Joel Reyes Muñoz is seen in two side-by-side undated photos. Courtesy of Reyes Muñoz's family.

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Few details are publicly available about how a Mexican citizen died in federal custody in a parking lot just west of the Otay Mesa Port of Entry more than six months ago.

Hours after Border Patrol detained Joel Reyes Muñoz, 38, on Jan. 12, he “became ill and eventually unresponsive,” according to a press release Customs and Border Protection issued two days later. Authorities suspected Reyes Muñoz crossed the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. 

Now new details have emerged in records obtained by inewsource that raise questions about whether Reyes Muñoz’s death could have been prevented.

Reyes Muñoz died from blunt force injuries after “apparently” falling from the U.S.-Mexico border wall, according to his recently updated death certificate. That detail places Reyes Muñoz among a growing list of migrants fatally wounded after falling from the U.S.-Mexico border wall.

Why This Matters

More than six months have passed since Joel Reyes Muñoz died in a Customs and Border Protection parking lot. Despite new information on his death, his family still has questions how he died.

But the still thin details surrounding his death also raise questions for Reyes Muñoz’s family and immigration reform advocates about whether authorities took appropriate steps to prevent his death. 

Nearly two hours passed between the time a Border Patrol agent spotted a group of migrants crossing into the U.S. leading to Reyes Muñoz’s detention and when he died.

In the more than six months since his death, neither Border Patrol nor its overseeing agency, Customs and Border Protection, have released information on what led up to Reyes Muñoz’s death. Spokespeople for those agencies did not return multiple requests for comment for this story.

Vicki Gaubeca, director for the Southern Border Communities Coalition, said his death raises doubts about whether Border Patrol knew he fell from the wall and what, if any, medical evaluation he was given.

“I think the biggest question for us is why wasn’t there an immediate medical assessment of Mr. Reyes Muñoz.”

Reyes Muñoz left his home in Aguascalientes, a state in central Mexico, for the U.S. in hopes of earning enough money to send his two sons to college, his wife, Leticia Duran Martinez, told inewsource

Joel Reyes Muñoz and Leticia Duran Martinez standing together in an undated photo. Courtesy of Reyes Muñoz’s family.

His death left the family in disbelief and with many questions about what happened to Reyes Muñoz, who they said was otherwise healthy.

“If it really happened like that, that he fell from the wall, why don’t they give him medical attention?” Duran Martinez said. 

Reyes Muñoz’s family is working with a lawyer with the Mexican Consulate in San Diego to assess their legal options, a spokesperson for the Consulate said.

The San Diego Police Department, which is tasked with investigating Border Patrol in-custody deaths, completed its investigation of Reyes Muñoz’s death and passed that to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for review, according to Jud Campbell, a lieutenant with the department’s homicide unit. No details about the investigation’s findings are available.

Kelly Thornton, director of media relations for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of California, declined to comment on Reyes Muñoz’s death investigation. 

What led up to Reyes Muñoz’s death? 

Reyes Muñoz died about one hour and 45 minutes after a Border Patrol agent saw a group of migrants crossing into the U.S. and dispatched agents to respond. Authorities have released little information on what happened in that frame immediately leading up to Reyes Muñoz’s death. 

A Border Patrol truck drives through a gate into a restricted area between two barriers of 30-foot fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border on July 29, 2022. (Sofía Mejías-Pascoe/inewsource)

inewsource pieced together the following timeline based on two press releases from CBP and the San Diego Police Department and from a police call for service report.

Medical examiner records on Reyes Muñoz’s are still sealed from the public by law enforcement, according to Emily McMullen, an administrative analyst at the Medical Examiner’s Office of San Diego County. 

At 1:45 p.m. on Jan. 12, a Border Patrol agent using a remote camera spotted nine “undocumented noncitizens” crossing into the U.S. “in an industrial area west of the Otay Mesa Port of Entry,” according to CBP. That agent radioed additional agents to respond to the area. 

At some unspecified point later, a Border Patrol agent apprehended Reyes Muñoz “on suspicion of entering the United States illegally, possibly by climbing the fences west of the Otay Mesa Port of Entry,” according to SDPD’s press release. 

The two-mile area directly west of the Otay Mesa Port of Entry is made up of several blocks of large shipping warehouses with a road that runs parallel to the border and leads to a CBP cargo processing area. 

Two barriers of 30-foot-tall fencing line this area of the border. In between, white and green Border Patrol vehicles keep watch. 

According to SDPD, one agent detained Reyes Muñoz “without incident or force” and brought him to “a cargo area of the Port for processing.”

The agent, whose name has not been released by authorities, has been employed by Border Patrol for 18 years. 

“Shortly after arriving at the cargo area, the male went into medical distress,” according to SDPD. CBP’s press release says that federal agents used a defibrillator and performed resuscitation on Reyes Muñoz and called for medics.

