ANNOUNCER: REPORTING TONIGHT FROM THE US MEXICAN BORDER NEAR SAN DIEGO, JOHN LARSON.
JOHN LARSON: Thanks for joining us. In the weeks since the election, President Obama has pledged to introduce major immigration reform which could include a pathway to citizenship for the more than 10 million illegal immigrants in this country. Many of whom have been in the United States for decades, raising families and paying taxes. That was the case with Anastacio Hernandez Rojas – who died not far from this place. His death – at the hands of US Border Agents was recorded on video by eyewitnesses. Video -unseen by the public or the authorities until our first report in April with the help of the Nation Institute. After our story aired, 16 members of Congress demanded the Justice Department investigate. A federal grand jury is now hearing the case, and the Patrol’s use of excessive force is being re-evaluated. This is the story that began that investigation.
NEWSCAST: Across San Diego. This is ten news at 5. Human rights advocates called it a brutal beating.
NEWSCAST: Police are investigating Rojas’ death.
JOHN LARSON: In early June, 2010, residents of San Diego awoke to reports of an incident at the border with Mexico. According to San Diego police, an illegal immigrant, caught sneaking into the country, became violent when border agents removed his handcuffs.
But it’s what happened next that was reason for a police press release: “Due to the combative behavior” of the immigrant, read the statement, U.S. border agents used a “taser to subdue him”, and, the “subject stopped breathing.”
The subject, 42 year old Anastacio Hernandez Rojas, lived long enough for his family to see he’d been beaten and bruised.
By the time he died, his family believed – he had been killed by us customs and border protection agents in an excessive use of force.
MARIA (subtitles): They didn’t stop to think about the fact that he had a family, that he was leaving five kids and a wife.
JOHN LARSON: the San Diego medical examiner ruled the death a homicide listing the cause of death as a heart attack due to the altercation with law enforcement. But the coroner also found “methamphetamines” in his blood, which raised the question: had methamphetamines somehow contributed to the violence? Whatever happened, the story lasted just a few days, and mostly receded from public view. Until now.
VIDEO (subtitles): Yelling from Humberto tape
JOHN LARSON: what US border agents did not realize is that eyewitness videos of the incident caught the sounds of Hernandez Rojas screaming, and pleading for his life.
JOHN LARSON: And now, a never before seen eyewitness video of the incident raises new, disturbing questions.
The dark video reveals more than a dozen US border agents standing over Hernandez Rojas.
VIDEO: Cut it out.
JOHN LARSON: It shows the firing of the taser.
VIDEO: Stop resisting, stop resisting.
JOHN LARSON: Was Hernandez Rojas as the police press release suggested combative when he was killed? Or was he on the ground, handcuffed?
The death of Hernandez Rojas was just one in a two year string of deaths at the hands of us border agents. 16 killings from San Diego to Texas that infuriated Mexican authorities, raised questions about the hiring and policing of America’s largest police force, and exposed a pattern of inaction by federal prosecutors and justice denied.
Our story begins in Los Angeles, California.
John Carlos Frey can be called, among other things: an activist. Once a Hollywood actor who appeared in sitcoms and soap operas this U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico became increasingly concerned by the plight of Mexican migrant workers and began making documentaries. When he read the report about the death of Hernandez Rojas, he wanted to know more.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: It was a couple of lines in a press release and then everything became– became tight lipped. No more information. No more press articles. And the story went– in some sort of a file and was buried.
JOHN LARSON: So Frey began digging. He learned Hernandez Rojas had been In San Diego for 27 years, he was a builder, paying us income taxes, until the construction market collapsed – in may, 2010, he was arrested trying to shoplift steak and a bottle of tequila. It was Mother’s Day. His family believes the stolen items were meant to be a gift.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: And a background check was done on him and it was found that he was in the country without documentations. He was in the country illegally.
