Case Study

Trauma on the Body: The Border Killing of Anastasio Hernández Rojas (US)

Case study

Border enforcement agents beat and tasered Anastasio Hernández Rojas to death as they were deporting him to Mexico. Despite video and bodily evidence (the trauma of the beating was visible all over Anastasio’s body), the United States Department of Justice determined that the facts of the case did not support federal criminal charges.

Please Read

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are respectfully advised that this case study may contain images of and references to deceased persons.

All viewers are respectfully advised that this study contains images of and references to the deaths in custody of Indigenous peoples, Black people and refugees that may cause distress.

At the same time, each screen of these case studies testifies to target communities' strength and courage, as they respond to repeated deaths in custody through myriad creative forms, through lines of solidarity and through an unwavering call for justice.

 Killing Anastasio

Anastasio

Anastasio Hernández Rojas was born on May 2, 1968 in San Luis Potosi, Mexico to Porfirio Hernández Rojas and Maria de la Luz Rojas Olivo. He was one of nine children (the 3rd oldest). Anastasio lived with his family until he was fifteen, when he migrated without documents to the San Diego, California in search of work. His goal, like that of many other Mexican migrants, was to earn enough money to help support his family back home.

In California, Anastasio worked for many years in the construction industry, eventually becoming a skilled drywaller and plasterer. Right before his death, he had been working in the pool construction business. Anastasio sent much of the money he earned to his parents in Mexico.

When he was about 21, Anastasio met his life partner Maria Puga. They had five children together: Yeimi Judith, Daisy Alejandra, Fabian Anastasio, Daniel, and Daniela. The children were all born in San Diego.

 

Undated photograph of Anastasio at work plastering a pool.
Undated photograph of Anastasio at work plastering a pool.

 

 

 

 

 

Click here

This photo is widely circulated in the media as a family photo provided courtesy of the Hernandez Rojas family.

Iconic image of Anastasio.
Iconic image of Anastasio.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click here

Photo created by Ricardo Favela, member of Equality Alliance in San Diego © 2012. Article: “Two years since death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas and no answers” by Elizabeth Aguilera. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/immigration/sdut-two-years-death-anastasio-hernandez-rojas-and-no-a-2012may30-htmlstory.html 

 

 

Getting Caught Crossing the Border

On May 10, 2010, Anastasio was arrested for burglary by the San Diego Police Department. He allegedly stole grocery items from a Food For Less store. He spent about two weeks in jail, with a judge sentencing him to time served for his offense. Instead of being released, however, Anastasio was turned over to immigration authorities for possible deportation. It’s a common practice in the United States for police authorities to hand over migrants whom they suspect of being undocumented to immigration officials. On May 24, the same day his jail sentence ended, Anastasio was removed to Mexico.

Anastasio would remain in Mexico for only a few days. On May 28, he attempted to rejoin his family in San Diego by crossing without documents through the Otay Mountain area, a rugged terrain just east of San Ysidro, California. His youngest brother, Pedro Hernandez Rojas, who had been living on the Mexican side of the border in Tijuana, accompanied him on the crossing. According to Pedro, they had been walking for about 8 hours when they encountered Border Patrol agents. They attempted to flee, but the agents caught them. Anastasio and Pedro were subsequently transferred to the Chula Vista Border Patrol Station for processing.

 

Map of area where Anastasio and his brother were caught.
Map of the San Diego/Tijuana (Mexico) border. Anastasio and his brother crossed through the area circled in red.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click here

“Hundreds Arrested on Otay Moundation During Border Patrol Enforcement Operation.” January 18, 2017. U.S. Customs and Border Protection. https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/local-media-release/hundreds-arrested-otay-mountain-during-border-patrol-enforcement

 

Picture of border terrain through which the brothers crossed.
Close up of the rugged terrain in southeastern San Diego County through which the brothers crossed the border.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click here

“Otay Mountain Wilderness.” Photographer and Writer: Jill Marie Holslin. Copyright © 2018 — At the edges: http://www.attheedges.com/. All Rights Reserved.

 

An Unruly Migrant

The official story—as told by Customs and Border Enforcement (CBP) and Border Patrol spokespeople and agents, as well as by the San Diego Police Department—paints Anastasio’s behavior and attitude as out of the norm and unruly from the time he was arrested.

According to Border Patrol Agent Nicholas Austin, one of the arresting officers, Anastasio was very talkative as he escorted the two brothers to his border patrol vehicle. Austin thought this behavior was “odd” since most apprehended immigrants “do not behave in this fashion.”

Anastasio’s odd behavior allegedly continued at the Chula Vista Border Patrol Station. When Anastasio arrived at the station, he was carrying a jug of water. According to Border Patrol Agent Gabriel Ducoing, liquids can’t be brought into the facility because they may be flammables or acids and can thus be used as weapons. Ducoing thus asked Anastasio to dispose of the jug in a trashcan, but he initially refused. When Anastasio finally complied, rather than disposing of the jug, he emptied that water slowly into a trashcan. At this point, Ducoing walked over to Anastasio and pushed the jug out of his hand and into the trash retainer. Ducoing then took Anastasio into a search area where he was asked to stand against a wall to be patted down. During this process, Anastasio was “argumentative, uncooperative,” and would not stay still.

