Sixteen members of Congress called Thursday for stricter oversight on Border Patrol personnel in light of new evidence of "appalling behavior" on the part of agents during an arrest that led to a detainee's death at the U.S.-Mexico border in San Ysidro two years ago.
Stating that they were "deeply troubled" by a recent PBS documentary about the case, the lawmakers sent letters urging Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and two other top-level federal officials to "take serious steps to determine how to make your agents more accountable" in light of new findings about 42-year-old Anastacio Hernandez-Rojas' deadly encounter with border officers.
"His death and the subsequent efforts by the agents involved to minimize the incident suggest a troubling lack of training and accountability with the Department (of Homeland Security)," the congressional contingent, which included Rep. Susan Davis, D-San Diego, stated in their letter to Napolitano.
In response to the criticism, the local office of U.S. Customs and Border Protection released a statement asserting that the agency does not "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."
The case is under review by the Justice Department, according to federal officials.
The Congress members' letter contends that facts uncovered by the public- television documentary, "Crossing the Line at the Border," revealed a dire need for better training and supervision of Border Patrol personnel.
Last year, Hernandez-Rojas' family filed a civil lawsuit against the federal government, alleging that excessive force was to blame for his death.
Hernandez-Rojas, a construction worker and father of five, had lived illegally in the United States for more than two decades before being deported. On the night of the fatal confrontation, he and his brother were caught on Otay Mountain, trying to sneak back into California, according to the Border Patrol.
The men agreed to return to Mexico voluntarily, police said. However, Hernandez-Rojas allegedly became combative after agents removed his handcuffs at a border gate.
According to the lawsuit, 20 to 25 Border Patrol officers took part in beating Hernandez-Rojas, and he was already on the ground when a Taser was used.
In the PBS documentary, the detainee's cries for help can be heard as agents surround him.
During the struggle, Hernandez-Rojas eventually became unresponsive. He was pronounced dead in a hospital the next day.
The San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office ruled that the death was a homicide, though the cause was deemed to have been a heart attack, with high blood pressure and methamphetamine use being contributing factors.
The PBS program, first aired last month, revealed that agents involved in the confrontation with Hernandez-Rojas apparently were "trying to minimize scrutiny of their behavior," according to the Congress members, 15 of whom are Democrats, and one an Independent.
"They shouted to the victim to stop resisting while he remained prone and, according to eyewitnesses, handcuffed," the letter states. "They then ordered people who were watching to stop watching and move along. In addition, according to the woman who recorded the most damning video to surface so far, officers then tried to delete videos that had been recorded by bystanders."
That "intimidation" caused that witness to "be understandably fearful about coming forward, and essentially suppressed important evidence for two years," the politicians wrote in their missives to Napolitano, Attorney General Eric Holder and DHS Inspector General Charles Edwards.
"Despite this appalling behavior on the scene, the efforts to obfuscate these actions were not limited to the officers on the scene," the letter says. "According to the PBS report, the press release that was sent out in the wake of this incident misrepresented what happened, saying that the victim was not handcuffed, while internal interviews of officers at the scene indicated that he had been handcuffed while he was being beaten and tasered."
The group of lawmakers went on to express concerns that "this incident is part of a larger cultural problem at the (DHS)."
"For instance, when the (American Civil Liberties Union) requested information about your policies on the use of force, in the wake of this and other deaths resulting from CBP action, you returned a document so heavily redacted as to be unusable," the letter reads.
The Congress members concluded that DHS officials must "determine how to make your agents more accountable and... improve the transparency of the department. Only by taking these steps can you regain the trust you have lost."
One of the authors of the congressional letters, Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Los Angeles, issued a separate statement saying that "after two years, we owe it to (Hernandez-Rojas') family to finally provide some definitive answers."
"In light of this new evidence, I call on the Justice Department to complete its protracted investigation and take appropriate action," Roybal said.
- City News Service