JOHN LARSON: Frey introduced us to Hernandez Rojas’s, family, who told us he had been deported to Mexico, but immediately telephoned Maria and their five children, promising to return as quickly as possible.
MARIA (subtitles): I told him not to come back at the moment. Because it was very difficult. I was afraid. He was worried because I was by myself and the children were so young then.
JOHN LARSON: Nonetheless, a few days later Hernandez Rojas was sneaking back into the United States when hidden us ground sensors in this remote area detected his footsteps, and border patrol caught him. They took him to a detention facility near San Diego, where, according to a lawsuit filed by the Hernandez Rojas family, a border agent “grabbed Anastacio”, “pushed him toward a nearby wall” and “repeatedly kicked the inside of Anastacio’s ankles.” Gene Iredale is an attorney representing the family.
GENE IREDALE: Anastacio had a broken ankle many years before and he had metal screws still holding his ankle together. The agent took his shoe and kicked the inside of his ankle out. And as he did that, he struck those screws and caused intense pain.
JOHN LARSON: At the detention facility, Hernandez Rojas, according to the suit, requested medical treatment for his ankle, and wanted to file a complaint against the agent who kicked him. The situation escalates and takes a deadly turn.
They take him here, to a holding area at the border where undocumented workers are deported back to Mexico. But instead of bringing Hernandez Rojas here with the other illegal immigrants, they bring him alone, just before dark in a car with the same agent about whom Hernandez Rojas tried to file the complaint.
JOHN LARSON: Two agents, Anastacio by himself.
GENE IREDALE: Correct.
JOHN LARSON: it was here, that according to the San Diego Police Department, agents “removed the handcuffs” and Hernandez Rojas “became violent” and that, due to his “combative behavior” agents used “a taser to subdue him.”
We wondered whether the methamphetamines found in his blood contributed to the altercation? Two medical experts we spoke with cast doubt on that. One said the amount of meth was small, the other said that there’s no way to attribute any of his actions that night to the drug.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: We have a man who was brought to the border to be deported and ended up dead. It seems like something is missing here.
JOHN LARSON: Frey began hearing rumors of eyewitnesses. He found a priest in Tijuana, Mexico who said he knew someone who saw it happen. Frey telephoned the man and recorded the conversation.
AUDIO ONLY FROM CONVERSATION (subtitles): They hit with billy clubs many, many times. It was like they were playing the drums. They hit him, they kicked him. They used a Taser on him. They beat him so horribly that the man stopped moving.
JOHN CARLOS FREY (subtitles): You saw all this?
SOT (subtitles): I saw all this.
JOHN LARSON: So last month, we traveled across the border to Mexico with Frey, to a Tijuana migrant shelter to meet the priest and the eyewitness. We found the shelter filled with poor migrant workers, many of whom had been recently deported from the United States. We found the priest, but the eyewitness had backed out, afraid of the camera. So we called the eyewitness on the phone.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: What did Anastacio do to deserve the beating?
WITNESS: In fact, I fear I have to say he didn’t do anything at all. From what I could see, the gentleman didn’t do anything as to deserve receiving that kind of a beating. Nothing looked that bad.
JOHN LARSON: The man on the phone had no proof, but Frey learned, back in San Diego, there was another witness who actually did have video of the incident.
26 year-old Humberto Navarrete, an American citizen who spent four years in the national guard, was on his way to Tijuana the night of the incident.
JOHN LARSON: What was the very first thing you heard?
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: I heard Anastacio screaming, and asking for help.
JOHN LARSON: Navarrete says he shot this dark video on his cellphone, standing maybe 20 feet from Hernandez Rojas and the officers.
JOHN LARSON: Although you can’t really make out the figures on the ground behind the agents’ SUV.
JOHN LARSON: You can hear Hernandez Rojas pleading.
JOHN LARSON: while the video is unclear, Navarrete says he could clearly see what was happening.
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: I noticed that Anastasio was face down. He was in handcuffs.
JOHN LARSON: You said, he was in handcuffs?