The official narrative suggests that Anastasio continued to be problematic as he interacted with other agents during the rest of his stay at the Border Patrol station. His behavior oscillated between calm and agitated. He would be tranquil one moment, but then become argumentative and complain loudly. Specifically, he complained that an agent, Ducoing, had kicked his legs open during a pat down and injured his ankle.

Due his ‘disruptive behavior’, Border Patrol Supervisor Ishmael Finn determined that it would be best deport Anastasio immediately, rather than waiting to remove him with other detainees. Anastasio behavior was seen as a potential safety hazard. Border Patrol Agents Ducoing and Philip Krasielwicz were charged with the task of transporting Anastasio to the San Ysidro Port of Entry for removal to Mexico.


‘Most of the detainees brought to the processing area comply with directives and remain relatively quiet. AHR did not’.

Jose Galvan, Border Patrol Agent


‘At the time, the Border Patrol had a protocol prohibiting talking by detainees while in the processing room for purposes of officer safety, and to maintain order. Although told to maintain silence, AHR continued to talk out loud the entire time he was in the processing area, talking about his ankle and commenting that he was not a criminal.’

Philip Krasielwicz, Border Patrol Agent


‘While detained, the decedent was apparently becoming increasingly agitated and confrontational with agents. That evening, he was moved to the San Ysidro Port of Entry for deportation back into Mexico.’

James P. Buckley, Medical Examiner Investigator (as reported by Detective Sargent David Dolan, San Diego Police Department)


‘At first encounter, he was argumentative and complaining about an ankle injury…. AHR acknowledged he was in the United States illegally and he seemed to calm down and began acting in a normal manner. As I turned to leave the area, I again heard AHR become argumentative this time with processing Agent Sandra Cardenas. I returned to AHR’s immediate area and continued to note he was being loud, rude, an uncooperative.’

Ishmael Finn, Border Patrol Supervisor


‘In AHR’s case, we all agreed to expedite his return because he was agitated and boisterous, and we did not want to place him in a cell with any other detainees due to safety concerns.’

Gabriel Ducoing, Border Patrol Agent


 

 

 

From Unruly to Violent

According to Agents Ducoing and Krasielwicz, the ride to the border was peaceful. Anastasio was calm and even apologetic about how he had behaved at the Border Patrol station. However, Anastasio’s behavior changed once they arrived at the port of entry, an area called Whiskey 2, and the agents began removing his handcuffs. Ducoing says that Anastasio started moving and pushing both agents. He was asked to calm down but he just kept fighting them. He ‘started shaking and flipping out’, according to Krasielwicz. The agents tried to grab Anastasio to gain control of him but were unsuccessful.

At this point, two Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents who were standing nearby intervened. They attempted to help control Anastasio but to no avail. He was too big and strong for all four men. When it became clear that they could not control him, one of the ICE agents pulled out his collapsible baton and hit Anastasio several times. Eventually, a fifth agent intervened and together they were able to bring him down to the ground. While on the ground, Anastasio continued to struggle, fighting and kicking. Several more agents then came to help and they were able to put Anastasio back in handcuffs. Even with handcuffs on, he kicked, screamed, and would not cease moving. Ducoing notes that Anastasio was also banging his head on the ground.

With Anastasio on the ground and in handcuffs, Agent Ducoing made a phone call to Supervisor Finn to relay what had happened. Finn instructed him to take Anastasio back to the Border Patrol station so that charges could be pressed against him. Ducoing then called a caged vehicle unit to transport Anastasio. While they waited for the vehicle, Anastasio continued to struggle and scream, prompting more agents to descend upon the scene. When the vehicle arrived, several agents took hold of Anastasio by his arms and legs and attempted to put him inside. As they were sitting him down into the back of the vehicle, Anastasio arched his back and thrust his head forward, hitting his head hard against a window. Because the officers feared that he would hurt himself, they pulled him back out of the vehicle and laid him down on the ground on his stomach.

While on the ground again, Anastasio struggled and flailed. Agents kept telling him to calm down, but he did not comply. At this point, Customs and Border Patrol Agent Jerry Vales approached the scene telling the other agents that he had a taser and to stand clear. Vales then tased Anastasio. After being tased, he stood up and started moving and yelling. Vales told him to calm down and stop resisting. When he did not comply, Vales tasered Anastasio again. He was tasered three or four times total. After the last tase, Anastasio lost consciousness and did not appear to have a pulse.  He was subsequently transported to a hospital where he died on May, 31, 2010.


‘At this time, [Agent Krasielwicz] and I were standing on either side of AHR. I then started to remove his handcuffs. As I removed the first one, AHR behavior’s [sic] changed, and he became acting odd again. I told him not to move, but he kept saying “just let me go, I want to go home”. I told him the gate was right there, and that he would be able to go home after I took the other handcuff off. However, as soon as I took the second handcuff off, he was like a tornado. Everything went crazy at that point.’

Philip Krasielwicz, Border Patrol Agent


‘At the Port of Entry, the subject became violent when the agents removed the handcuffs. The agents and the subject all fell to the ground during the fight and the agents radioed for assistance.’

