A death at the border
The yellow light came down gently over the body, making it hard to distinguish if it was covered in blood or sweat.
According to an eyewitness, I will call Juan, —a 62 year old immigrant who was afraid of full identification—Anastasio Hernández Rojas, was with him on the bus, along with 14 other people. They where all handcuffed and defeated.
Juan and four other men were deported first.
They meet with Mexican immigration officials (INAMI) who told them they could make a phone call to their families. Juan needed to call his family in Guadalajara and was waiting to make the call, when he heard screams coming from the other side of the fence. He ran toward the sound, only to see a man being dragged on the floor by six immigration officers. The man was Anastasio.
“They beat him with viciously” he says, “We all ran towards the fence, where we saw them drag and hit him with all their might: kicks, elbows, batons, they sat on him…there came a point when they took him around the parking lot, behind one of the trucks, as if they wanted to hide him, because of all the people watching them; the place was full of Mexican agents, immigrants, shoppers coming back to TJ.”
Juan clearly remembers a woman screaming “Americans are beating the kid half-to-death.”
Passerbys even recorded with their cell phones, an INAMI Agent did it too, and even a member of the Mexican Marine lamented the scene was happening in another country, just steps from where they stood.
“More and more agents came, at one point I saw 20 officers hitting him, they had different uniforms; green (Border Patrol), light blue (Customs and Border Protection CBP) and dark blue with ICE written on the back” Juan claims, “even those bus drivers, who use gray uniforms, even they were participating.”
Juan closes his eyes before continuing.
“They put electric shocks on him and his body flew into the air, convulsed, and even when he stopped moving, they would not stop hitting him. His screams where horrifying, they pierced the air in the hallway leading to Tijuana, where the metal doors kept at it… clank-clank-clank-clank.”
Anastasio stopped breathing and agents did CPR. The ambulance came later and transported him to Scripps Hospital in Chula Vista.
Another witness to that night was Victor, who was coming back home after a hard day at work in San Diego.
“I dare to say they were blood thirsty” he says, “the man was just lying there for a good half hour before they picked him up. He was clearly dead.”
Anastasio wife and 5 children, —including 4 year-old twins— had to learn about his death from a police detective, who contacted them in their San Diego home to break the news.
Anastasio, how had been a San Diego resident for the past 25 years, was deported last Tuesday and was trying to get back to California to be with his family.
Twenty-four hours later, doctors declared him brain dead and his family agreed to take him off the ventilator and let him die.
“We feel our own life has ended along with his…” said his cousin Verónica, “I fail to see how this could happen and I want to ask for justice, give us justice because that is all that we have left.”
Questions about the incident are handled by CBP; the officer who used the taser was a member of that border agency.
CBP spokesperson Jackeline Dizdul stated the account given by officers was that Anastasio had turned violent.
“During processing, the individual became combative. Despite repeated commands to stop fighting, the subject continued. As a result, one of the officers deployed an electronic defense module to subdue the individual and preserve officer safety. Emergency medical personnel responded to the scene and took the person to a local area hospital for further medical attention.”
The case is being investigated by the San Diego Police Department, which is in charge of determining if there was in fact an excessive use of force.
But this worries Human Rights observers and immigrant rights activists.
“At a time when the immigration debate has intensified and polarized this nation, it is more urgent than ever to make sure we train our federal agents to uphold the law without violating Human Rights” said Christian Ramirez, of the American Friends Service Committee, “this wouldn’t had happened if we had fair and humane immigration law, proper officer training and a transparent process to investigate abuse claims.”
The border community has yet to hear the conclusions of the last border death where the federal officers were involved. The death of 22 year-old Oscar García Barrios, a legal migrant who was shot by the Border Patrol in May 18th 2006 when he was traveling South.
No conclusive reports have been made available about another investigation, the death of Guillermo Martínez, shot in the back in December 2005.
“About the most recent case, we don’t know of any strong sanction. We don’t even know of any sanction per-se. The officer involved was just reassigned,” Heriberto García García, ombudsman for Human Rights Commission in Baja California explains, “our fear is that this case will be kept in the dark as the others.”
Until now, the investigation points to Anastasio being detained with his brother Pedro Pablo just hours earlier, under suspicions of having entered the country illegally. Pedro was quickly processed and sent back.
His brother, who still is under federal custody, claims his brother was hurt by a Border Patrol agent who had kicked him in the leg, where he had just undergone reconstructive surgery.
The toxicology report claims he had traces of methamphetamine in his bloodstream, but this fact alone is hardly reason to dismiss the case.
“We would first have to make sure that’s true” ACLU representative Andrea Guerrero says, “we have no data of him having an addiction problem, but be it the case, that is not the legal question we should answer; the question is: was there excessive use of force and what is worrisome to me is the high level of opacity of this type of investigations? what are the circumstances around his death? Who is in charge of investigating? Will they be fair? I mean, who is watching the watchers?”
Some Congress members in Mexico have discussed the possibility of taking this case to international courts and activists on both sides of the border are hoping to keep a close eye on the procedure, for fear that the information will never get to a public trial, where responsibilities can be attributed properly.
“There is so much impunity at the border” says Ramírez, “these types of cases keep piling up with no answers, and we all deserve some answers.”
The San Diego Medical Examiner’s Office on Wednesday ruled as a homicide the death of Mexican man who was beaten and tasered while in the custody of U.S. border agents.
Anastasio Hernandez Rojas died of cardiac arrest, an autopsy found, but methamphetamine abuse and hypertension were also contributing factors.
The Mexican government said the autopsy results “support the strong condemnation the government of Mexico made from the outset, publicly demanding through diplomatic channels a thorough and impartial investigation.”