It's a muddy cell phone video, taken from a difficult angle, but the audio recorded on the modest device, is both revealing and chilling: the contents cast doubt on claims by the U.S. Border Patrol, regarding the death of a Mexican national who died in custody after being beaten and electric-shocked by federal agents on May 28.
This video is stoking anger already simmering along the U.S.-Mexico border in part fueled by the June 7 shooting at the El Paso/Juarez crossing where a U.S. Border Patrol agent killed an unarmed Mexican junior high school student after a brief chase and scuffle. That case also involved a cell-phone video that appeared to contradict the self-defense claims of the Border Patrol.
In the May 28 incident, about 20 federal agents at the San Ysidro entry port at Tijuana, near San Diego, violently subdued and electric shocked Anastasio Hernández Rojas, a 42-year-old father of five U.S.-born children. He died three days later from his wounds in a case that the San Diego County coroner has ruled a homicide, indicating an act in which a person is killed by another person.
Capt. Jim Collins of the San Diego Police Department echoed the account given by federal agents that Border Patrol officers struck Hernandez Rojas with a baton and fired a Taser into his body at close range only after agents had taken his handcuffs off and he became unruly.
Customs and Border Protection released a formal statement claiming the victim "became combative," forcing officers to use the electric shock Taser to "subdue the individual and maintain officer safety."
But other eye-witness accounts and the cell-phone video appear to contradict that account.
Humberto Navarrete, a medical student from Chula Vista, California, told San Diego Police, and human rights investigators that he was walking over the International Bridge from San Diego to Tijuana, with a friend, at about 8:30 p.m. when he heard the desperate screams of a man coming from just below the bridge where he and his friend were standing.
In a press conference and a series of interviews with local press and law enforcement, Navarrete said Anastasio Hernandez Rojas was handcuffed at all times, even as he was being beaten and tasered by Border Patrol officers.
"What we heard first...was a male voice," Navarrete said, "asking for help, saying everything in Spanish: ‘Ayudenme por favor, necesito ayuda, estan golpeando'. [Help me please, I need help, they are hitting (me)]... We were on the top of the bridge, they were at the bottom, so obviously it was a really loud voice."
Navarrete began to film and record with his cell phone.
"I saw that he was subdued, he was defenseless," said Navarrete. "When he was subdued, they began beating him and he began screaming for help. More U.S. agents in other patrols arrived and just got out of their vehicles and began attacking him with blows, until one of them made a sign and all withdrew from the man. It was then they applied the first electric shock."
While the visuals are grainy and hard to follow, the voice that was identified as that of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas was heard pleading for mercy in Spanish " Help me, please no more, help me gentlemen, help me!" Another witness, recorded by the cell phone, is also heard yelling at the agents to stop the beating. "Enough, let him be," said the voice.
"One of the agents had a knee on his back," said Navarrete, "the other agent had his knee on the back of his neck. All the time Anastacio was screaming for help, everything in Spanish..they were also hitting Anastacio on the ribs, right and left sides of Anastacio. What I also noticed from Anastacio is that he wasn't resisting, he wasn't fighting or moving at all.
An Independent Investigation
The ACLU, Amnesty International, and over 30 other human rights and immigrant rights groups have now called for a congressional investigation into the killings. In a June10, letter to House Judiciary Committee chairman, John Conyers, the groups requested a formal "oversight" hearing "on the lethal and excessive use of force" by U.S. law enforcement "along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"In recent weeks there have been at least two unjustifiable deaths on the U.S.-Mexico border at the hands of Customs and Border officers," the letter said. "Excessive, lethal force is always unacceptable, but it is particularly troubling now as 1,200 National Guard are being deployed to the southwest border. ... Meaningful security cannot coexist with law enforcement cultures of impunity and recklessness."
Brittney Nystrom, director of policy at the National Immigration Forum, one of the organizations seeking an independent investigation, said the killings underscored the need for immigration reform.