San Diego Police Department Official Statement


‘After repeated orders to cease, one of the officers deployed a taser to subdue the individual and maintain officer safety.’

Lloyd Easterling, Director of Media Relations for US Customs and Border Protection


‘He was apparently unhandcuffed by agents to be sent back into Mexico when he became suddenly violent with Customs personnel. Backup units were called for and the decedent was wrestled to the ground. Apparently a baton and Taser were used to gain control of the decedent. He was Tased between 3 and 4 times. He was placed in handcuffs during the altercation and at some point became unresponsive. Agents began resuscitative efforts and the decedent was ultimately transported to Sharp Chula Vista Hospital.’

James P. Buckley, Medical Examiner Investigator (as reported by Detective Sargent David Dolan, San Diego Police Department)


‘They… he was fighting, trying to get up and they were trying to hold him down. They had no… to me it looked like they had no control and from what I could see, the guy was kicking…. When I get there, and they’re struggling with him and I said “I have a taser, I have a taser”…. [T]hey backed off…. Back off. And he started to squirm a little bit on the ground and, from what I recall, he was trying to, like, kick his feet. Kick his feet out and I pulled out my taser and I yelled “taser, taser, taser”….. And I deployed it. Deployed the taser on him and he tensed up. He’s screaming, still kicking, still moving. Didn’t seem to affect him and he went down because my cycle ended. He was still fighting. No officers wanted to get near because he was still, he was still fighting.’ 

Jerry Vales, Customs and Border Protection Officer


 

A Different Story

Anastasio is, of course, not able to produce his own narrative. But witnesses to the events, including Anastasio’s brother Pedro and even Border Patrol agents themselves, do help to give him voice, telling a different story—one that dismantles the narrative of Anastasio as unruly and violent.

When he arrived at the San Ysidro Border Patrol Station, Anastasio was indeed carrying a jug of water. According to Pedro, a Border Patrol agent, Ducoing, ordered Anastasio to thrown the water into a trashcan. Anastasio took the command literally and began to pour the water into the bin, as opposed to discarding the jug itself. The agent became angry and slapped the jug out of his hands. He then pushed Anastasio up against a wall and kicked his ankles apart several times (Pedro notes that Anastasio suffered a bad injury at work and that his right ankle was held in place by a metal screw). Anastasio cried and told the agent that he was hurting him and asked why he was doing that to him. The agent responded by asking Anastasio if he wanted to be beaten.

The agent then handcuffed Anastasio and took him into an interview room. There Anastasio told the agent that he had hurt him and complained about the pain and mistreatment. The agent took no action to address Anastasio’s concerns. Border Patrol Policy stipulates that detainees needing medical attention are to be evaluated by qualified personnel. Agents who have been accused of mistreatment are also obligated to report the complaint to their superiors and remove themselves from further interactions with the complainant.

After the interview room, the agent led Anastasio to a processing area, where other officers took over.  While in this area, Anastasio complained about the pain and about being mistreated. He also requested medical attention. Agent Sandra Cardenas took a quick look at Anastasio’s ankle and then stepped outside the area to ask another agent, Jose Galvan, if an Emergency Medical Technician had been called. Galvan responded that they were waiting for a supervisor to respond. A Border Patrol Supervisor, Ishmael Finn, eventually came to see Anastasio, who reiterated his complaints about mistreatment and request for medical treatment. Instead of addressing Anastasio’s concerns, Finn told his agents to immediately remove him to Mexico. Ducoing, the agent about whom Anastasio complained, was one of the agents assigned to transport him.


‘When they processed us. We arrived, the entire way I carried the backpack, so [Anastasio] had a gallon of water and the officer told him to throw away the water. He said—throw away the water, and then my brother said, —yes; he was throwing it away in the bin, and then the officer said—hey I told you to throw away the water; but he was pouring the water not the gallon. So then the officer got upset, and said—throw the water away. He grabbed him like this and backed him against a wall.’

Pedro Hernández Rojas, Brother of Anastasio


A.  We were taught the process if there’s an allegation, how we should proceed.

Q.  And what were you taught about the process in which you should proceed?

A.  We were told that if an individual wants to complain about an agent, that we need to go ahead and stop talking to him, get a supervisor, and that supervisor come over and take a statement of his complaint.

….

Q.  So that your understanding was, if there’s an allegation against you of some improper conduct, that you should stop your interaction with the person who has suggested that and bring in your supervisor to take the complaint?

A.  Correct.

Gabriel Ducoing, Border Patrol Agent, Transcript of Videotaped Deposition 


‘I know from what Agent Krasielwicz had told me that the area where AHR had crossed the border and was apprehended had very rugged terrain and required physical agility to navigate. Concluding any ankle problems AHR had been preexistent and not of sufficient seriousness to warrant medical care, I told him that his prior injury was not an issue for Border Patrol to deal with.’

Ishmael Finn, Border Patrol Supervisor 


 

Witnesses to a Beating

At Whiskey 2, the confrontation between border enforcement officers and Anastasio caught the attention of passersby on a pedestrian bridge that overlooked the area. Non-party witnesses say that they saw officers attempt to put Anastasio in the back seat of an SUV, but he prevented them from doing so by bracing his feet on the door of the vehicle. Officers then dragged the handcuffed Anastasio behind the SUV and placed him face down on the ground. Some agents then kneeled on his neck and lower back, while others kicked, punched, and stomped on his head and body.

