Based on accounts from witnesses and from Hernandez Rojas' brother, who was traveling with him at the time and was also detained by the Border Patrol, his family has been able to piece together some of the events leading up to his death.

Hernandez Rojas, who had lived in San Diego for 27 years, was deported to Mexico after police discovered after a traffic violation that he was living illegally in the United States. He, along with his brother, had crossed the border into California to reunite with his family. They were spotted in a rural area and rounded up by la migra.

The two were taken to a detention center in Otay Mesa, a rural border community inside San Diego's corporate limits, and locked up in a holding cell.

A Border Patrol surveillance truck sits camouflaged atop a hill in southeastern Arizona.
The truck employs a camera that senses body heat to help agents spot immigrants from as
far away as seven miles.
Monica Alonzo
A Border Patrol surveillance truck sits camouflaged atop a hill in southeastern Arizona. The truck employs a camera that senses body heat to help agents spot immigrants from as far away as seven miles.
Anastasio Hernandez Rojas
Anastasio Hernandez Rojas

Valencia said Hernandez Rojas complained at the detention center that agents were roughing up detainees. After 2½ decades in the United States, the attorney said, Hernandez Rojas knew that even undocumented aliens are constitutionally entitled to humane treatment.

Agents at the facility ordered Hernandez Rojas to get rid of a bottle of water, and he apparently dumped the water on the floor.

Agents took him to another holding cell, and while they were restraining him, one of the agents kicked him in a once-fractured ankle held together by five metal screws, according to family representative Iredale.

"As we understand it, he then wanted to make a complaint regarding his treatment," Iredale said. "And instead of being permitted to file a complaint, or being given medical attention, [he was told he would be deported]."

Later, he was taken to the San Ysidro border crossing. But he wasn't shuffled across the border with other undocumented immigrants. Hernandez Rojas was kept alone with agents at the crossing.

"Why was Mr. Hernandez brought alone, without other persons who were going to be returned or repatriated to Mexico, at that time of night?" Iredale said. "Why, since he was only about 100 feet [from Mexico], was he not simply turned over to Mexican authorities?"

Other questions that plague his family: Why did the aggressive treatment that the witnesses observed continue after he was restrained? Why was he moved away from where he was visible to other people? Why was he surrounded by about 20 federal agents? Why was a restrained man stunned five times?

San Diego Police Department homicide detectives conducted an investigation and turned over their findings to the U.S. Attorney's Office in San Diego, where the case remains under investigation.

Christian Ramirez, an immigrant rights activist and member of the American Friends Service Committee, questioned the level of force agents used against Hernandez Rojas. He noted that Hernandez Rojas was in a secure area and already had been searched and processed at the Border Patrol detention center.

"It's inconceivable that any sort of action taken by Mr. Hernandez Rojas would have led to an incident in which his life was lost," Ramirez said at a news conference a couple of days after Hernandez Rojas' death. "This should not happen in the United States."

Anastasio Hernandez Rojas apparently never was allowed to file his formal complaint against Border Patrol agents at the detention center before his untimely death, but even if he was accorded that right, his complaint might have fallen into a black hole.

For months, Customs and Border Protection (which oversees the Border Patrol) repeatedly blocked attempts by New Times to find out the number and nature of complaints for excessive force or inhumane treatment filed by undocumented immigrants against border agents.

Customs and Border Protection is part of the Department of Homeland Security, as is the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, set up to investigate complaints about any Homeland Security employee. But the latter office, while it maintains general statistics on the number of cases it handles and how many it closes, tells New Times it does not account for which cases are filed by migrants and what their specific outcomes are — which is astonishing, because CBP's mission is dealing with immigrants.

But by perusing reports published by the civil rights office, New Times discovered that since October 2004, 103 agents or officers from Customs and Border Protection were arrested for such offenses as smuggling, money-laundering, and conspiracy.

As for prosecutions of Border Patrol agents, the closest New Times could come was a U.S. Department of Justice statement that "at least" eight agents had been prosecuted since '04.

Seven of these cases involved the beating, sexual assault, or attempted murder of immigrants in Border Patrol custody. They do not include the still-under-investigation case in which the San Diego agents were caught on videotape savagely beating a compliant Hernandez Rojas, who later died.

As for details about agents brought up on charges, fired for misdeeds, or reprimanded, there is no sure way of discovering them— unless the rare case gets reported by an altruistic officer, winds up videotaped, or becomes part of a report by a humanitarian group — because CBP is anything but cooperative.

Infamous federal bureaucracy may be part of the problem, but the fact remains that the violent actions of border agents — who deal with a population of detainees who wind up back in Mexico, speak little or no English, and/or are too afraid or unsophisticated to complain — are cloaked in secrecy.

« Previous Page
Next Page »