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.
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 immigrants live 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.
Down in the valley
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 from outside his house 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 place 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.
In March, as the coronavirus pandemic spread in South Texas, the authorities feared that the traditional family gatherings that are a feature of spring and summer in the valley would help fuel the outbreak and overwhelm hospitals.
Sheriff J.E. Guerra made it clear that his deputies would be out to enforce a countywide curfew over the Easter weekend.
“The objective of this order is for people to stay away from each other,” he said. “So I know that it’s very difficult, especially in our culture, because during the most holiest of all holidays, families all want to be together.”
‘I’m not breathing’
On Saturday, April 11, Mr. Gonzalez, dressed in a pink shirt and camouflage pants, went with his wife to a friend’s cookout at the Delta Lake RV Park, three miles from the high school that he had graduated from. The couple needed a night out. They were tired of isolating at home because of the pandemic.
Mr. Gonzalez drank a dozen beers, he later told an investigator, then passed out on the ground. His wife found a spot in one of the trailer homes to sleep. Other cookouts continued into the night.
Lucio Duque, the park’s landlord, said he got a call from a neighbor shortly before 2 a.m., saying some of the tenants were fighting. So he walked the short distance to the mobile homes and confronted the partyers.
Three Hidalgo County sheriff’s officers — Sgt. Julio Treviño and two deputies, Steven Farias and Jorge Cabrera — arrived after the neighbor called 911.
The deputies found Mr. Gonzalez and nudged him awake, according to the Texas Rangers’ report. At first, they ordered Mr. Gonzalez to go sleep inside a trailer, but Sergeant Treviño decided to arrest him after Mr. Duque said he did not live on the property.
Mr. Gonzalez later told his sister that he had been scared, so he ran — perhaps, she said, because he knew that the Sheriff’s Office cooperated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The deputies tackled him. Mr. Duque said in an interview that Mr. Gonzalez, who was 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, had run but did not fight back as the officers cuffed him.
“He just didn’t want to be arrested,” he said.
Jesus Reyes, a tenant, said he saw “one deputy pick up Jorge’s hands from the back, another tripped him and the third looked like he punched or pulled Jorge’s head.”
Mr. Reyes said Mr. Gonzalez fell to the ground headfirst and appeared to be unconscious after that, but then Mr. Reyes heard the sound of a Taser and heard Mr. Gonzalez shriek.
At that point, another witness told the Texas Rangers, the deputies walked a handcuffed and shackled Mr. Gonzalez to the patrol cars, but when they reached the cars, Mr. Gonzalez fell to the ground again. Then the witness saw a deputy kneel on Mr. Gonzalez’s back, and a second deputy kneel on his neck.
In a dashcam video from inside a patrol car, according to the investigator, Deputy Cabrera could be seen pulling Mr. Gonzalez chest-first onto the back seat, he said. Mr. Gonzalez kept saying that the deputies had “paralyzed” him. “I’m not breathing,” he said, using words similar to those Mr. Floyd had used during his arrest. “Pick me up.”
Red flags missed
The deputies used their radios to warn officers at the jail that a “rowdy” prisoner was inbound.
Once they arrived, Mr. Gonzalez would not, or could not, stand on his own, and four officers had to carry him from the patrol car to a pat-down room, according to the investigation report.
Sgt. Cynthia Casanova, the officer in charge of booking that night, told investigators that she viewed Mr. Gonzalez’s refusal to stand and walk as “uncooperative” but not violent. Still, she ordered officers to strap Mr. Gonzalez down in a restraint chair as punishment despite him saying that he was hurt.
A nurse cleared Mr. Gonzalez for detention.
After five hours in the chair, guards wheeled Mr. Gonzalez into a shower. One officer reported Mr. Gonzalez saying he could not move. The jailers dressed him in an orange uniform and left him in Detox Cell 3.
He remained there all day until Mr. Williams, a trained medic, arrived for his shift and discovered Mr. Gonzalez’s injuries.
The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office referred questions on the case to the county’s lawyer, who said he had advised the department not to discuss it because of a pending lawsuit and an internal investigation.
A family’s search for justice
“My nephew was a fun, outgoing person, and they took his life away,” Danielle Gonzalez, Mr. Gonzalez’s aunt, said. “All we want are answers.”
Because he had no health insurance and could not be put in a skilled care center, she and her husband took Mr. Gonzales into their home after he left the hospital, paralyzed from the neck down and unable to breathe on his own. The family struggled to keep him alive.
“We only had two weeks to learn how to care for my brother before the hospital sent him to us,” Katia Gonzalez said. “I was scared. The ventilator is so delicate to work with.”
On July 8, the family said, Mr. Gonzalez seemed agitated. His eyes rolled up, and his belly convulsed. The family called 911. The emergency medical technicians said he had sustained a heart attack, and they asked the family to leave the room so they could try to revive him.
But by then, she said, his brain had gone too long without oxygen. He died a week later.
“My mom went to the Sheriff’s and told them, ‘Tell your sheriff to come to apologize to my son before he passes away,’” Katia Gonzalez said.
The sheriff, she said, never responded.
After the grand jury declined to return an indictment, the family filed a lawsuit against the county and four Sheriff’s Office employees, claiming damages for wrongful death and negligence.
Katia Gonzalez began a social media campaign to bring attention to her brother’s death. Mr. Gonzalez’s mug shot and story circulated on Twitter, garnering hundreds of comments and tens of thousands of retweets. After the grand jury declined to return an indictment, activists with La Unión del Pueblo Entro helped organize a march at the District Attorney’s Office in downtown Edinburg.
Passing drivers honked their horns in support.
Mr. Duque, the landlord, did not attend the protest and, like most of those who were there that night, has not openly criticized the police. Still, he said, he was disturbed by what he saw. “There was no need for the police to come and get out of control,” he said.