs and Border Protection conducted by ABC News and The Investigative Fund, shows that Velazquez took four drinks from the bottle, and the officers appear to repeatedly encourage him with hand gestures.

The Velazquez family ultimately filed a civil lawsuit against the officers and the agency, claiming that the officers’ actions led to Cruz’s death.

“What you see, I think, is a basic lack of compassion and decency toward a 16-year-old boy,” said Gene Iredale, the San Diego-based attorney who represented the Velazquez family. “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.”

Both officers, who declined through their attorneys to be interviewed by ABC News, denied asking Velazquez to drink from the bottle, and the official report called the incident an “accident.” Officer Perallon claimed Velazquez “volunteered” to take a drink.

In response to the broader ABC News investigation, which revealed a history of cases in which the agency appeared to ignore accusations of mistreatment and abuse, the agency issued a statement, saying, “CBP takes all allegations of mistreatment seriously, and does not tolerate actions that are not consistent with our core values of vigilance, service to country and integrity.”

The Consulate General of Mexico in San Diego released a brief statement to ABC News.

"The Consulate General of Mexico in San Diego provided consular and legal assistance to Mr. Cruz Velazquez’s family since it learned about his death. This tragic incident highlights the need of greater transparency and accountability in immigration control activities."

Earlier this year, the U.S. government paid the teen’s family $1 million to settle a lawsuit. There was no apology or admission of wrongdoing, and both officers testified that they never received a reprimand for their conduct, a fact that still angers members of Velazquez’s family.

“How can the government allow that? It’s like, OK you can kill someone,” Reyna Velazquez, Cruz’s sister, told ABC News. “They took him as a fool, as who cares. Well, that fool, he was the greatest person I ever knew.”

ABC News' Matthew Mosk, James Gordon Meek, Pete Madden, Margaret Katcher contributed to this report.

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