A new PBS documentary exposes the tasing and beating death of a Mexican immigrant by U.S. border agents in California and has renewed scrutiny of what critics call a culture of impunity. In May 2010, 42-year-old Anastasio Hernández-Rojas was caught trying to enter the United States from Mexico near San Diego. He had previously lived in the United States for 25 years and was the father of five U.S.-born children. But instead of deportation, Hernández-Rojas’s detention ended in his death. A number of border officers were seen beating him, before one tasered him at least five times. He died shortly afterward. The agents say they confronted Hernández-Rojas because he became hostile and resisted arrest. But previously undisclosed videos recorded by eyewitnesses on their cellphones show a different story. "All eyewitnesses that we spoke to basically tell the same story of a man hogtied and handcuffed behind his back, not resisting, being beaten repeatedly by batons, by kicks, by punches, by the use of a taser, for almost 30 minutes until he died," says reporter John Carlos Frey, whose exposé aired in a national television special last Friday night as part of a joint investigation by the PBS broadcast, "Need to Know," and the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute. We also speak with Hernández-Rojas’s widow, María Puga. "My husband was tortured. He was severely beaten. And they’ve destroyed an entire family," says Puga, speaking through a Spanish-English translator. "All we want is justice. And we need your help to get that justice." [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: Previously undisclosed eyewitness video of the killing of a Mexican immigrant by U.S. border officers two years ago has sparked fresh calls for justice in the case and renewed scrutiny of what critics call a culture of impunity. In May 2010, 32-year-old Anastasio Hernández-Rojas was caught trying to enter the United States from Mexico near San Diego. Hernández-Rojas had previously lived in the United States for 25 years, from the age of 15. He was the father of five U.S. born-children.
But instead of deportation, Hernández-Rojas’s detention ended in his death. A number of officers were seen beating him, before one tasered him at least five times. During the incident, Hernández-Rojas was handcuffed and hogtied. He died shortly after. The agents say they confronted Hernández-Rojas because he became hostile and resisted arrest. But new video recorded by eyewitnesses on their cellphones show a different story. The footage was obtained by reporter John Carlos Frey and aired in a national special Friday night as part of a joint investigation by the PBS broadcast Need to Know and the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute.
ANASTASIO HERNÁNDEZ-ROJAS: [translated] Please! Señores, help me!
JOHN LARSON: What U.S. border agents did not realize is that eyewitness videos of the incident caught the sounds of Hernández-Rojas screaming and pleading for his life.
ANASTASIO HERNÁNDEZ-ROJAS: [translated] No! Help!
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 U.S. border agents standing over Hernández-Rojas. It shows the firing of the taser. Was Hernández-Rojas, as the police press release suggested, combative when he was killed? Or was he on the ground, handcuffed?
AMY GOODMAN: That was PBS Need to Know reporter John Larson. Along with reporter John Carlos Frey, they later found a second eyewitness who used her phone to document the beating of Anastasio Hernández-Rojas.
JOHN LARSON: We took the video to Gene Iredale, the Hernández-Rojas attorney, who had never seen it before. He said the critical moment is this one.
BORDER PATROL AGENT: Quit resisting. Quit resisting.
EUGENE IREDALE: When you’re using force and you know you have to explain it, or it has to appear someway to the people who are watching, you say, "Quit resisting."
AMY GOODMAN: You can watch the full report in English or Spanish online at pbs.org/needtoknow The San Diego County Police Department and the county’s medical examiner ruled Hernández-Rojas’ death a homicide. But the U.S. attorney says a coroner’s report found methamphetamine in his body, and said the agents’ action was appropriate in responding to, quote, "out of control conduct."
An agency spokesperson told Reuters the agency does not, quote, "tolerate abuse within our ranks, and we fully cooperate with any criminal or administrative investigations of alleged misconduct by any of our personnel, on or off duty," unquote.
In a minute, we will speak with Hernández-Rojas’s widow, María Puga. But first we’re joined in Los Angeles by John Carlos Frey, the documentary filmmaker and investigative journalist at the Nation Institute who broke the story, called "Crossing the Line at the Border." He’s tracking at least eight other deaths of immigrants at the hands of Border Patrol agents in the past two years and recently wrote an editorial for the Los Angeles Times called "What’s Going On with the Border Patrol?"
We’re also joined in San Diego by Humberto Navarrete, who was an eyewitness to Border Patrol officers beating Anastasio Hernández-Rojas.
