The homemade videos are damning: A man on the ground, possibly handcuffed, begs for his life as he’s beaten by a dozen U.S. Border Patrol officers. The man, Mexican-born Anastasio Hernández-Rojas, died soon afterward in a San Diego hospital, but not before his family took more footage of the injuries he’d received from the beating.
His June 2010 death has since been featured in a PBS documentary on a string of suspicious deaths at the border—and it has become the subject of a heated national campaign to demand justice.
Latino activists say that since 2010, at least eight people—seven of them unarmed—have been killed by Customs and Border Protection officials. The San Diego–based Southern Border Communities Coalition and Presente.org, a national Latino advocacy group, have begun a national campaign to demand justice for Hernández-Rojas and other victims of what they fear is a pattern of unmitigated violence.
Of the eight deaths the groups are protesting, one investigation has been completed by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). On April 27, the DOJ released its finding that a Border Patrol officer acted in self-defense when he shot and killed Sergio Hernandez-Guereca, a 15-year-old Mexican national, in a spillway of the Rio Grande River, also in June 2010. “The Justice Department is committed to investigating allegations of excessive force by law enforcement officers and will continue to devote the resources required to ensure that all allegations of federal civil rights violations are fully and completely investigated,” the DOJ said in a statement. “The department aggressively prosecutes criminal civil rights violations whenever there is sufficient evidence to do so.”
Christian Ramirez, a co-chair of the Southern Border Communities Coalition, has a theory about what’s happening at the border: “What we have seen is a dramatic increase in Border Patrol agents, making it the largest law-enforcement agency in the United States. There have been continuous calls in Congress and by the administration to enforce the border—to, quote, put more boots on the ground.” Ramirez believes that’s led to lower hiring standards, inadequate training and insufficient oversight—“a perfect storm for human rights abuses to occur.”
He said the campaign by his coalition and Presente.org aims to push Congress to complete a full investigation of human rights abuses at the border and for the DOJ to publicize the details of its investigation into Hernandez-Guereca’s shooting. They also want the Department of Homeland Security to take immediate steps to improve its training, supervision and oversight.
Many of these requests have been included in a petition circulated after the death of Hernández-Rojas; the groups recently delivered it, with 33,000 signatures, to Attorney General Eric Holder. “At this point the Latino community is pretty upset that Border Patrol was allowed to do this to a human being,” said Ana Pérez, national movement builder for Presente.org. “We’re going to continue to escalate until we get action.”
Pérez said the Hernández-Rojas case has galvanized her cause partly because the victim was popular in his San Diego community, where he had lived for 27 years. “I met his wife and his children,” Pérez said. “He came to the U.S. as a 15-year-old man. He worked in construction along with his brother. He was a good father and a loving husband. His family is devastated.
“This brutal killing of innocent people at the hands of U.S.-paid officers—what does that say? That our lives are meaningless? We really want to counter that. Our lives matter, and we deserve justice.”