Mexican man’s widow sues, says immigration detention facility staff ignored pleas for help

Detainees at the Otay Mesa Detention Center wait in the medical section. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The widow of a Mexican man who crossed into the U.S. illegally in the trunk of a car is suing the U.S. government, alleging that staff at a detention facility in Otay Mesa repeatedly ignored his pleas for medical care, causing him to die from complications of pneumonia weeks later.

The lawsuit, filed in San Diego federal court, is among a string of cases alleging negligence when it comes to the medical problems of immigrants held at detention centers across the country. A 2007 lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, which was settled in 2010, addressed similar issues in Otay Mesa.

“If these facts in the complaint are true, then this would violate the core principles not only of the Constitution but of the settlement,” said David Loy, legal director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. The prior lawsuit “addressed precisely this kind of problem of people begging for care and not getting care.”


Most of those in the Otay Mesa Detention Center are being detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The facility also houses criminal detainees and material witnesses for the U.S. Marshals Service.

The lawsuit names the federal government, as well as CoreCivic — the private company contracted to run the Otay Mesa center — and a guard identified as C.O. Langdon.

Healthcare at the facility is provided by ICE’s health service corps and the federal Public Health Service, according to the lawsuit. A San Diego ICE spokeswoman declined to comment on the case last week, saying she didn’t have enough information. A CoreCivic spokesman in Tennessee, where the company is headquartered, said officials had not yet reviewed the lawsuit.

According to court records, Gerardo Cruz-Sanchez, 32, tried to cross into the U.S. in the trunk of a car on Feb. 4, 2016, at the Otay Mesa Port of Entry. The driver, Juan Carlos Ortega-Gonzalez, had presented someone else’s U.S. passport to the Customs and Border Protection officer. Cruz-Sanchez and two other immigrants in the U.S. illegally were then found in the trunk.

Cruz-Sanchez wasn’t charged with a crime but was held as a material witness in the case against the smuggler, agreeing to testify against him. Cruz-Sanchez was granted bail — $15,000 with a 10% cash deposit — but was unable to pay so he remained detained, according to court records.

Cruz-Sanchez was healthy when he was arrested but contracted pneumonia later, according to the complaint.

“He would be alive today if authorities had honored their legal and moral duty to care for their own witness,” according to the lawsuit.

The illness began with flulike symptoms, and Cruz-Sanchez’s requests for medical attention were rebuffed, the complaint said. He then started coughing up blood, “saturating his clothing and bed sheets.” He pleaded with Langdon and medical staff members for intervention but received none, the suit said. His condition deteriorated so that he could not talk, move or swallow food. He also suffered from respiratory distress and wheezing.

His cellmate, Alejandro Chavez, called the Mexican consulate 20 to 30 times asking for assistance, and on Feb. 22 a Spanish interpreter visited Cruz-Sanchez. It was unclear from the lawsuit if the interpreter tried to take action.

The cellmate repeatedly begged Langdon — a Spanish-speaking officer — to help Cruz-Sanchez, but Langdon mocked him, told the two to stop “complaining” and told Cruz-Sanchez to “man up” and “stop being a chicken,” the lawsuit said.

On Feb. 26, Cruz-Sanchez was taken to the emergency room at Scripps Mercy Hospital in Chula Vista, where he died three days later.

The lawsuit alleges Cruz-Sanchez was never examined by a doctor while in custody. His widow, Paula Garcia Rivera, requested her husband’s medical records from the detention center but was ignored, the complaint said.

The driver who had brought Cruz-Sanchez across the border pleaded guilty to human smuggling and was sentenced to time served, which was about three months.

Twitter: @kristinadavis

Davis writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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