Anastasio Hernández Rojas was an undocumented immigrant father of five who lived in Southern California for 27 years. In 2010, he was deported to Mexico. When he tried to return to his family, he was detained at the San Diego port of entry. He was murdered by the Border Patrol while in custody.
Eyewitness video shows Hernández handcuffed face down on the ground, surrounded by numerous agents who repeatedly tased and beat him with batons. On May 31, 2010, he died of his injuries. The San Diego coroner’s office ruled his death a homicide. Yet in 2015, Obama’s Department of Justice cleared the Border agents of any crime, saying they did not act with malice.
In the hundreds of wrongful death suits brought against the Border Patrol parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), no agent has ever been punished. To the contrary: Agent Rodney Scott, who helped cover up Hernández ’s murder, later became head of Border Patrol.
So the Hernández family took Anastasio’s case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). This agency rules on the worst human rights abuses in the Americas. They will investigate U.S. police — for the first time — for extrajudicial killing, torture, and obstruction of justice.
A landmark case. The petitioners to the IACHR are Hernández’s Mexican parents and siblings, and his wife and children, represented by UC Berkeley Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and Alliance San Diego. They charge that Hernández was an unarmed detainee who died from an excessive use of force. They also claim that the U.S. failed to investigate and punish those responsible. They are seeking a new inquiry and a change in the law.
Three high-ranking former Department of Homeland Security (DHS) administrators over CBP testified that agents destroyed evidence, dispersed witnesses, and manipulated facts to shield those who killed Hernández. Also, agents interfered with an investigation by the San Diego Police. When the eyewitness video emerged, the patrol refused to reopen the investigation.
The IACHR is an agency of the Organization of American States (OAS) and can call the U.S. government to account for their actions. It has the authority to recommend measures a country should take to better protect human rights. It also can refer cases to the Inter-American Court for legal proceedings.
Hernández’s case could set a precedent for other cases against border authorities and police who have murdered with impunity.
Systemic corruption. The IACHR will examine CBP’s record of abuse toward migrants. One DHS official called Border Protection a rogue agency whose leadership allows misconduct and crimes to go unpunished. Another said that corruption rates are 7–10 times higher than any other federal law agency.
Then, in October 2021, a human rights network of 60 organizations along the southern border charged the patrol with maintaining “shadow police teams.” These “Critical Incident Teams” are said to be the oldest secret cop units in the national government. They have covered up CBP beatings and killings for over 30 years.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection is the largest federal police force in the country, with authority over 70% of the populace. This quasi-military group has a sordid history. They have been accused of kidnapping and raping migrants, trafficking drugs and humans, and sexually abusing children. They are known to work with right-wing militias like the Minutemen — bigoted vigilante groups that hunt migrants along the border. Horseback-riding agents with whips rounding up Haitian refugees is only the latest example of CBP racist violence.
Between 2010 and 2021, the Southern Borders Communities Coalition tracked 130 fatal encounters with CBP — one per month. Agents killed migrants by denying medical care, causing car collisions, and using force. Four cases involved shootings across the border that killed Mexican citizens. The U.S. taxpayers paid over $60 million for claims of wrongful imprisonments, deaths, and assaults between 2005 and 2017.
The Border Patrol’s reach was extended domestically when Trump deployed them against Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon, and elsewhere.
A bipartisan monster. After 9/11, President G.W. Bush expanded and hyper-weaponized the Border Patrol. Their job was supposedly to stop drug smugglers and terrorists from entering the U.S. In fact, the vast majority at the border are people fleeing repression, wars, starvation and climate disaster.
Every president since Bush, on both sides of the aisle, has reinforced the policy that guides the Border Patrol. Obama earned the name “Deporter-in-Chief,” and started separating children from their parents. Trump used the threat of Covid to expel asylum seekers through Mexico. In Biden’s first seven months, twice the number of refugees has been expelled than under Trump’s last ten months.
A U.S. movement to demand an end to border militarization and a policy of open borders is desperately needed to bring this abuse to an end.
Meanwhile, the Hernández family hopes their petition to the IACHR will lead to reforms. Anastasio’s widow Maria Puga stated, “I want an apology for what border agents did to my husband. They treated him like an animal. … They will not stop until they are held accountable.”
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