The Killing of Anastasio Hernández Rojas

by JOSEPH NEVINS

Eyewitness accounts and video footage shown in a PBS documentary last week provide shocking proof that U.S. federal agents brutally beat Anastasio Hernández Rojas, tased him five times, and ultimately killed him—this while he lay on the ground with his arms handcuffed behind his back—in May 2010. The revelations in Crossing the Line at the Border provide a compelling counter to the official tale of what transpired, and have rightfully led to calls for accountability. Among the questions such calls raise are, what does accountability mean in such a case, and what should the parameters of the process be—that is, if a key goal is to prevent future instances of brutality?

Born in Mexico, Hernández Rojas arrived in the United States at the age of 16. For more than 27 years, he lived and labored here, where he married and had five children. In May 2010, after losing his construction job, he was arrested for shoplifting. When a background check showed that he was in the country without official sanction, the police turned him over to federal authorities, who deported him to Mexico. Not willing to accept exile from his wife and children, Hernandez Rojas quickly crossed back into the United States, but Border Patrol agents intercepted him in a remote area as he tried to head home.

At the detention facility, an agent allegedly assaulted and injured Hernández Rojas, which led him to express a desire to file a complaint. That same agent reportedly was one of two who drove him back—alone—to the port of entry in San Ysidro (the southernmost portion of San Diego) to deport him again. It was there, just a few feet from the actual boundary with Mexico, where the night-time, deadly assault took place, one involving over a dozen agents.

A San Diego County Medical Examiner’s report concluded that Hernandez Rojas’s death was a case of homicide. It was due to a heart attack—one induced by the shocks from the taser. (According to an Amnesty International report, 334 people died in the United States after being shocked with a taser, a supposedly non-lethal device, or a similar conducted-energy weapons between June 2001 and August 2008.) The 42-year-old father also sustained broken ribs; several loosened teeth; bruises all over his body and head, and injury to his spine.

What allowed the beating and electrocution to go legally unchallenged was the uncritical acceptance of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) account of events by authorities at various levels. According to the agency’s official story, agents did what they did because an un-handcuffed Hernández Rojas “became combative,” and the use of batons and the taser was necessary to “subdue the individual and maintain officer safety.”

The blatant nature of the brutality, the cover-up of what transpired, and what appear to be clear violations of the law have helped to provoke widespread outcry. From press conferences, to an online petition and myriad news reports, pressure is mounting on federal authorities to conduct a far-reaching investigation of Hernández Rojas’s death.

More broadly, advocates—such as John Carlos Frey, a documentary filmmaker and an investigative reporter involved with the making of Crossing the Line at the Border—point to an institutional culture of impunity that allows killings by Border Patrol agents to go virtually unexamined outside the agency. Frey also highlights the rush to recruit ever-more agents in the aftermath of 9-11, and lowered standards of recruitment and training, in trying to explain “at least eight documented cases of extreme use of force against unarmed and non-combative migrants resulting in death” at the hands of the Border Patrol since May 2010.

Whether or not relatively new agents recruited and trained under less rigorous criteria are responsible for the deaths is not known as the CBP hasn’t even released the names of the agents involved. But, perhaps more importantly, the effect of such a line of argument is to suggest that better qualified agents are the answer to the problem.

No doubt, rigorous screening of applicants and good training, and some sort of public oversight mechanism, are very preferable to the lack thereof. But in privileging such factors, what gets obscured is the everyday violence—and death and suffering—that federal boundary and immigration enforcement apparatus brings about through its normal practices.

Over the last couple of decades, many thousands of migrants have lost their lives trying to traverse the U.S.-Mexico borderlands and enter the United States—in order to find work, or rejoin loved ones. U.S. authorities have also sent millions into exile abroad, many of them long-standing U.S. residents with almost non-existent ties to their countries of birth. In the process they have separated hundreds of thousands of children from parents. They have also reduced the life spans of many deportees: in a particularly egregious case, one of the first individuals “removed” to Haiti after the Obama administration resumed deportations to the earthquake-ravaged country in 2011 lost his life to cholera soon after his arrival.

The law and the institutionalized nature of the practices that produce these outcomes help to obscure the violence they embody—and the related death and suffering. But just because many do not see the violence for what it is—as death-producing—does not mean it is anything less.