Witness note that Anastasio did not in any way attempt to harm the border enforcement agents. He was not resisting, but mainly lying passively on the ground. Sergio Gonzalez Gomez, who was walking with two friends on pedestrian bridge heading toward Mexico, saw Anastasio laying still on his stomach on the ground still, hands behind his back handcuffed. And when the agents beat him, he would cry out for help. Humberto Navarrete, one of Sergio’s friends and who also made a cell phone recording of the events, similarly said that he did not notice Anastasio resisting, either physically or verbally. He saw no movement at all. He only heard Anastasio screaming for help. Navarrete also said that an agent who had just arrived in a vehicle “went straight to Hernandez, who was still on the ground and kicked him…. The kick was hard, like a soccer kick.”

Witnesses also observed when Border Patrol Agent Jerry Vales arrived on the scene. Ashley Young, who was returning to the U.S from Tijuana with her friend Mayra Salas, saw and videotaped part of the tasing (Anastasio Tasing Video). She states that there was little communication between Vales, who had just arrived, and the other officers. He arrived with the taser and almost immediately started screaming ‘Stop resisting. Stop resisting.” But Anastasio was not moving or resisting. When the first tase was applied, Anastasio’s body just convulsed and ‘he screamed out with an agonizing scream’. Ashley then witnessed 3 more applications of the taser. The last tase was applied directly to Anastasio’s chest, without the use of darts. By then, there were at least a dozen agents circling around Anastasio, and perhaps around 25 in the area.

After the final tasing, several officers swarmed Anastasio, putting him with his face on the ground and pressing him with their knees on his head and back.  Ashley said that she saw a few officers making motions with their legs as if they were kicking Anastasio. She also saw Agent Vales make a swinging motion with his arm toward Anastasio. And Humberto stated that he observed officers punching Anastasio repeatedly in the ribs. Officers eventually pushed Anastasio’s legs toward his back and zip-tied his ankles to his handcuffed hands. At that point, Anastasio became motionless.

This video, which was recorded by witness Humberto Navarrete, captures Anastasio’s cries for help.

 

[Anastacio] ‘Que les hago?’ (What did I do?)

[Anastacio] ‘Ayudenme.’ (Help me)

[Anastacio] ‘Ah. No! No! Ayuda! Ayúdenme! Ya! Por favor! Señores ayúdenme! Ay, ay, ay.’ (Ah. No! No! Help! Help me! Please! People help me! Ay, ay, ay.)

[Male’s voice] ‘Stop resisting’

[Anastacio] ‘Ayuden me por favor!’ (Help me please! )

[Anastacio] ‘Me tratan como un animal’ ‘Ah, ah, ah. No. Ayuda. No! Ay ay.’
(‘You’re treating me like an animal’) (‘Ah, ah, ah. No. Help. No! Ay ay.’)

[Female voice] ‘Ya dejenlo!’ (Leave him alone!)

[Anastacio] ‘No!’

[Female voice] ‘Hay, esta madre!’ (Damn, this shit!)

[Anastacio] ‘No. No. No. Ay! No. No! Quitenmelo! Mama! Ay! No!’ (No. No.
No. Oh! No. No! Take him off me! Mother! Ay! No! “).

[Male voices] ‘Stop. Stop. Stop.’

[Humberto] ‘Ay no. Hey he is not resisting! Why, why are you guys using excessive force on him?’

….

[Sergio] ‘Son cuatro’. (There’s four)

[Anastasio] ‘No! No!’

[Sergio] ‘Lo siguen golpeando’. (They keep hitting him)

[Anastasio] ‘No! No!’

[Sergio] ‘Lo siguen golpeando con…’ (unintelligible) (‘They keep hitting him with…’)

….

[Humberto] ‘He is not resisting guys! Why you guys keep, keep pressing on him’?

[Male’s voice] (unintelligible).

[Humberto] ‘He is not even resisting’!

 

 

Trauma on the Body

The trauma on Anastasio’s body speaks to the brutal beating he received at the hands of border enforcement agents. There were two autopsies performed on Anastasio, one by Dr. Glenn Wagner of the San Diego County Office of the Medical Examiner, the other by Dr. Marvin Pietruszka, an independent medical pathologist hired by the family. The autopsies reveal that Anastasio had five broken ribs, several loose teeth, laceration of the liver, and hemorrhage of the diaphragm and proximal esophagus. They also show that he had contusions and abrasions on various parts of his body, including his head; on right side the jaw, hand, wrist, thigh, knee, malar-zygomatic area, upper and lower lips, upper gum line, pelvis, forearm, and anterior tibial; and on the left side the anterior chest, upper abdomen, and inner thigh. The autopsies further show that Anastasio had a baton injury to the abdomen and evidence of at least two taser events.