And we welcome you both to Democracy Now! John Carlos Frey, why don’t you start by going through this story with us? We’re talking about a killing that occurred two years ago.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Yes, absolutely. Anastasio Hernández-Rojas was caught trying to cross back into the United States. He was detained by Border Patrol agents, went through the detention process. And in the process of being deported, this is when the story really begins. The Border Patrol agents, via their own press release and documents, say that he was combative, Hernández-Rojas was combative. They removed his handcuffs—this is actually the document—they removed his handcuffs and applied the use of a taser. He fell to the ground, suffered a heart attack and subsequently died. That is what is actually in the police report.
But the new video and eyewitness testimony proves otherwise. He was handcuffed. He was hogtied. He was not combative. The taser was applied at least five times. He was kicked. He was beaten. He suffered five broken ribs, bruises and cuts all over his body, misaligned teeth. None of that is in the official report.
AMY GOODMAN: Now, can you go back even further, because hadn’t he brought any—some kind of charge against one of the officers involved here?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: During the detention process, he, by his very right, even though he was an undocumented immigrant, had asked for medical attention. He said that one of the officers, while in detention, had kicked his ankle, where he had surgery several years prior. He had some metal pins in his ankle, so he was actually in excruciating pain. He also asked the Border Patrol officers for his day in court, which is also his legal right as an undocumented immigrant. And both of those requests were denied. He was actually just taken to the border by two agents, which is a very rare occurrence, two agents taking one man by himself to the border to deport him. And that’s when the melee started.
AMY GOODMAN: Now talk about what the investigation, the official investigation, has been and what you did, John Carlos Frey, over this last two years, what you have managed to uncover.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: The official investigation is basically what I said. The San Diego Police Department investigated. They basically said that they were within their right. The Justice Department has gone no further. We have uncovered eyewitness testimony. We have uncovered videotapes. The Justice Department has not asked any of the eyewitnesses for this information. They have not requested the videotapes. The statements coming from the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security is basically sealed. They are standing by their decision to support the officers and the way they conducted themselves during this event. And as I’ve said, they’re not even interested, at least at this point, in taking a look at the videotape. And the eyewitnesses in question—we’ve uncovered three of them—the Justice Department hasn’t even spoken to them. So, from our knowledge, it looks like the Justice Department has done absolutely nothing in investigating this case. They’ve taken the San Diego Police Department report verbatim and have done no more work on it. We’ve actually done the work for them.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the three different videos you got, because a number of people who were doing phone video at the time—and you could explain the scene there at the border, how people were watching this—had their phones confiscated?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Yes. That’s actually been corroborated by several different eyewitnesses. There’s an eyewitness south of the border in Tijuana who we recorded. There’s another individual who was on the U.S. side on the ground watching what was happening, also recording. And there was another individual on a pedestrian bridge, so they had a bird’s-eye view. And that seems to be the video that’s most damning that we can see. It was evening. It was very hard to see. The cellphone cameras didn’t record very well. But all eyewitnesses that we spoke to basically tell the same story of a man hogtied and handcuffed behind his back, not resisting, being beaten repeatedly by batons, by kicks, by punches, by the use of a taser, for almost 30 minutes until he died. Officers tried to administer CPR, and then they called an ambulance, and he was pronounced dead in the hospital.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to Humberto Navarrete’s eyewitness video, taken the night of Anastasio Hernández-Rojas’s death. Can you start off by explaining who Humberto is, what position he had in relation to the beating and the tasering and the death of Hernández-Rojas?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Sure. In the area where this happened, it’s in a secure area very close to the U.S.-Mexico borderline itself, right next to where pedestrians cross in and out of Tijuana, Mexico. It is a heavily trafficked area. It’s a public area. Humberto Navarrete found himself there as a tourist to Tijuana for the day, coming back. He heard the cries of Anastasio Hernández-Rojas in Spanish, "¡Ayudame por favor! ¡Ayudame!" which in English means "Help me, please! Help me!" This was a man who was crying desperately for help. This attracted Humberto’s attention. He pulled out his cellphone camera and started to record.
He actually is a resident of San Diego, California, had spent four years in the National Guard, had also spent a couple of years working for the San Diego trolly as a security guard, so he knew something about security. He actually confronted the Border Patrol officers and the officers that were around, asking them—you can hear it on the tape—asking them, "Why are you holding this man down? He’s not resisting. Why do you keep pressing on him?" He clearly saw that the man was not resisting and was handcuffed.
