SAN ANTONIO SECORTEZ, Guatemala (Reuters) - Shortly before daybreak on Christmas Eve, Claudia Maquin wept silently when she was finally reunited with the still body of her daughter Jakelin Caal, two weeks after the Guatemalan girl died in U.S. custody at the age of 7.
An indigenous Maya who had been hoping to begin a new life in the United States with her father, Jakelin came down with a fever while in the hands of U.S. Customs and Border Protection authorities, and died in an El Paso hospital on Dec. 8.
Her death fuelled renewed criticism by opponents of U.S. President Donald Trump’s immigration policies, and gave a face to the many children who have accompanied parents on the long road north from Central America through Mexico to the border.
Under a gray sky, friends and relatives filed in to Jakelin’s wake in the thatched hut of her grandfather. In a laminated white coffin, her small body was laid out clothed in a blue sweater and a red coverlet emblazoned with bears.
“This is not a merry Christmas, it’s a bad Christmas,” said her grandfather Domingo Caal, 61. “To lose a child, a human being, is difficult,” he added, as well-wishers and neighbours shuffled through the wooden house and its earthen floors.
Her mother Claudia wept but did not speak, looking down on the child for a few moments in the coffin.
Plagued by chronic gang violence and endemic poverty, Central America has sent out an endless stream of migrants desperate to reach the United States at almost any cost.
Jakelin’s father Nery remains in the United States waiting to see whether he will be allowed to stay. The two had handed themselves in to U.S. border agents in New Mexico on Dec. 6. She fell ill soon afterwards and died after suffering cardiac arrest, brain swelling and liver failure, U.S. officials said.
In the early hours of the morning, Claudia had stood at a gasoline station some 20 kilometres (12 miles) from her impoverished mountain village of San Antonio Secortez, waiting to meet the white minibus that bore her daughter’s body.
During the slow, winding procession back home through the municipality of Raxruha, the driver honked the horn as it passed dwelling places. A few villagers came out to give Claudia and the grandfather money.
Struggling to make its way through the steep, rugged mountain roads in the gloom, the minibus briefly ground to a halt and had to be pushed onwards by helping hands.
White balloons with messages of love for the girl hung over the coffin. On top of the casket was a small framed photo of Jakelin.
To one side hung a yellow note in Spanish.
“Domingo Caal and family thanks: the media, the vice-president, the embassies of Guatemala and the United States, the mayor of Raxruha and everyone in general who in some way or other has accompanied us in this irreparable loss.”
Reporting by Sofia Menchu, Editing by Dave Graham and Rosalba O'Brien