Both autopsies ruled the manner of death a homicide (death at the hands of another) and the cause of death lack of oxygen to the brain due to a heart attack. Dr. Pietruszka believes that “had it not been for the trauma that [Anastasio] was subjected to, which included the head trauma, the bodily trauma and the resulting physiologic effects of that trauma, he would … be alive today’. And Dr. Wagner noted that the combination of the variety of restraints used on Anastasio, the fact that he was prone and tasered, and the number of officers involved all acted as stressors that induced the heart attack, leading to deprivation of oxygen and then brain death.

Autopsy conducted by Glenn Wagner.
Autopsy conducted by Glenn Wagner.
Autopsy conducted by Dr. Marvin Pietruska.
Autopsy conducted by Dr. Marvin Pietruska.
Click here

Human Rights Watch. Torn Apart: Families and US Immigration Reform. Photographs by Platon/The People’s Portfolio for Human Rights Watch. © 2014 by Human Rights Watch. http://features.hrw.org/features/Torn_Apart_US_immigration_reform_2014/

Violent Border Policing

Criminalizing Immigrants

The death of Anastasio in clearly related to the way that undocumented immigrants have been constructed as criminals and hyper-policed in American society. Since the 1970s, crime and punishment have become an increasingly central means through which political authorities in the United States seek to govern the conduct of individuals and populations. Jonathan Simon refers to such development as ‘governing through crime’. This way of governing is clearly visible in such measures as quality of life campaigns and zero tolerance policing, harsher penalties and the extensive utilization of imprisonment, three strikes and compulsory minimum sentencing policies, redress in juvenile court and the incarceration of minors, immigrant detention centers, and more extensive parole restrictions.

Governing through crime is further visible in the common practice of securitizing private spaces as a way of dealing with crime risks and insecurities. The most notable manifestations of this practice are undoubtedly gated communities. These fortified enclaves are segregated spatial enclosures designed to provide safe, orderly, and secure environments for those who dwell within them. The rationale for governing through crime seems to be twofold. On the one hand, the thinking is that irresponsible individuals must be held accountable for their misdeeds. And on the other, it is that responsible citizens must protect themselves and be protected from the mass of anti-citizens who threaten their security and quality of life.

This contemporary emphasis on governing through crime has had a significant impact on how undocumented migration is problematized and managed. In fact, undocumented migration has come to be seen largely as a law and order issue in the United States. Since the early 1990s, the United States has witnessed a rather strong wave of anti-immigrant sentiment—a trend that has only intensified in the post-9/11 context. From social scientists, immigration officials, and policy analysts, to immigration reform organizations and the public at large, it has been common for individuals and groups to cast unauthorized migrants—typically imagined as Mexican—as threats to the overall well-being and security of the social body. The fundamental problem with the undocumented has been deemed to be their illegality—the ‘fact’ that they do not have a legal right to be in the United States. Thus, for some people, to be an ‘illegal’ immigrant is to be inherently a lawbreaker. It is to be necessarily a criminal.

In addition to being constructed as lawbreakers, the undocumented have routinely been linked to a host of other problems. For example, they have been associated with such cultural, social, and economic maladies as overpopulation, deteriorating schools, urban crime and decay, energy shortages, and national disunity. Furthermore, they have been accused of displacing American workers, depressing wages, spreading diseases, and burdening public services. All of these problems are seen as compounding the fundamental problem of immigrant criminality.

 

Popular anti-immigration imagery, reads 'I'm not against immigration. I'm against an invasion of illegal aliens who are flooding our country and leeching off my tax dollars'.

Popular anti-immigration imagery, reads 'Illegal immigration crisis is hard to solve? May be we should start with cutting all the benefits to illegal aliens and stop rewarding these criminals for breaking the law?'. There is a thumbs up at the bottom with text 'Great idea!'

Popular anti-immigration imagery reads, 'what part of ILLEGAL don't you understand?'

Popular imagery representing undocumented immigrants as criminals. Reads 'Illegals are not immigrants they are criminals. Send them back! Re-post the truth!'
Popular imagery representing undocumented immigrants as criminals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click here

These images are all popular memes circulating in mass culture in the United States. They are sometimes used as bumper stickers or buttons.

RELEVANT KEY TERMS: pervasive criminalisation

The Militarized Border

Given that undocumented migrants have largely been constructed as criminal ‘illegal aliens’ who harm the well-being of American citizens and threaten the security of the nation, the measures employed to govern them have been extremely exclusionary and punitive. Put otherwise, undocumented migrants have largely come to be governed through crime.

The most notable form that governing immigration through crime has taken in the United States has undoubtedly taken is that of enhanced border policing. Since the early 1990s, the U.S. federal government has undertaken a major boundary control offensive, one that aims to shape the conduct of unauthorized immigrants in such a way as to deter them from entering the United States. Federal authorities have essentially determined that one of the best ways to deal with the ‘problem’ of undocumented immigration is through expanding border policing operations.

The expansion of the border policing as a way of governing unauthorized immigration has been most conspicuous along the U.S.-Mexico border. It is this border that has historically been seen as the primary source of the undocumented immigrant ‘problem’. This expansion actually dates back to the late 1970s. But it really burgeoned in the early 1990s. That’s when the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) put into effect a broad plan to gain control of the southwest border and reduce illicit immigration. This comprehensive border control scheme was based on a strategy of ‘prevention through deterrence’. The objective was to increase fencing, lighting, personnel, and surveillance equipment along the main gates of illegal entry—such as San Diego, California and El Paso, Texas—in order to raise the probability of apprehension to such a high level that unauthorized migrants would be deterred from crossing the border.