From the very establishment of the U.S.-Mexico boundary, killing people and denying life has been central to what the international divide is all about. After all, its foundation necessitated a war of conquest and the dispossession of the Native and Mexicano populations in the borderlands. And, in the face of so many who refuse to accept the original injustice, its maintenance has required various forms of violence on a regular basis ever since. More broadly, in a world of profound inequality, one predicated on the production of differences such as those based on race, class, and nation, the boundary reflects and helps reproduce who gets what in terms of rights and resources, and the very nature of life and death—and the various states in between.

Anastasio Hernández Rojas was born on the wrong side of the boundary dividing people and places of privilege from those of disadvantage. Like countless others in the eyes of the U.S. ruling class, he thus became disposable. When U.S. authorities deported Hernández Rojas to Mexico and deprived him of his right to be with his family, they effectively denied his right to live. And when they beat and tased him to death, they did so as well.

Realizing justice—achieving true accountability—for Anastasio Hernández Rojas’s murder requires that we go far beyond the parameters of his particular case. It necessitates that we contest the very socio-territorial arrangement that made him disposable in the first place. Otherwise, we will end up affirming and strengthening a boundary that grants life to some, and consigns others to death.

Joseph Nevins teaches geography at Vassar College. He is the author of Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008) and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge, 2010).

This article was originally published by NACLA.

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
August 03, 2015
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
The Atomic Era Turns 70, as Nuclear Hazards Endure
Nelson Valdes
An Internet Legend: the Pope, Fidel and the Black President
Robert Hunziker
The Perfectly Nasty Ocean Storm
Jack Dresser
The Case of Alison Weir: Two Palestinian Solidarity Organizations Borrow from Joe McCarthy’s Playbook
Ahmad Moussa
Incinerating Palestinian Children
Greg Felton
Greece Succumbs to Imperialist Banksterism
Binoy Kampmark
Stalling the Trans-Pacific Partnership: the Failure of the Hawai’i Talks
Ted Rall
My Letter to Nick Goldberg of the LA Times
Mark Weisbrot
New Greek Bailout Increases the Possibility of Grexit
Jose Martinez
Black/Hispanic/Women: a Leadership Crisis
Victor Grossman
German Know-Nothings Today
Patrick Walker
We’re Not Sandernistas: Reinventing the Wheels of Bernie’s Bandwagon
Norman Pollack
Moral Consequences of War: America’s Hegemonic Thirst
Ralph Nader
Republicans Support Massive Tax Evasion by Starving IRS Budget
Alexander Reid Ross
Colonial Pride and the Killing of Cecil the Lion
Suhayb Ahmed
What’s Happening in Britain: Jeremy Corbyn and the Future of the Labour Party
Weekend Edition
July 31-33, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie and the Sandernistas: Into the Void
John Pilger
Julian Assange: the Untold Story of an Epic Struggle for Justice
Roberto J. González – David Price
Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture
Lawrence Ware
Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem
Andrew Levine
The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Kos, Bodrum, Desperate Refugees and a Dying Child
Paul Street
“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule
Ted Rall
How the LAPD Conspired to Get Me Fired from the LA Times
Mike Whitney
Power-Mad Erdogan Launches War in Attempt to Become Turkey’s Supreme Leader
Ellen Brown
The Greek Coup: Liquidity as a Weapon of Coercion
Stephen Lendman
Russia Challenges America’s Orwellian NED
Will Parrish
The Politics of California’s Water System
John Wight
The Murder of Ali Saad Dawabsha, a Palestinian Infant Burned Alive by Israeli Terrorists
Jeffrey Blankfort
Leading Bibi’s Army in the War for Washington
Mary Lou Singleton
Gender, Patriarchy, and All That Jazz
Robert Fantina
Israeli Missteps Take a Toll
Pete Dolack
Speculators Circling Puerto Rico Latest Mode of Colonialism
Ron Jacobs
Spying on Black Writers: the FB Eye Blues
Paul Buhle
The Leftwing Seventies?
Binoy Kampmark
The TPP Trade Deal: of Sovereignty and Secrecy
David Swanson
Vietnam, Fifty Years After Defeating the US
Robert Hunziker
Human-Made Evolution
Shamus Cooke
Why Obama’s “Safe Zone” in Syria Will Inflame the War Zone
David Rosen
Hillary Clinton: Learn From Your Sisters
Sam Husseini
How #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter Can Devalue Life
Shepherd Bliss
Why I Support Bernie Sanders for President
Louis Proyect
Manufacturing Denial
Howard Lisnoff
The Wrong Argument
Tracey Harris
Living Tiny: a Richer and More Sustainable Future