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: Yes, he was in handcuffs.
JOHN LARSON: You’re sure?
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: Yes, I’m sure.
JOHN LARSON: Handcuffs? The San Diego Police Department had said, “the subject became violent when the agents removed the handcuffs.”
JOHN LARSON: No doubt in your mind–
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: No doubt in my mind that he was in handcuffs.
JOHN LARSON: So, he’s prone on the ground, handcuffed–
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: Yes.
JOHN LARSON: –and they’re still beating him?
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: Yes
JOHN LARSON: in the video, you can hear Navarrete appealing to an officer, and the officer’s response.
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: Hey. He’s not resisting. Why you guys using excessive force on him?
OFFICER: I don’t know what going on over there, but obviously he’s doing something.
JOHN LARSON: Navarrete says the official explanation, that Hernandez Rojas was combative when he was tasered is false.
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: Hey he’s not resisting guys. Why you guys keep pressing on him. He’s not even resisting.
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: I can tell you that he was not resisting.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: What was in the report is not what he witnessed. He witnessed a brutal beating. He witnessed Anastacio being punched and kicked and being held down
JOHN LARSON: Can you imagine law enforcement’s argument? In other words, they might say, “Listen, we don’t separate a person out from the pack just for fun. We only do that when we got a problem. We got a guy who was fighting back and– and had to be subdued.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: It really comes down to credibility and who you believe but if you listen to Anastacio on the tape he’s shouting for help. He’s saying, at the top of his lungs, “help me.”
VIDEO (subtitles): Help.
JOHN LARSON: South of the border, in Mexico, Navarrete’s video went viral.
The Mexican networks picked it up, suggesting the incident was a case of brutality.
Protestors demanded justice for Hernandez Rojas.
GABRIELA PEREZA (subtitles): It made all us Mexicans think that there is no good-neighbor policy at work, that there are no brotherhood policies between the US and Mexico.
JOHN LARSON: Gabriela Pereza, who leads Mexico’s national human rights commission in Tijuana says Mexicans were outraged over the Hernandez Rojas case.
GABRIELA PEREZA (subtitles): Anger, impotence, desperation, a wish for justice to be done.
JOHN LARSON: Justice, or at least an open hearing in US court may be a long time coming. A need to know examination of immigrant killings in the past 10 years reveals a pattern of deaths followed by no public hearings no criminal charges, and no trials.
Unlike most American police forces, which must account publically for nearly every bullet, the US Border Patrol, as part of the Department of Homeland Security, faces virtually no public scrutiny.
The government typically refuses to release any information about agents involved in migrant deaths – nothing – about their identities, training, qualifications, or records.
In the fall of 2010, the ACLU filed freedom of information requests, asking US Customs and Border Protection to explain its “policy, and procedure “ on its “use of force … deadly force ” and “use of tasers” the agency sent back documents so redacted, the documents shed no light on the department’s practices.
And, Pereza says Mexican authorities have documented at least 18 cases, excluding drug smuggling, of Mexicans dying at the hands of U.S border agents.
JOHN LARSON: Of the 18 cases that you are aware of how many times have US agents been charged or taken to court for that?
GABRIELA PEREZA (subtitles): Yo no conozco.
JOHN LARSON: In fact, only once in ten years, has a US border agent been criminally charged for killing a migrant, and that case was dismissed. In one civil case, the court ruled in favor of the agent.
Most recently, the death of Anastacio Hernandez Rojas was among a string of 16 killings in less than two years. Just days after his death, a border patrol agent in El Paso, Texas shot and killed a 15 year Mexican boy who was standing in Mexico. The agent fired across the border, saying the boy was in a group of Mexicans throwing rocks…
In Arizona in March of 2011, border patrol shot a 19 year old Mexican American three times in the back, as he climbed the fence back into Mexico. Agents said there were drugs in his truck, and again said someone was throwing rocks.
