The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Honduran father who died in Texas jail was fleeing violence, consul says

Marco Antonio Muñoz, seen here in a handout photo provided by the Starr County, Tex., Sheriff’s Office, died in custody on May 13 after being separated from his family.
Marco Antonio Muñoz, seen here in a handout photo provided by the Starr County, Tex., Sheriff’s Office, died in custody on May 13 after being separated from his family. (Starr County Sheriff's Office)
Placeholder while article actions load

A Honduran man who killed himself in a Texas jail last month after U.S. authorities forcibly separated him from his wife and child was seeking asylum in the United States following the slaying of his brother-in-law, the Honduran consul in McAllen, Tex., said Monday.

Marco Antonio Muñoz fled Honduras with his wife, Orlanda de Muñoz, and their 3-year-old son after her brother’s slaying left the family fearing for their lives, Consul Ana Bulnes told The Washington Post, providing new details about the circumstances preceding Muñoz’s death May 13.

His suicide, which was first reported by The Post on Saturday, raised new concerns about the psychological strain endured by migrant families who cross the border illegally and face separation once in government custody.

Bulnes said the couple had lived in the United States — she wasn’t sure where — and have a U.S.-born son who is “6 or 7 years old” and an American citizen. The family chose to return to Honduras voluntarily several years ago, she said, to grow coffee in a rural area of the Copán region.

The slaying of de Muñoz’s brother this spring drove the family to flee Honduras, Bulnes said. “They put the older boy on a plane, and brought the little one with them by land,” she said.

Families in similar circumstances have little chance of getting protection in the United States as the Trump administration tightens asylum standards. Attorney General Jeff Sessions issued a ruling Monday aimed at curbing claims by victims of “private crimes,” a category that would generally exclude those who arrive in the United States from countries gripped by criminal bloodshed.

Sessions: Victims of domestic, gang violence ‘generally’ won’t qualify for asylum

Muñoz, 39, had a breakdown May 12 after Border Patrol agents separated the family. After he began shouting and shaking the chain-link fencing of his holding pen, agents drove him 40 miles to the Starr County Jail in Rio Grande City, Tex., where he struggled with guards and was placed in an isolation cell.

Guards found Muñoz dead on the floor of his padded cell the following morning with blood pooled near his mouth and a shirt twisted around his neck. He had tied the garment to a drainage grate in the center of the floor and hung it around his neck, then rolled himself over several times to tighten it, according to incident reports filed by sheriff’s deputies.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection said in a statement that the circumstances of Muñoz’s death are under review and Texas Rangers are the “lead investigative agency.” A spokesman for the Rangers referred inquires to Starr County authorities, who.have not responded to multiple requests for a copy of Muñoz’s autopsy report.

Officials at Customs and Border Protection and the Department of Homeland Security have not said why Muñoz’s death was not previously disclosed. The statement released by the agency over the weekend made no mention of his family or their whereabouts.

According to Bulnes, the family spent several days in a safe house on the Mexican side of the border before crossing the Rio Grande into the United States. The safe house was crowded, de Muñoz told Bulnes, and the family “only got food once or twice a day.”

Muñoz was in good physical shape and used to working outdoors, she told Bulnes, but on the day the family crossed the river, he complained to his wife of severe headaches. On the riverbank, “he nearly fainted,” Bulnes said.

Muñoz entered the U.S. illegally on May 11, according to Customs and Border Prot

The family promptly surrendered to U.S. agents and said they wanted to apply for asylum. Muñoz was told then that he would be separated from his family, Bulnes said, standard procedure for handling family groups with a child and two parents.

A family was separated at the border, and this distraught father took his own life

The incident occurred less than a week after Sessions announced a “zero tolerance” crackdown threatening criminal charges against anyone who crosses into the United States illegally, leaving parents at risk of having their children taken away and assigned to government shelters. But Bulnes said Muñoz was assured the child would remain with his mother.

“They told him he had to go to a separate cell,” Bulnes said. “They gave him a chance to hug the boy.”

What happened next remains unclear. According to Border Patrol agents familiar with the incident, Muñoz appeared to suffer a panic attack as he embraced his son, and had to be physically separated from the boy.

His wife then watched in dismay as her husband became combative and was escorted out of the station to be driven to a nearby jail. Agents said Muñoz attempted to escape as they placed him in a van and again when he arrived at the jail.

By the following morning he was dead. It was Bulnes’s job to inform the family. She said de Muñoz was released from custody with an ankle bracelet so authorities can monitor her whereabouts. Bulnes brought the woman and the boy to speak with investigators, and then the consul drove the family to a funeral home in Mission, Tex., to view Muñoz’s body.

“She wanted to say goodbye, and the boy wanted to say goodbye to his father,” Bulnes said.

Only the man’s face was left visible. De Muñoz and the boy stood beside the body, Bulnes said. “They wept,” she said.

Bulnes said the consulate made arrangements to return Muñoz’s body to Honduras, in accordance with his family’s wishes.

De Muñoz and the boy left Texas after that, to reunite with the couple’s older son, who was living with relatives somewhere in the northern United States, Bulnes said. She said she wasn’t sure where the family is now.