The US Customs and Border Protection agency has launched a “comprehensive review” of its officials' use of force, the Los Angeles Times announced last week. This is especially exciting news for The Investigative Fund, as reporter John Carlos Frey has been investigating excessive use of force by border agents against undocumented immigrants this past year. On April 20, a joint Investigative Fund/PBS Need to Know story aired, based on Frey's reporting, that broadcast for the first time clandestine video footage that showed a group of over a dozen officials beating and tasing a man who lay hogtied and handcuffed on the ground. The man, Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, an undocumented immigrant and San Diego father of five, was scheduled for deportation; it was during the deportation process that the incident occurred. Rojas died three days later, the coroner ruled his death a homicide, yet the border patrol claimed Rojas had been combative and nobody was arrested for his killing.
Frey unearthed two videos by eyewitnesses that proved the border patrol story was false; since then, the story has sparked a series of recriminations by government representatives, demands for justice, and much public anger. Over the past months, protesters have rallied in eight cities, and a Presente.org petition to demand justice for Rojas' death garnered, at last count, more than 36,000 signatures. As a result of Rojas' death, 16 members of Congressrequested examinations of brutality, reforms to address the use of force, and a determination over whether the increasing number of border agents has negatively affected professionalism. This, in turn, led to a federal grand jury investigation, a Department of Homeland Security Investigation, and a condemnation by the United Nations for the excessive use of force along the US border with Mexico. Now, according to the LA Times article, the responsible party itself is on board and will conduct its own investigation.
The investigation will assess current tactics and incorporate an independent outside research and development center to look into the force used by Border Patrol agents and customs officers, which has resulted in at least 16 deaths since 2010. In roughly half of these incidents, the agents shot and killed immigrants who were only throwing rocks, usually with the agents being cleared of criminal prosecution.
In a closed-door delegation meeting with members of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Border Communities Coalition, the Rights Working Group, and other organizations actively engaged in Rojas' story, David Aguilar, commissioner of the US Customs and Border Protection, admitted that he was upset by the PBS Need to Know program and had watched it multiple times. Although Aguilar defended the Border Patrol, he also expressed an interest in holding quarterly meetings with nongovernmental organizations to discuss the specifics of any cases, offered the organizations informational sessions on the investigative process, and said he would look into the issues presented by Frey's reporting to investigate and ensure a solution.
The investigation is slated to be finished at the end of January. Two-plus years after his horrible death, Rojas' case is finally receiving the serious attention it deserves.
To listen to a Backstory interview with John Carlos Frey that takes you behind the scenes of the story, please click here.