Now, in the post-9/11 context, the policing of the border as a way of managing unauthorized migration has only accelerated as the fight against immigrant illegality has become conflated with the ‘war on terror’. A primary solution to the undocumented immigration problem, then, has been to militarize the border and turn the United States into a fortified enclave of sorts. It has been to cast a wide net of control and surveillance over the border in order to discourage illegal incursions and thus keep troublesome individuals out of the body politic. As with the government of crime more generally, the rationale for managing undocumented migrants through crime is that the public must be protected from the would-be criminals who threaten their security and contentment.

 

U.S. Border Patrol agents looking for migrants along the Rio Grande River in Texas.
U.S. Border Patrol agent investigates potential landing area for undocumented migrants along the Rio Grande River in Texas.

 

The U.S. border fence/wall near El Paso, Texas.
The U.S. border fence/wall near El Paso, Texas.

 

A pair of unmanned aircraft in Sierra Vista, Arizona.
A pair of Customs and Border Protection unmanned aircraft in Sierra Vista, Arizona.

 

Two Black Hawk helicopters patrolling border.
Two Customs and Border Protection unit UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters patrol the southwest border region.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click here

These four images are from the photo gallery of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) website (https://www.cbp.gov/newsroom/photo-gallery/). They are meant to highlight the work that CBP does to “secure” the nation from foreign threats.

 

 

 

Border Abuses

The militarization of the border has undoubtedly led to excessive uses of force. Border policing forces basically view unauthorized immigrants as criminal enemies and treat them as such. This is clearly visible in the Border Patrol’s treatment of immigrants who are apprehended crossing the border, held in short-term custody, and deported. In various reports and other documents, NGO and immigrant rights groups have described how abuse, dehumanization, and neglect is part of the institutional culture of the Border Patrol.

In a report titled ‘A Culture of Cruelty: Abuse and Impunity in Short-term U.S. Border Patrol Custody’ (2011), the humanitarian NGO No More Deaths vividly documents the abuse that immigrants suffer. From Fall 2008 and Spring 2011, the group conducted 4,130 interviews with 12,895 individuals who had been in the custody of the Border Patrol. They found that immigrants were routinely denied food, water, and medical treatment. They were also often placed in overcrowded and exceedingly cold holding cells. Furthermore, children, women, and other vulnerable individuals were often deported to Mexico at night. Finally, migrants were subjected to pervasive verbal abuse (in particular derogatory sexual and racial epithets), as well as to physical abuse (agents striking and/or kicking people in custody, use of chokeholds, and so forth).

Other groups have similarly documented such abuse. In 2013, the Immigration Policy Center produced an important report titled ‘Bordering on Criminal: The Routine Abuse of Migrants in the Removal System’. Drawing on the Migrant Border Crossing Study, which is a study of 1,110 individuals repatriated to Mexico between 2009 and 2012, the report focuses on the mistreatment of undocumented migrants while in custody. They found that 23% of migrants suffered verbal abuse (racist and nationalistic remarks), while 11% were subjected to some sort of physical mistreatment (mainly being kicked, punched, pushed, pulled, and or/dragged, but 3% reported being sexually assaulted).

Putting these reports in the context of other studies, it appears that the mistreatment of migrants in Border Patrol Custody is a systematic practice and not a sporadic, random occurrence.

Report from the Immigration Policy Center.
Report from the Immigration Policy Center, the policy arm of the American Immigration Council.
Report from the NGO No More Deaths.
Report from the NGO No More Deaths.
National Immigration Law Center legal challenge to conditions in short-term detention.
National Immigration Law Center legal challenge to conditions in short-term detention.

Epidemic of Killings

The systematic abuses perpetrated by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) have also involved deadly and lethal force. The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico estimates that 55 people, a number of them under questionable circumstances, were killed in encounters with CBP between January 2010 and April 2017. Fifty of these deaths involved use of force; five were health related; nineteen involved US citizens; and six involved victims standing in Mexico.

Notably, at least 11 deaths were the result of border enforcement agents responding with deadly force to migrants who allegedly threw rocks at them. Before around 2012, the Border Patrol essentially treated rock throwing (or rockings) as lethal force and condoned officers responding with lethal force. According to James Tomsheck, former Assistant Commissioner of the CBP Office of Internal Affairs, the Chiefs of the Border Patrol during his 8-year tenure at CBP consistently supported the use of deadly force against rock throwers. He stated that the ‘mantra from Border Patrol management was that rocking is lethal force’.

Importantly, the treatment of rocking as lethal force has been called into question. In a review commissioned by CBP of use of force cases, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a nonprofit research organization, noted that ‘Too many cases do not appear to meet the test of objective reasonableness with regard to the use of deadly force’. In some cases, it appears that frustration was a motivating factor in the shooting of rock throwers. PERF’s main recommendation was that officers/agents be barred from using deadly force against people throwing objects not capable of causing serious harm. They further recommended that agents be trained to de-escalate rocking encounters with migrants by, for example, moving out of range or taking cover.