At 3:21 p.m., San Diego Police received a call for service reporting Reyes Muñoz’s death: “on scene w/ male that collapsed – CPR active,” the call log says. 

Reyes Muñoz was pronounced dead by a medic at 3:30 p.m., according to the call log. His death certificate says he died in the parking lot of the CBP cargo processing center. 

Spokespeople for CBP did not answer several questions from inewsource about the circumstances leading up to Reyes Muñoz’s death or the agency’s own investigation of the death. 

Key questions include whether Border Patrol saw Reyes Muñoz fall from the border wall and whether he received a medical evaluation after he was detained. 

The segment of the wall where CBP reported seeing a group crossed into the U.S. is part of President Donald Trump’s expanded 30-foot barrier fence. 

A recent study from trauma doctors at UC San Diego Health found admissions of patients with border wall fall injuries increased fivefold after the expansion was completed.

Between 2017 and 2019, UC San Diego’s trauma center, which receives patients from San Diego and Imperial counties, saw 67 patients with border wall fall injuries. In the three years after, that number jumped to 375, according to the study.

New questions raised by death certificate

More than six months after Reyes Muñoz’s death, Gaubeca, with the Southern Border Communities Coalition or SBCC, said the limited information from authorities raises more questions than it answers. 

Joel Reyes Muñoz seen in an undated photo standing on the perimeter of a swimming pool. Courtesy of Reyes Muñoz’s family.

“We wonder, will there ever be any of these questions answered?” Gaubeca said, noting that Reyes Muñoz joins many others who’ve died in CBP custody. 

Those questions include whether Reyes Muñoz was “provided immediate medical attention” and whether the fall was “captured in the video that was actually used to identify the nine immigrants that were coming over the border wall.”

The Coalition has tracked more than 230 deaths of U.S. citizens and non-citizens since 2010 involving Border Patrol agents. According to the group’s analysis, vehicle collisions, use of force and lack of medical care or medical emergencies are the most common causes of the fatal encounters. 

The Coalition also helped to reveal the Border Patrol’s critical incident teams, or “shadow police units,” which work to “mitigate and conceal their culpability” when agents use force in the line of duty, SBCC wrote in a letter to congressional members in October.

“That’s really disturbing to us because it speaks to a culture of abuse, of impunity, of discrimination and, and failure to take responsibility,” Gaubeca said.  

CBP has since announced a plan to end use of the critical incident teams effective this October, but until then, Border Patrol agents in the critical incident teams “will continue to support” the Office of Professional Responsibility, the oversight agency tasked with investigating in-custody deaths, “as needed,” according to a CBP memo. 

CBP said the Office of Professional Responsibility would review Reyes Muñoz’s death, but the agency did not respond to questions about the results of that review or any other aspects of the investigation. 

“The transparency, the accountability is basically to preserve lives, not just hold agents accountable, but also to preserve individuals’ lives and prevent that from happening again,” Gaubeca added. 

The ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties, which has documented and litigated alleged abuses by CBP and Border Patrol, said in a statement to inewsource that the new information on Reyes Muñoz’s cause of death are “horrifying but not surprising.”

“Unfortunately, U.S. border communities have long understood CBP’s capacity for cruelty and impunity. The U.S. Border Patrol is one of CBP’s main components … Ending Border Patrol’s long-standing abuses and impunity would require divestment, accountability, and removing the agency from U.S. communities.” 

Another one of Reyes Muñoz’s family members, who spoke to inewsource on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, described him as “a very good person.” 

“The only thing he did was work for his family,” the family member said. 

Joel Reyes Muñoz helps his son open a present in an undated photo. Courtesy of Reyes Muñoz’s family.

Duran Martinez and her two sons, 16 and 17, are still mourning the loss of Reyes Muñoz, who she said was very healthy. They have many questions and doubts about what caused his death and that has made it difficult to accept. 

“More than anything because I would like to know what really happened,” said said in Spanish. ”I can’t understand and well I can’t get over it yet.” 

The money Reyes Muñoz made in Mexico working in construction wasn’t enough to allow his two sons to keep studying, Duran Martinez said. In December, he left for the U.S. in hopes of being able to provide a better quality of life for his family.

Reyes Muñoz tried crossing into the U.S. once before. 

Before his last attempt, he told his wife he would return home to Agusacalientes if he wasn’t successful, Duran Martinez said. 

She last spoke to him Jan. 12 – the day he died – but didn’t learn of death for days. She called and texted him repeatedly with no response. 

“I spent the whole week with that anguish, with that fear and concern of (not) knowing what had really happened to him.” 

Finally, she heard the news from Reyes Muñoz’s brother. 

“I didn’t expect it, I didn’t expect that,” she said. 

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Sofía Mejías-Pascoe is a border and immigration reporter covering the U.S.-Mexico region and the people who live, work and pass through the area. Mejías-Pascoe was previously a general assignment reporter and intern with inewsource, where she covered the pandemic’s toll inside prisons and detention...