A human rights group has asked the San Diego County District Attorney's Office to pursue charges against U.S. Border Patrol agents that they say were involved in obstructing an investigation into the death of a Mexican man in USBP custody.
The San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium (SDIRC) and Alliance San Diego have asked District Attorney Summer Stephan's office to investigate the alleged interference by U.S. Border Patrol's Critical Incident Teams (BPCIT) in the May 2010 death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, who died after he was caught crossing into the U.S. illegally. The request was made on behalf of Rojas' wife, Maria Puga.
The letter details charges Alliance San Diego believes the Critical Incident Team should face -- obstruction of justice, offering false evidence, destroying and/or concealing evidence -- and lays out claims of at least seven instances where the team interfered during the investigation.
The DA's Office confirmed they received the letter but has not said if they would investigate the claims.
CBP declined to provide a statement on the letter.
The push for a criminal investigation comes two weeks after the Southern Border Communities Coalition, a network of organizations in California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas say they sent a 14-page letter to Congress requesting congressional investigations into U.S. Border Patrol's Critical Incident Teams -- largely the Rojas case and others like it where teams had access to evidence, and the potential to tamper with it.
The group said the Critical Incident Teams "may be the largest and longest standing shadow police unit that is operating today in the federal government. Without any federal authority, BPCITs investigate incidents of agent-involved use of force, and they work to mitigate and conceal their culpability. The actions of these Border Patrol units to withhold, destroy, and corrupt evidence and to tamper with witnesses have gone unchecked for decades. It’s time for Congress to investigate them fully."
On Thursday, Reps. Juan Vargas (CA-51), Sara Jacobs (CA-53) and Joaquin Castro (TX-20) sent their own letter to the U.S. Department of justice urging them to investigate the teams.
San Diego's Critical Incident team was disbanded but other sectors still have the teams, which CBP says are used to provide support to investigative agencies like CBP, FBI and other state and local agencies when reviewing critical and use of force incidents involving CBP.
Video captured by a witness near the San Ysidro Port of Entry south of San Diego showed Rojas being beaten with batons and shocked at least four times as he lay handcuffed on the ground in 2010. The video attracted intense scrutiny and concerns of excessive force were raised by the then-president of Mexico and others.
Hernandez suffered five broken ribs, brain damage and other injuries, according to court documents, and died several days later at a hospital.
The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, but also said Rojas had methamphetamine in his system and had a heart attack.
The Justice Department examined the case for evidence of a civil rights violation but announced in 2015 that it would not bring criminal charges against any of the 12 agents involved and closed the investigation.
In 2017, CBP reached a settlement with Rojas' children and wife in a lawsuit alleging wrongful death, excessive force and failure to properly supervise and failure to intervene.
But the push from the Rojas family to find out what happened to their loved one was not over.
At the family’s request and with the assistance of Alliance San Diego and others, the case is under review by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States that has examined human rights abuses, including massacres and disappearances, chiefly in Central and South America.
It is the first time that the commission is examining allegations of an extra-judicial killing involving a U.S. law enforcement agency.
Court documents released in the case allege a U.S. Border Patrol cover-up, citing three high-ranking former officials from the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection to contend that officials pushed a false narrative that Hernandez was combative, erased some video of the incident and obstructed criminal investigations while conducting its own probe that had “no legitimate or lawful purpose.”
Last week, in response to questions about the case, the agency has strong accountability measures in place to review use of force incidents, which includes a review by the Office of Inspector General and a potential investigation from CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility and the National Use of Force Review Board (NUFRB).
The NUFRB which investigated Rojas case in 2016 found the use of force by border patrol officers was in compliance with the CBP's Use of Force Policy at the time but the guidelines were updated in 2014 to caution against using stun guns on handcuffed individuals, and against using the method more than three times.
Rojas was stunned four times, according to CBP records.
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