AMY GOODMAN: We actually are joined by Humberto Navarrete right now. And before we go to his eyewitness video, I want to bring him in from San Diego. And in a few minutes, we’ll be joined by Hernández-Rojas’s widow, María Puga. But, Humberto, continue where John has left off, how you ended up there on the border and how you ended up taking this video of the beating and tasering of Humberto—of Hernández-Rojas.
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: Good morning.
As John mentioned, I was on my way heading to Tijuana. And that’s when I—the first thing that I heard was Anastasio screaming at his top of his lungs, asking for help. And when I got to a more closer area, I saw what just John described: Anastasio face down in handcuffs and two officers in uniform. And there were five officers in the near area right there when I started recording, two uniformed officers. One of them had one of his knees on Anastasio’s neck. The other officer had one—the other knee on Anastasio’s lower back. I started noticing all these details, and the most important thing was that Anastasio was not resisting. And that’s when I decided to pull out my cellphone and start recording what you—what you can see on the first videos. And that’s when I started recording.
John also mentioned that I also—that I also saw an officer, and I approached him, and I asked him why were they using excess—what I consider to be excessive force. And I ask him why were they continuing to press on him, when I saw that they were pressing him to the ground.
I had to stop recording, because my memory got full, and stopped recording and deleted some of my personal videos. And by the time of the last of—on the last video, when—on my last video, by that time, Anastasio was picked up and took—and then they took him more towards the back. That’s where—when you can see the other video where, at that point, there were more than—I counted more than 20 officers, not necessarily around Anastasio, but counting the other officers that were running up and down, the other officer that I confronted. I counted more than 20 officers in the near area where Anastasio was later picked up and dragged to, to a far area where I was not able to record anymore.
AMY GOODMAN: Humberto, I want to play the footage that you got on your cellphone. It’s dark, but people should listen carefully who are listening on the radio, watch carefully who are watching this on television. In this footage, Hernández-Rojas is crying out in pain and repeatedly pleading for his life.
ANASTASIO HERNÁNDEZ-ROJAS: [translated] No! No! ¡Por favor, señores! No! Help!
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: Hey, he’s not resisting. Why are you guys using excessive force on him?
OFFICER: I don’t know what’s going on over there, but...
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: Huh?
OFFICER: Obviously he threw something. He ain’t—not cooperating.
AMY GOODMAN: That was the videotape taken by Humberto Navarrete. It’s through bars, a kind of gate, and we are simply hearing Hernández-Rojas’s—what turns out to be some of his last pleas for help. Humberto, explain what happened. And did you see people having their phones confiscated? How did you keep yours?
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: I did not see anybody, any other agents. I was—like I said, I was concentrated on the cellphone and tried to record as much as possible. I wasn’t paying attention. I do remember there was an agent that told me that I couldn’t be recording at that area. As soon as I turned around and I pointed my cellphone at him, he turned around and ignored me, and I continued recording. And, you know, I do remember this officer telling me that I wasn’t able to record at that area, but like I said, as soon as I turned my cellphone towards him, he turned around and ignored me.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re a former National Guardsmen, Humberto?
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Why did you decide to come forward? This happened two years ago.
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: I got—like John mentioned, I have some security—just security-level training. And I decided that something was wrong there. I saw something was not right. Something was wrong at that moment, so that’s why I decided to contact the media and give the videos to the family and the family lawyers.
AMY GOODMAN: We contacted ICE, the—and the Border Patrol. They told us to call the Department of Homeland Security. We didn’t get a response from them. PBS Need to Know, the program that did this big exposé, called the Department of Justice. They said they wouldn’t comment because they’re in the middle of an investigation. Have you been contacted by government authorities, Humberto, for your videotape, for your eyewitness testimony?
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: Not by any federal agencies, but I did get interviewed by the San Diego police, which I believe they have the—they were doing the investigation.
AMY GOODMAN: And when we interviewed by them?
HUMBERTO NAVARRETE: That happened on the next day when I released the videos. This happened a week after Anastasio’s beating down at the border.
AMY GOODMAN: Humberto Navarrete, we want to thank you for being with us. John Carlos Frey, we’d like to ask you to stay with us. When we come back from break, we’ll also be joined by Anastasio Hernández-Rojas’s widow, María Puga. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in 30 seconds.
