SAN JOSE LAS FLORES, Guatemala -- The mother of a Guatemalan boy whose body was found in the desert about a mile from Texas' southern border said Tuesday she begged him not set out on the dangerous journey from their modest wood and sheet-metal home high in the northern Cuchumatanes mountains.
But Cipriana Juarez Diaz, ailing and bedridden, said her son Gilberto told her he wanted to earn money to help her.
"I said, 'Son, it's better if you stay. Everything I have here is for you,"' the woman recalled on Tuesday in an interview with a local reporter, adding that she draped him with a white rosary as he left. "Now my son is dead, and I think about how he suffered."
Gilberto Francisco Ramos Juarez was found with the rosary still around his neck and a brother's Chicago phone number scribbled on the inside of his belt buckle about two weeks ago. He was alone in brush less than a mile from the nearest U.S. home, a South Texas sheriff said Monday. He had apparently gotten lost on his way north and likely died from the elements. An autopsy did not find signs of trauma.
His birth certificate says he was 11 years old.
While hundreds of immigrants die crossing the border each year, the discovery of Gilberto's decomposed body in the Rio Grande Valley on June 15 highlights the perils unaccompanied children face as the U.S. government searches for ways to deal with record numbers of children crossing into the country illegally.
Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra said he was the first child immigrant his office has found since he became sheriff in April.
More than 52,000 unaccompanied children have been apprehended entering the U.S. illegally since October, creating what President Barack Obama has called an "urgent humanitarian situation." On Monday, Obama asked Congress for more money and additional authority to deal with the surge of youths, mostly from Central America. Obama wants flexibility to speed the youths' deportations and $2 billion to hire more immigration judges and open more detention facilities.
The number of unaccompanied immigrant children picked up along the border has been rising for three years as they fled pervasive gang violence in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. More recently, children and parents have said they heard children traveling alone and parents traveling with young kids would be released by authorities and allowed to continue to their destination.
Many of the children turn themselves in to the first law enforcement person they see, so Guerra said it was unusual to find a child in this more remote area -- near La Joya, about 20 miles west of McAllen. Sometimes smugglers, known as coyotes, leave people behind if they can't go on; other times a group may scatter when authorities approach.
About 445 immigrants died along the U.S.-Mexico border last year, according to the Border Patrol. The Pima County medical examiner in Arizona, which is the perennial leader in immigrant deaths, recorded 168 of the deaths; of the 70 where an age was confirmed, none were younger than 13.
Gilberto set out from chilly, rugged terrain, the peaks and canyons of an area only accessible by dirt road. Associated Press reporters hiked a rocky, muddy path for 45 minutes to reach the village.
The boy's family said they had last heard from him about 25 days before his body was found. At that time, he was in Reynosa, Mexico, waiting to cross the border. His father told authorities the boy was traveling with a migrant smuggler.
Investigators were able to reach the boy's brother in Chicago; his phone number was one of three on the boy's belt. It's not uncommon for immigrants to put relatives' phone numbers on their clothing because scraps of paper can get lost or wet during their journey.
The boy's brother gave authorities his father's phone number in Guatemala, and the dad identified the boy's personal items.
The cause of death has not been determined, but authorities suspect heat stroke, Guerra said. The boy was no longer wearing a shirt when he was found.