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International tribunal rules it has authority in case of man killed by U.S. border officials

The mother and widow of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas stand together with signs calling for justice.
Maria De la Luz, left, the mother of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, and her daughter in-law, Maria Puga, at a media briefing at the Alliance San Diego office in 2013.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

U.S. law enforcement’s killing of a man at the San Diego-Tijuana border a decade ago will go on trial before an international tribunal, after the organization decided it has authority to hear the case.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, part of the Organization of American States, will determine whether officials with Customs and Border Protection violated the human rights of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas and his family. It is the first known case that the organization will hear involving someone killed by U.S. law enforcement.

In 2010, officials beat Hernandez Rojas and shot him with a Taser while they were in the process of deporting him to Mexico. By the time he arrived at a hospital, he was brain-dead; he died days later, according to documents from the case.

Maria Puga, Hernandez Rojas’ widow, said she hopes that the international hearing will bring justice to families who have lost loved ones at the hands of border agents.

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“This deep wound remains open, and it hurts even more to see that more people are dying not just at the hands of Border Patrol but also at the hands of police,” Puga said.

At least one witness recorded video of what happened to Hernandez Rojas at the San Ysidro Port of Entry and posted it online. Public outrage grew around the case, with protesters demanding justice as years passed without an official answer from the criminal investigation that ensued.

In 2015, the Department of Justice announced in a news release that it was closing its investigation into Hernandez Rojas’ death and that no one involved in his killing would be criminally charged. The department said Hernandez Rojas had physically resisted the officers who were deporting him.

In 2017, the family reached a $1-million settlement with the federal government in a civil lawsuit over the case.

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“The IACHR observes that the fundamental claim in the instant case consists of the alleged torture and extrajudicial killing of victim; the lack of a proper investigation of the facts, and the lack of access to justice for his relatives, which allegedly resulted in the impunity of the perpetrators,” members of the international commission wrote in their decision this week.

The commission members believe that many of the officials involved in Rojas’ death are still on active duty with the Department of Homeland Security.

Neither the Department of Homeland Security nor the Department of Justice responded to a request for comment.

According to case documents, the U.S. government argued that because Hernandez Rojas’ family had received a financial settlement through a civil lawsuit, the case with the international tribunal should not be allowed to proceed. It also argued that agreements guaranteeing certain human rights signed by the international organization’s members are nonbinding, meaning that the United States doesn’t have a legal obligation to follow them.

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Attorneys for Hernandez Rojas see the case as putting systemic abuse from border officials on trial.

“This case is part of a national reckoning that needs to happen to rein in this agency and other law enforcement that abuse their power and put people in danger,” said Andrea Guerrero, executive director of Alliance San Diego and co-counsel on the case.

Guerrero said the case is particularly poignant given current criticisms leveled at Customs and Border Protection officers and agents for violence used on protesters in Portland, Ore., in recent weeks.

“This case exemplifies what is wrong with law enforcement and our legal system,” said Roxanna Altholz, co-director of UC Berkeley’s International Human Rights Law Clinic and co-counsel. “Anastasio’s death — like so many other killings of Black, Indigenous and Latino men, women and children — was deemed reasonable because our laws sanction atrocious behavior by law enforcement.”

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In its decision, the commission said it would look at what “full reparations” the family might be entitled to.

A new Chicano Park mural pays tribute to Hernandez Rojas and others who have died at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Morrissey writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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