The Border Patrol appears to have changed its tactics when dealing with rock throwers. However, while rocking fatalities basically ceased after 2012, other use of force deaths have continued.

•Juan Mendez Jr.— Age 18; Encounter on October 5, 2010 in Texas.

An agent shot Juan twice in the back following a brief struggle. He was stopped by agents for driving with a ‘suspicious load’.

•Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca—Age 15; Encounter on June 7, 2010 in El Paso, Texas

A group of suspect undocumented immigrants allegedly threw rocks at Border Patrol agents at an international bridge. An agent responded by firing his weapon, hitting Sergio who was standing on Mexican soil.

•Ramses Barron Torres—Age 17; Encounter on January 5, 2011 in Nogales, Arizona.

Border Patrol agents shot and killed Ramses for throwing rocks. Witnesses refuted the claim the he threw rocks.

•Roberto Pérez Pérez—Age 63; Encounter on January 13, 2011 in San Diego, CA

Officers beat Roberto as he tried to re-enter the United States. He died while in detention a few months later due to medical complications.

•Cruz Marcelino Velazquez Acevedo—Age 16; Encounter on November 13, 2018 in San Ysidro, California.

Cruz was stopped by CBP officers while crossing through a port of entry and sent to secondary inspection. While there, officers asked him about two bottles of liquid he was transporting. Cruz claimed that they were filled with apple juice, but the officers suspected drugs. They coerced Cruz to take a sip of the liquid to prove that it was simply juice. Within an hour, he started suffering from acute methamphetamine intoxication and later died.

•Unknown—Encounter on June 9, 2016 in Yuma, Arizona.

Border Patrol agents encountered a male subject near the river in Laredo, Texas. The subject allegedly became combative and struggled with the agents. He collapsed while being escorted to a vehicle and was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.

Click here

Artist: Irene Jor. Artist Statement: “This print was created to call out the U.S. Border Patrol for the brutal killing of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas in June 2010. The policies and practices of national security at the U.S. Mexican border, rather than honor life and human rights it is unjustly taking lives and threatening our country’s humanity.”

Quest for Justice

Victimizing the Family

Anatasio’s killing by border enforcement agents has had a tremendous impact on the social, economic, and emotional well-being of his family. Maria Puga notes that Anastasio was a kind and loving partner and father. He would play with his children all the time, taking them to the beach, park, and movies. His death has devastated the family, particular the two younger kids, the twins Daniel and Daniela. Daniel feels lonely, gets sad, and cries. He just wants his father back. He had to see a therapist to deal with Anastasio’s death. Like Daniel, Daniela cries a lot. She is also always upset and does not socialize at school. After Anastasio’s death, she spent a lot of time looking at pictures of him.

Initially, Maria did not tell the younger children how Anatasio had died. She just said that he was sick and had passed away. But the children saw a news story about Anastasio on TV. She then told him that their father had been killed by border enforcement agents. Their reaction was to ask why they had killed him.

Anastasio’s death has also impacted the other children. Fabian, the older boy, would say that he did not want to live and spent much time laying down and being angry. He ended up dropping out of school when he was 16.  Daisy would lock herself up in a room and cry. And Yeimi talks about how everyone in the family is angry about what happened to their father.


‘Well, the family has just basically crumbled down. The person who was the, the head of the family is gone. My children cannot accept their dad’s death. Daniel tells me, “go to heaven and bring my dad”. That’s what keeps on affecting us. There are things that I cannot buy for my children, either, because their dad is no there to buy for them what they need. Fabian, who is a teenager, he say if his dad were here, he would probably have a cell phone. I cannot give him that with my salary.’

Maria Puga, Anastasio’s life partner


Anastasio’s Story

Interview with Anastasio’s daughter Yeimi Hernandez.

Photo of Anastasio with two of his children.
Undated photo of Anastasio with two of his children.

 

 

 

 

 

Click here

Widely circulating photo. Typically credited as being provided by the Hernandez Rojas family.

A Failure of Justice

The family’s suffering has been compounded by the fact that none of the agents involved have been held accountable for Anastasio’s death. It’s unclear if CBP disciplined any of the agents as a result of their actions. And, perhaps more importantly, none of them faced any punishment through the criminal justice system.

The family, through a representative, contacted the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) immediately after Anastasio’s death to inquire about any investigations. DOJ officials refuse to provide the family with any information. It was not until 2012, two years later, that DOJ opened up a criminal investigation into Anastasio’s death. And it was not until 2015 that  the department closed it’s investigation, deciding not to bring charges again any of the agents.

The press release (Federal Officials Close Investigation) announcing the DOJ’s decision noted that the federal government could not “disprove the agents’ claim that they used reasonable force in an attempt to subdue and restrain a combative detainee’. It further noted that ‘the federal agents’ restraint and deployment of the taser against Hernandez-Rojas . . . was not unlawful’ and that ‘the federal agents’ action were not done without due caution and circumspection’. DOJ prosecutor’s essentially relied on the testimony of border agents, seemingly discounting the testimony of others, to reach their conclusion. In the press release, Anastasio was portrayed as ‘non-compliant and physically assaultive’.