AMY GOODMAN: As we continue to talk about this death on the border, we are joined by John Carlos Frey, who is an investigative reporter funded by the Nation Investigative Fund. This was all broadcast on Friday night on PBS’s Need to Know. And in their broadcast, they bring you Ashley Young, the new witness has just come forward to share the video she recorded on her cellphone of border agents beating and tasering Anastasio Hernández-Rojas. This is Ashley Young speaking to PBS’s Need to Know.
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.
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.
BYSTANDER: Hey! No!
JOHN LARSON: You can see Hernández-Rojas on the ground, surrounded by more than a dozen officers. Need to Know has brightened the video to make it easier to see.
BORDER PATROL OFFICER: Quit resisting.
ASHLEY YOUNG: Oh, my god.
JOHN LARSON: One agent, at the top of the screen, pulls off Hernández-Rojas’s pants and walks away with them. But it’s 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 Hernández-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. I think I witnessed someone being murdered.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Ashley Young. She was on her way back from Tijuana to where she lives in Seattle. She was speaking to John Larson of PBS’s Need to Know in this exposé that aired on Friday night on Need to Know.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. We’re joined by John Carlos Frey, the investigative reporter who worked with John Larson on this piece—he’s in Los Angeles—and María Puga, the widow of Anastasio Hernández-Rojas, who was killed in May 2010. Christian Ramírez is translating for her.
María Puga, our condolences on the death of your husband, Anastasio. You have sued the government. Can you talk about what his death has meant to you and your five children?
MARÍA PUGA: [translated] Thank you. It has been a very painful moment for us.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the effect? Can you talk about Anastasio Hernández-Rojas, your husband’s death, what it has meant for your family, what you understood happened at the time?
MARÍA PUGA: [translated] It has been very painful for all of us, for his brothers, his parents, for me. But perhaps the ones who are suffering the most right now are our children. My kids ask me all the time, "Why did they kill my daddy? What happened to my daddy?" And it’s a question that I, myself, have no answers to, because I don’t know why they did this to him. It’s clear now that they beat him severely on that video.
AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean to you, María, that these witnesses have come forward and shown the videotape they took on their cellphones?
MARÍA PUGA: [translated] I am very thankful for the eyewitnesses who have come forward and shared this video with the public. Without them, the case of my husband would have been forgotten.
AMY GOODMAN: You are suing the U.S. government now, María Puga?
MARÍA PUGA: [translated] We have filed a civil suit, but we haven’t had a response yet. What we are really asking for is justice to be served.
AMY GOODMAN: How old are your children?
MARÍA PUGA: [translated] The oldest is 22, 20, 13, and I have twins who are six years old.
AMY GOODMAN: John Carlos Frey is also with us in Los Angeles. Can you talk further about the lawsuit and movement, now that this is getting national attention, on the part of the U.S. government?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Well, Amy, I wish that there was movement from the federal government. There is an attorney who has filed a civil suit against the federal government, a wrongful death suit on behalf of the family. As far as we know, that case has still not yet been scheduled. As I said before, none of this new evidence has been petitioned by the Justice Department. The Justice Department hasn’t even spoken to any of the eyewitnesses directly. They have not asked for the videotape evidence. And so, this case seems to still be on the shelf. We’re hoping, with this new information and with the media attention, that it forces the hand of the U.S. government to bring this case forward.
We’re hoping that there are criminal proceedings here. None of the officers involved, for the past two years, from our understanding, have been reprimanded. They have remained on the job. The individual who used the taser five separate times on a man who was handcuffed on the ground, he’s still on the job. His name has not been released to the public. There are no criminal proceedings. And it looks like the Justice Department isn’t going to bring any criminal proceedings in this case. The only hope that the family has for justice is the civil suit, which has yet to be scheduled.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean it looks like they will not bring criminal charges? Why not?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: That’s a really good question. We would like to know that, too. As I said, the Justice Department is not moving forward with any investigation. If they were going to bring criminal charges, we would think that the Justice Department would want to interview the eyewitnesses, they would want to get a copy of the videotape, they would want to get the information that we have. And that has not happened. So there doesn’t seem to be any movement here at all.
