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Customs and Border Protection called him a 'COVID-19 Positive Mexican Drug Smuggler.' In a phone call from jail, he says they're wrong

2 months 3 weeks 19 hours ago Sunday, May 17 2020 May 17, 2020 May 17, 2020 11:00 PM May 17, 2020 in News - Coronavirus Pandemic

U.S. Customs and Border Protection made a major announcement last week: A “COVID-19 Positive Mexican Drug Smuggler with Possible Drug Cartel Ties” had crossed the Rio Grande near Escobares.

Acting Commissioner Mark Morgan touted the arrest, which made national news.

“Our border security efforts are vital in containing the spread of COVID-19 and protecting the American people during this health pandemic. These measures are working,” Morgan said in a statement on May 12. “Our Border Patrol agents risk their lives every day and, in this case, they did their jobs and ensured these smugglers could not successfully enter the United States. Think about the alternative: potentially endless exposure and spread of the virus to innocent Americans with likely disastrous consequences from unscrupulous smugglers. This is yet another example of why COVID-19 policies are so critical to the health and safety of the American people.”

The man Border Patrol arrested, however, isn’t charged with drug smuggling — and said he’s not a smuggler.

Carlos Cesar Vela Hernandez said he illegally crossed the Rio Grande because his son tested positive for the new coronavirus, COVID-19, and he needed money to pay for medical care.

“That’s why I came,” Vela Hernandez said May 15 in a phone interview from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention center in Port Isabel. “I came to the United States because a cousin said he had a job for me. It’s very difficult to get medication and treatments are very expensive.”

Customs and Border Protection said agents detained Vela Hernandez during a “drug smuggling case.”

“On Friday, May 8, 2020, at 11:20 a.m., Rio Grande City Border Patrol agents in Escobares, Texas, apprehended two Mexican nationals as part of a drug smuggling case. The individuals were transported to the Rio Grande City Border Patrol Station,” according to the news release.
“Once at the station, one of the two complained of migraines and was transported to a local hospital, where he tested positive for COVID-19. The second individual was asymptomatic and was returned to Mexico.”

Vela Hernandez told a different story.

After he crossed the Rio Grande in a raft, he jumped in a waiting car, Vela Hernandez said. Border Patrol agents started chasing the car.

Vela Hernandez said he and another man jumped from the moving vehicle and attempted to hide from agents.

“The Border Patrol agent saw that we were hiding,” Vela Hernandez said. “He took out his gun and pointed it at me.”

Agents detained Vela Hernandez at the Rio Grande City Border Patrol Station, where he complained about headaches.

“I started telling them that my head hurt, that I had a fever, that I felt dizzy, weak, and I began throwing up,” Vela Hernandez said.

Vela Hernandez said Border Patrol agents took him to a doctor, who tested him for COVID-19.

Privacy laws prevent Starr County from releasing information about patients.

Without identifying the patient by name, Dr. Jose Vazquez, the Starr County health authority, said a person detained by Border Patrol was tested for COVID-19.

A rapid test showed the person had COVID-19 antibodies. After medical workers determined the person had antibodies, they administered a traditional lab test for the virus.

It came back positive.

In a phone interview, Vela Hernandez told a nearly identical story. He said medical workers administered two tests before they confirmed he had the virus.

Court records also corroborate his story.

Border Patrol arrested Vela Hernandez near Escobares, according to the criminal complaint against him. A notation in the case shows Vela Hernandez is awaiting medical clearance before he appears in court.

In the statement, Customs and Border Protection didn’t identify the “COVID-19 Positive Mexican Drug Smuggler” by name. Immigration and Customs Enforcement separately announced that an unnamed person detained at the Port Isabel detention center had tested positive for the virus.

Vela Hernandez said he crossed the border May 8 near Escobares and tested positive for COVID-19, which matched details in the Customs and Border Protection statement. He also called KRGV-TV from the detention center in Port Isabel.

Other parts of his story are sketchy.

Customs and Border Protection described Vela Hernandez as a drug smuggler. Vela Hernandez said he’s not.

Border Patrol arrested Vela Hernandez at least four times since November 2018, according to federal court records. In the most recent case, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane sentenced him to six months in federal prison.

None of the four cases involved drug charges.

After he served the six-month prison sentence, the federal government deported Vela Hernandez from Laredo to Nuevo Laredo on April 20, according to court records.

How he contracted the virus remains unclear.

Vela Hernandez said Mexican officials tested him for the virus when the United States government deported him on April 20. The test came back negative.

He returned to Reynosa, where Vela Hernandez said his son fell sick. Concerned about the cost of COVID-19 treatments, Vela Hernandez illegally crossed the river.

Border Patrol arrested him — again.

Vela Hernandez is charged with illegal re-entry.

He was scheduled for an initial appearance before U.S. Magistrate Judge J. Scott Hacker on May 11, but the hearing was canceled. The docket lists him as: “Not medically cleared.”

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