Three months later in San Diego, border patrol shot a Mexican in the head, killing him in this tree in Mexico near the border fence. Agents said, he was throwing rocks. 16 cases in less than two years – followed by, no public hearings, no criminal charges and no trials, including the Hernandez Rojas case.
JOHN LARSON: What are the odds that a federal prosecutor, in the middle of an election year, is going to decide to prosecute a case against a group of border patrol officers?
GENE IREDALE: The chances under this assessment would be zero.
JOHN LARSON: There are so many who say, “Listen, we wouldn’t even have a problem, if– Mexicans would stay in Mexico. We’re not asking you to come here. You’re breaking the law. You’re invading our country. Stay out. You come at your own risk and now you get hurt crossing the border and you’re gonna blame us for it?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: I agree. Entering the country illegally is a crime. It is a violation of immigration law. That is true. It does not warrant a lethal bullet between your eyes or in your back. So we’re talking about lethal force being used with someone who didn’t even brandish as much as a knife.
W. RALPH BASHAM: I’m certainly sympathetic to those individuals who– lose their life as a result of some of these– activities.
JOHN LARSON: W. Ralph Basham was the Commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, from 2006 to 2009 and says border agents work in a very dangerous environment. About 1000 agents are assaulted every year.
W. RALPH BASHAM: These agents have to be able to protect themselves when they are– feel like their life is being threatened or the life of other officers. Hey look, I went to too many funerals– when I was commissioner.
JOHN LARSON: But a 2010 Associated Press investigation concluded that border agents are assaulted at a dramatically lower rate than police … and unlike police… typically assaulted with rocks, not knives and guns.
In 2006, due to mounting pressure to secure the border president George W. Bush, approved doubling the size of the border patrol. Customs and Border Protection is now the largest law enforcement agency in the nation, employing almost 60,000 agents and employees. An expansion so rapid, it concerned former Commissioner Basham.
W. RALPH BASHAM: Listen any time you have that kind of a massive– hiring initiative, you run the risk of– of people– that are getting into the– positions that perhaps should not be there.
JOHN LARSON: The push for more officers led to an extensive backlog of background checks, unsuitable hires, and criminal behavior according to congressional testimony by customs officials.
Since 2004, a reported 132 U.S.Customs employees have been indicted for corruption. Last year, 26 were arrested, but none for any of the immigrant killings, including Hernandez Rojas.
Six months following Hernandez Roja’s death, Frey learned of another video, an eyewitness, who was reluctant to come forward.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: I tried, through various channels, for a period of months to contact the individual, to try and convince them to– brings this video forward.
JOHN LARSON: Why hadn’t they come forward with the video?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: This person felt– possibly afraid for their life and for their own safety.
JOHN LARSON: After months of effort, the eyewitness agreed to meet Frey face to face.
ASHLEY YOUNG: He told me that in the year that I didn’t come forward, other incidents happened with border patrol.
JOHN LARSON: And what did you think of that?
ASHLEY YOUNG: The guilt was overwhelming.
JOHN LARSON: Ashley Young, a 24 year old project manager from Seattle, was crossing back into the United States after visiting Tijuana when, she too, heard Hernandez Rojas screaming for help.
ASHLEY YOUNG: I kind of quickly walked to the end of the catwalk, which is where I saw a whole kind of crowd of people gathering
JOHN LARSON: Young took out her camera, and shot this first, very dark video of what she says is Hernandez Rojas on the ground near the back bumper of the truck, with two officers on top of him.
ASHLEY YOUNG: He was just screaming, “help me, help me, help me,” in Spanish. His hands were restrained behind his back
JOHN LARSON: You could tell that his arms were somehow tied together?
ASHLEY YOUNG: Right.
JOHN LARSON: and Young says she only saw him resist once, when officers tried to put him back into the car.
JOHN LARSON: Did he lash out at the officers in any way?
ASHLEY YOUNG: He didn’t. He just kind of forced his feet against the frame of the car so that he wouldn’t go into the car.
