The shadow police units that have for years covered up abuses by border agents have in recent months been condemned by a rapidly growing number of immigrant advocates and federal lawmakers, leading to a memo that purports to limit the authority of Border Patrol Critical Incident Teams (BPCITs). But advocates have said the memo doesn’t change the fact that Congress never authorized these cover-up police units in the first place. Further adding to this continued call for justice and accountability are family members of people who’ve died at the hands of abusive agents.
Maria Puga’s husband Anastasio Hernandez Rojas brutally died at the hands of border agents more than a decade ago. But while a federal judge approved a $1 million settlement in 2017, not one person from the mob of agents who killed her husband were brought to justice. “They covered up what happened,” she said during a virtual press conference.
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“It’s been hard for our family to be without Anastasio,” Puga said during the briefing, which was hosted by the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC). “He would have turned 54 years old yesterday.” SBCC has previously noted how Hernandez Rojas, a dad of five U.S. citizens, was hog-tied, beaten, and Tased into unconsciousness, later dying in a hospital.
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The Los Angeles Times reported that as many as 17 agents were involved in his killing. Not one of them was charged in his death. “For me, it’s necessary to call for accountability and to tell the truth about what happened to my husband,” Puga said. “The Border Patrol lied about Anastasio’s death.”
Border Patrol’s cover-up units have also interfered with investigations around the deaths of children. In 2012, an agent fired at a 16-year-old Mexican boy 16 times through border fencing, claiming that the teenager had thrown rocks at him. 10 bullets were found in the boy. Ten bullets for some rocks, if we take the agent at his word. The jury acquitted the agent in the killing of Jose Antonio Elena Rodriguez, “in part because the evidence was faulty,” SBCC has previously said.
“At trial, it was revealed that the BPCIT collected all the evidence for the FBI, including the gun used, the shell casings, the photos of the scene, and the rocks allegedly thrown.” The shooter, Lonnie Swartz, was found not guilty of involuntary manslaughter in 2018. In 2020, the Supreme Court blocked the boy’s family from pursuing a civil rights lawsuit against Swartz. During the virtual press conference, Doña Taide, the boy’s grandmother, said the family continues to leave an empty chair in the house to remember him. She urged officials to reopen his case.
“When Jose’s death was being investigated, the border patrol agents disappeared video evidence, and they picked up the biggest rocks lying nearby and claimed that Jose had thrown them at the border agent without any evidence to back their claim,” the grandmother said. “There are so many anomalies in Jose Antonio’s case and it is because of the Border Patrol cover-up units.”
37-year-old Marisol García Alcántara is herself a survivor of Border Patrol violence after she was shot in the head while riding in a car last summer. But as if that brutality wasn’t enough, she was deported shortly after her hospitalization. She has since filed a federal claim against the United States.
“While I was in the hospital no one asked me about what happened, but agents were present at the hospital,” she said. “I was taken into custody and then deported to Mexico. Although the Nogales police had the authority to investigate the use of force, it was the Border Patrol agents who got involved and interfered with the Nogales police investigation. Border agents tried to deport away the problem, but I won’t stay silent. These cover-up teams must be brought to justice.”
“I want to thank the family members and Marisol who was the direct victim of the Border Patrol abuse for fighting for justice after such horrible injustices,” said SBCC Director Vicki Gaubeca. “These families are some of the many families who have not received justice for the death of their loved ones at the hands of Border Patrol. This must end.” She urged continued action from federal lawmakers and the Justice Department.
In recent months, 10 Congressional chairs have launched a probe into the cover-up units as other federal lawmakers have requested an investigation by the Justice Department. The announcements by bicameral lawmakers marked a monumental victory for the borderland organizations and human rights advocates who have been demanding justice and accountability on behalf of these victims.
“There are so many who have been abused or killed by Border Patrol and agents were not held accountable because the investigations were corrupted by these cover-up units,” Puga continued in her remarks. “We need our cases to be reviewed, and for these Border Patrol cover up units to be abolished.”
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