"The deaths of a young boy and a middle-aged father at the hands of U.S. immigration agents," he said, "are grave tragedies and we grieve the loss of their lives and the lives of so many others who have needlessly perished on both sides of our border while Congress and the President debate the ‘right timing' for fixing our immigration system."
"It is clear, however," Nystrom said, "that the disproportionate and questionable use of force by border agents is to blame for the unnecessary deaths, calling into question the propriety of [Department of Homeland Security's] use-of-force policies. Excessive use of force must not be tolerated."
Tensions and mistrust at the border have been escalating. On June 22, members of the Border Network for Human Rights, an 11-year-old community organizing group with about 4,000 members, held an angry but peaceful protest in front of the Offices of the U.S. Border Patrol in El Paso. It was the second demo on the El Paso side since the killing of the teen.
Three hundred protesters halted local rush-hour traffic at one point and chanted "Asesinos uniformados, que sean encarcelados,(assassins in uniforms should be jailed)."
Fernando Garcia, BNHR's director, told the El Paso Times, there is little hope that the Border Patrol and the FBI will conduct an independent and honest investigation, saying "There was a distrust, and it's at the lowest ever at this point." BNHR also signed onto the letter calling for a congressional investigation into the two killings.
In San Diego, Enrique Morones, founder of the Border Angels, and a former vice president for the San Diego Padres, met with members of Human Rights Watch this week about the recent Border Patrol killings. Morones said there appears to be a clear pattern of cover-up, which includes the destruction of evidence, and the failure of one law enforcement agency to thoroughly investigate another.
In the case of the killing of the teen in Juarez, dozens of eyewitnesses were forcefully dispersed from the foot bridge by Border Patrol agents who made no effort to take names or statements. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Witnesses of Border Killing Dispersed."]
"Independent of law enforcement, we need to have independent agencies investigating these types of crimes, Morones said, "You want to have outside agencies involved in these types of things because they're not going to be biased, they're not trying to protect their own. Nobody's above the law, whether you have a badge, whether you have a title."
"But what happens is, [the agents] keep getting the benefit of the doubt, time and time again, and we're not going to tolerate it. Anastacio Hernandez didn't get the benefit of the doubt, Sergio Hernandez didn't get the benefit of the doubt."
Morones in San Diego and activists in El Paso said they are seething about continuing attempts by the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials to demonize and blame the victim of violence that appears to be initiated by law enforcement.
"Soon after the boy was shot in El Paso, Fox News was reporting that he was on a most wanted list of teen smugglers. Anastasio Hernández Rojas was portrayed by the Border Patrol, as out of control on drugs," Morones said.
"They're trying to dehumanize them as they usually do - ‘oh, they're smugglers, they had drugs in their system.' Whether that's true or not has nothing to do with it. Does that mean that anybody that's [accused of] committing a crime should be shot? Of course not."
Morones says the situation the day of the Beating Death in San Diego, is similar in the apparent attempts by Law Enforcement and the Border Control to prevent a thorough investigation and possibly destroy evidence in the form of cell phones and video tape.
"In the Anastacio Hernandez case," Morones said, "there were several people that were filming because they were walking over that land bridge that goes over Highway 5. ...The authorities in the area, the law enforcement authorities - Border Patrol, Customs, security ... went up to people and said ‘let me see your cell phone' and they erased the video, which is against the law.... But since they know that they were wrong, they wanted all that evidence erased, thank god Humberto's video survived, and we know that there's others out there that have survived."
Navarrete himself can be heard on his cell phone recording yelling at the officers to stop, and questioning one of the officers about the brutal nature of the beating. "He's not resisting" he says to one of the Border Patrol officers, "Why are you guys using excessive force on him?"
"I don't know what's going on over there" the agent replies, as the pleading voices of Anastasio Hernández Rojas is muffled and goes silent, "but obviously he's doing something. He's not cooperating."
"He's not resisting. He's not even resisting," Navarrete repeated.