AMY GOODMAN: John Carlos Frey, who do the Border Patrol answer to? Can you explain this largest police force in the United States?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Yeah, it’s a really wonderful question, because it is the largest police force in the United States. The Customs and Border Protection numbers over 60,000 employees, and they answer to themselves. The FBI does not oversee them. The CIA does not oversee them. The Department of Homeland Security, which is the umbrella organization, is the only oversight committee here. We do not have any public scrutiny. If you ask the Border Patrol, which we did, for a use of protocol—or a use-of-force protocol — when can they fire a taser? Are they allowed to fire a taser when somebody is handcuffed on the ground? Is that part of protocol? — all we get back are redacted documents. They are not transparent, and they answer to no one. So it’s very hard to get information.
As you know, the statement that you read at the top of the show is the statement that the Border Patrol have been giving to everybody, that "we conduct ourselves with the utmost integrity." Well, I believe a part of that is true, but in this case they have not been. So they’re not answering direct questions. They’re issuing blanket statements, and so is the Department of Justice. The Department of Justice, for two years, has said this case is under investigation, yet there has been no investigation by the Justice Department. So, this just seems to be going in a circular pattern, and the family waits and waits.
AMY GOODMAN: In your Los Angeles Times op-ed piece, John, you write about eight deaths. Talk about the span of time that these men have been killed over, these immigrants, and what happened to them.
JOHN CARLOS FREY: In the past two years, there have been at least, from our own documentation, eight migrant killings by the hands of U.S. Border Patrol. One, Anastasio Hernández-Rojas, the case we’re talking about now. The other seven were killed with guns. Some individuals were shot in the back. Some individuals were shot in the head. Three of the individuals were actually standing on Mexican soil when the U.S. Border Patrol fired their weapon from the United States, shot and killed. None of these eight cases were the migrants armed. In some cases, the migrants were throwing rocks. And according to Border Patrol, rocks are considered lethal weapons, so the Border Control can actually fire and kill or shoot to kill, if somebody is throwing a rock. And again, all of these cases are very mysteriously guarded. None of the officers have been reprimanded.
This is a very rare occurrence at the border, when an officer fires his weapon. In the past 10 years, there have been very few cases. But in the past couple of years, there have been an escalation of cases. The Mexican government actually says in the past few years there have been 18 killings of migrants by U.S. Border Patrol. So we only have access to the ones that actually make it to the media. And we think that the problem is because the Border Patrol force itself has doubled in the past couple of years, with very little oversight, with a lowering of standards for recruits. And there’s no accountability here. There’s no punishment here. So the Border Patrol are acting with impunity.
AMY GOODMAN: There has been a very different reaction in the Spanish press than the English-language press. It’s been huge in the Spanish press. In this country, can you talk about that difference and also what it would mean if there was a response, as happened in the case of Trayvon Martin?
JOHN CARLOS FREY: Imagine if eight U.S. citizens were gunned down in their own country or along the border by Mexican government officials with no explanation. That’s what’s happening in Mexico. We’re coming up on the 20-year anniversary of Rodney King. The video that we exposed on Friday on Need to Know is a Rodney King-style video. And that’s why there’s outrage in Mexico. This is one of their own being brutally beaten by, it looks like, 20 officers, being tased while you’re handcuffed, and of course it’s going to be an outrage, as the Rodney King video and the Trayvon Martin case, which you mentioned, is here in this country.
This is an undocumented immigrant. We have dehumanized this population to the point where: "So what if the Border Patrol kills someone?" I’m sure people think that he probably had it coming. This was a man who had roots in the United States. He has five U.S. citizen children. You spoke to his partner, María, who is suffering trying to raise five children. This is a serious story, and I think it needs that kind of attention. Yet the Justice Department and the Border Patrol are not willing to comment.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, María Puga in San Diego, what do you want to leave us with in the case of your husband? Or more importantly, who Anastasio Hernández-Rojas was?
MARÍA PUGA: [translated] He was a very charismatic man, a very hard worker, a loving husband, a wonderful father. I just want justice. I want your audience to know that we are asking them for justice. I want to let them know that my husband was tortured. He was severely beaten. And they’ve destroyed an entire family. All we want is justice. And we need your help to get that justice.
AMY GOODMAN: María Puga, I want to thank you very much for being with us, widow of Anastasio Hernández-Rojas, who was killed in May 2010 by Border Patrol in California. Thank you to Christian Ramírez for translating. John Carlos Frey, thank you for joining us and your excellent reporting funded by the Nation Institute, working with John Larson, PBS’s Need to know, for this superb report. We will continue to follow it and link to the full video report at PBS Need to Know. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in 30 seconds.