In 2010, Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a husband and father of five, was handcuffed, tortured and brutally beaten to death by 12 Border Patrol agents at the San Ysidro border crossing in California. The horrifying incident witnessed by dozens of people exposed a systemic problem with the nation’s largest law enforcement agency: that Border Patrol agents operate with impunity, without meaningful accountability, and in complete opaqueness.
The abuses by agents are widespread and well documented. Since January of 2010 more than 46 people have died as a result of an interaction with the Border Patrol. This past June, a woman was killed when Border Patrol agents intentionally rammed their boat into another boat carrying 20 people. In 2012, a Border Patrol agent shot 16-year-old Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez repeatedly in the back before he died. He was on his way to a local market to buy food staples in the Mexican city of Nogales, along the border with Arizona.
In the Hernandez Rojas case, a civilian bystander recorded the incident from the safety of an elevated pedestrian walkway. The video shows 12 Border Patrol agents, who are armed with batons and a Taser, brutally beating and tasing Rojas — who was lying on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide. Six years later, not one of the 12 agents has been charged or even fired.
Hernandez Rojas’s widow, Maria Puga, is leading the movement for expanded oversight and accountability, including the demand that Border Patrol agents wear body cameras, which are a proven deterrent of abuse. A study shows that when officers wear them, the use of force plummets over 50 percent. Both civilians and officers experience fewer injuries when officers wear body cameras.
Despite the overwhelming evidence and impassioned pleas by Puga and others who have lost loved ones, there has been little response from U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which oversees the Border Patrol. An internal review commissioned by CBP recommended against agents wearing body cameras. It was only after a massive public outcry that CBP commissioner Gil Kerlikowske was compelled to take up the matter for more consideration. Meanwhile, Hernandez Rojas’s family is waiting for justice.
This week, the Use of Force Review Board (UFRB), a new body within CBP charged with providing oversight, will initiate an administrative review of the incident. The UFRB can recommend additional training and equipment, changes in policy and disciplinary action.
Commissioner Kerlikowske stated that rebuilding trust and preventing further acts of brutality are important priorities for CBP. If that is true, then the UFRB must urgently recommend that CBP fully equip its agents with body cameras along with a robust policy that will hold agents accountable for their actions. It must also recommend disciplinary action against Hernandez Rojas’ murderers. Until then, how can we trust the Border Patrol to live up to its mission to ensure the safety of everyone on our nation’s borders?
Rios is San Diego program director of the American Friends Service Committee.