Originally published by USA TODAY in 2016.
*Note: Audio included in the original post was originally published on SoundCloud in 2016.*
The family of a migrant from Mexico who died from injuries inflicted by border police in 2010 announced last month that they are suing the U.S. in an international case for human rights violations that their lawyer, Roxanna Altholz of the International Human Rights Law Clinic, says is the first of its kind.
Anastacio Hernandez Rojas, a 25-year resident of San Diego, was detained as he tried to reenter the country illegally from Mexico. According to law enforcement officials, Rojas resisted restraints and kicked border agents. But eyewitness video shows Rojas in handcuffs, screaming for help while on the ground surrounded by about 15 agents.
Officers beat him, shocked him repeatedly with Tasers and kicked him. One officer pulled off Rojas’ pants. The San Diego coroner’s office ruled Rojas’ death a homicide. But the U.S. Department of Justice announced in November that it would not pursue civil rights or criminal charges against the officers involved. “Neither accident, mistake, fear, negligence, nor bad judgment is sufficient to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation,” the Department of Justice press release said.
As an isolated incident, Rojas’ treatment is troubling. But the cellphone footage, shown in the video above, points to larger questions about what happens to migrants at the border, the deaths that occur there (both as a direct result of border police violence and indirectly as migrants take risky paths to avoid confrontation) and the way investigations into border deaths are conducted.
Rojas’ death is one of almost 50 killings by border police since January 2010, according to findings collected by the Southern Border Communities Coalition. The number of dead remains found at the border is even higher. Between 2001 and March 2015, according to an Al Jazeera report, more than 2,200 remains, thought to be of Mexican migrants, were received by one county medical examiner’s office alone. Often migrants take dangerous paths across the border where they may walk for days without access to water or shelter. Thousands die along the way, according to reports.
Border patrol agents are rarely charged for the death of a migrant, officials say. Altholz knows of only one agent who has ever been charged. According to the lawyer, that agent shot a 16-year-old Mexican boy 10 times in the back.
A 2013 investigation by the Arizona Republic found that in a review of about 1,600 cases, border police sometimes used what were considered less lethal weapons, such as Tasers and balls of pepper spray that can be launched from a paintball-style gun. The report also found that carrying less lethal alternatives is not mandatory for border officers. According to statistics released by the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, officers reported 756 use-of-force incidents in fiscal year 2015 — 728 of those involved less lethal weapons.
USA TODAY Opinion spoke to Altholz about the suit before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In the podcast below, she gives details about the Rojas family’s case against the U.S., the changes she hopes to see in the border patrol’s use of force and why improving investigations surrounding border deaths is crucial.