JOHN LARSON: Minutes later, more officers arrive.
ASHLEY YOUNG: Another officer arrived– and pulled out a Taser. And said, you know, “stop resisting.”
JOHN LARSON: Was he resisting?
ASHLEY YOUNG: No. The first tase, it was a shock. And people were, like, “why would they do this.” And after the first tase, when he got tased several more times, that’s when people erupted.
JOHN LARSON: That’s when, standing on this overpass with other bystanders, she shoots this:
VIDEO: “Hey no!….keep on walking!
JOHN LARSON: You can see Hernandez Rojas on the ground, surrounded by more than a dozen officers. Need to know has brightened the video to make it easier to see. One agent at the top of the screen pulls off Hernandez Rojas’s pants, and walks away with them. But it is not until a few seconds later, when things appear to calm down, when an officer turns on his light that we see an agent’s bare leg, as he kneels on what appears to be Hernandez Rojas’s neck.
ASHLEY YOUNG: The next thing that happened is he stopped moving. And he stopped– I mean, he was convulsing during the Tase. And then, after the Tase stopped, he just kind of lied there.
VIDEO: Hey no!
JOHN LARSON: Young didn’t know it, but she was capturing the final 2, of 5 attempted tasings. Pay attention to the officer’s extended arm: you can clearly see the sparking of his taser, as he fires two wires carrying more than a 1000 volts of electricity into Hernandez Rojas.
VIDEO: “keep on walking!”
JOHN LARSON: Watch it again. Taser records show this is likely a 12 second tase. And, can you see the officer reach in right… there?. According to the lawsuit the agent is attempting to hand deliver a 5th and final tase, called a drive stun, applied directly to the skin, designed to punish, and inflict pain.
ASHLEY YOUNG: I think I witnessed someone being murdered.
JOHN LARSON: We took the video to Gene Iredale, the Hernandez Rojas attorney, who had never seen it before. He says the critical moment is this one:
VIDEO: Quit resisting, quit resisting!
GENE IREDALE: When you are using force and you know you have to explain it or it has to appear some way to the people who are watching you say quit resisting.
JOHN LARSON: And Iredale knew something none of us knew. He had read the san diego police interviews with the border agents. Unlike the official press release, border agents admitted Hernandez Rojas was handcuffed at the time he was fatally injured, and then hogtied, his feet bound.
GENE IREDALE: He was on the ground. He was handcuffed. He represented no danger. They tased him five times and then swarmed all over him. That’s brutality. That’s torture.
ASHLEY YOUNG: They made sure people moved along and stopped watching, and stopped recording.
OFFICER: Keep on walking
ASHLEY YOUNG: They stopped a couple that had been there the– about the same length of time that I was there. And the couple had recorded what happened on their cell phones. And the officers took their cell phones away, and said, “What did you record? We’re going to delete it.”
JOHN LARSON: And–
ASHLEY YOUNG: And– and I kept walking.
JOHN LARSON: We asked the US Border Patrol for an interview. We wanted to show them the video, and ask them about what happened they sent us a copy of their two year old press release, declined our interview, and suggested we speak instead with the “US Department of Justice”. So we tried. We thought the Department of Justice might see the video, and explain how one person – John Carlos Frey – was able to find new evidence in the case, while the department, with all of its resources, had not. And why, after two years of investigating, it has issued no findings, and taken no public action. The government sent back a one sentence response, “given that the department has an open investigation, the department declines your interview request at this time.”
JOHN CARLOS FREY: When do we get to become outraged? When do we get to put pressure on the border patrol to change their practices?
ASHLEY YOUNG: I hope that Anastacio’s family gets some kind of justice or at least knows the complete story. I feel like they don’t know what really happened.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: If we really do believe in law and order let’s make our own officers accountable to that law and order. Let’s have a little transparency. People have died. People have been killed. Let’s have some law and order with the very agency that is tasked with protecting our borders.