The family was understandably devastated by the failure to procure justice for Anastasio.


“We waited more than five years for an answer to our pain, and we are sad, disillusioned and angered by today’s announcement. We expected and hoped for a more positive response given the brutality we saw in eyewitness videos. The government failed to deliver justice today.’

Maria Puga, widow of Anastasio Hernández Rojas


“This is not justice. It seems like justice is only for the wealthy and not for the poor. It took five years of struggle just for them to deny us . They say that no one is responsible for the death of my son, but they are responsible. The agents that beat him, electrocuted him, and choked him are responsible.’

Luz Rojas, mother of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas


“The law should apply to everyone. No one should be above the law. But today it seems like these agents are above the law. They are immune.

If someone hits a dog, they get charged. These agents killed my brother, but nothing will happen to them. That is not right. Where is the justice?’

Bernardo Hernandez Rojas, brother of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas


Impunity at the Border

The lack of justice in Anastasio’s case is by no means unique. There is clear lack of accountability when it comes to deadly use of force by border enforcement agents. Indeed, CBP officers and the Border Patrol agents basically operate with impunity.

In 2013, the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) released a CBP commissioned report that reviewed the use of force by CBP agents and officers ( PERF Report). Focusing on 67 cases that occurred between January 2010 and October 2012, PERF found that in many instances deadly use of force was not justified. Despite these findings, CBP failed to discipline or take any legal action against the agents involved in questionable incidents.

In one rare case, the U.S. Department of Justice (as opposed to CBP) charged a Border Patrol agent, Lonnie Swartz, of shooting and killing an unarmed Mexican teenager, Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez. Swartz shot the teenager 10 times, 8 in the back and 2 in the head. The agent claimed that he was simply defending himself and other agents from rocks being thrown by Jose Antonio and others. After a trial, jurors found Swartz not guilty of second-degree murder (Swartz Found Not Guilty).

Poster of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez demanding justice.
Poster of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez demanding justice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click here

Widely circulating poster of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez. It is not clear who created it.

Protest in Tucson, Arizona in response to Lonnie Swartz's acquittal.
Protest in Tucson, Arizona in response to Lonnie Swartz’s acquittal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click here

 

Seeking Justice Elsewhere

While criminal charges were never filed against the agents who killed Anastasio, the family has not given up hope of gaining a measure of justice. In March 2011, they filed a wrongful death lawsuit in civil court alleging that Anastasio was deprived of his constitutional rights. The case lingered in the court system for 6 years. Ultimately, the family accepted an offer from the US government to pay $1 million to Anastasio’s children.

Five years later, in March 2016, Anastasio’s family (with the aid of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley and Alliance San Diego) also filed a petition against the United States before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Anastasio Petition). The commission’s principal function is to promote and defend human rights in the Americas. The petition claims that Anastasio was tortured and arbitrarily deprived of his life and asks the Commission to investigate the United States for human rights violations. The Commission took up the case and is currently conducting an investigation.

 

Poster of event to discuss the killing of Anastasio.
Poster of event to discuss the killing of Anastasio and the case before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Click here

The event was organized by the Berkeley Law. It featured Anastasio’s partner Maria Puga, as well as speakers from the Berkeley International Human Rights Law Clinic and Alliance San Diego, the groups that filed the petition before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Click here

Facebook photo, Justicia Para Anastacio Hernandez Rojas. February 20, 2013. https://www.facebook.com/anastacio.hernandezrojas.7?lst=100001439052656%3A100005305261000%3A1523832885

Globalizing Deathscapes

For other case studies dealing with the “violence of removals”—with the deportation of migrants/refugees swept up in the border policing machine, see:

Jimmy Mubenga and the plane (UK)

Villawood: A Suburban Deathscape in Plain Sight (Australia)

Trauma on the Body: The Border Killing of Anastasio Hernández Rojas

This case study was  authored by Jonathan Xavier Inda of the United States hub of the Deathscapes project. Research assistance was provided by Beatriz Maldonado.

To cite this research: Inda, Jonathan Xavier. ‘Trauma on the Body: the border killing of Anastasio Hernández Rojas’. Deathscapes: Mapping Race and Violence in Settler States, 2018, https://www.deathscapes.org/case-studies/trauma-on-the-body/.

Corresponding author: [email protected]

Crisis Support Lines:

Lifeline (Aus): 13 11 14
A free interpreting service for people who do not speak English is available for 13 11 14. To access this service please:
1) Call TIS on 131 450 and ask to talk to Lifeline on 13 11 14 in the language required.
2) TIS will call 13 11 14 on behalf of the caller.
Crisis Services Canada (Can): 1 833 456 4566
Samaritans (UK): 116 123
Suicide Prevention (US): 1-800-273-8255
International Support: International Association for Suicide Prevention and www.befrienders.org

Sharing

Please Read

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are respectfully advised that this website contains images of and references to deceased persons.

All viewers are respectfully advised that the site contains images of and references to the deaths in custody of Indigenous peoples, Black people and refugees that may cause distress.

Proceed