The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Border agents beat an undocumented immigrant to death. The U.S. is paying his family $1 million.

Video shows beating that led to Hernandez's death (Video: Gillian Brockell/The Washington Post)
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Anastacio Hernandez’s final screams had drawn a crowd.

The undocumented immigrant yelped “ayúdame” and “no hice nada” — “help” and “I didn’t do anything” in Spanish — as more than a dozen U.S. Border Patrol agents clobbered him with batons and shocked him with a Taser again and again.

When the man was bloodied and unconscious, the Border Patrol agents turned their attention to a nearby pedestrian bridge, where shocked onlookers gawked and recorded with small cameras, a witness said.

“I heard someone passing say ‘la imigra,’” Ashley Young, one of the people holding a camera that night, told The Washington Post, using the Spanish phrase for immigration agents. “I looked around, and two officers were coming across the bridge to shoo people away, to make sure people would stop watching.”

The immigration agents were grabbing people’s cameras one by one, Young said, and asking, “What did you record? We’re going to delete it.”

Young made a quick decision before she got to the end of the line: “I slipped the SD card into my pants.”

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The story of Hernandez’s 2010 death at the Tijuana-San Diego border, backed up by the video on that card, exemplified the brutality of the law enforcement officers who patrolled the border and the impunity with which they act, advocates for Border Patrol reform say.

The United States settled a lawsuit with Hernandez’s estate last month, agreeing to dole out $1 million to his five children and his common-law wife, Maria Puga. The battle could have dragged on for years longer in court, the family’s attorney said, but they were worried President Trump could make Hernandez’s death a political issue amid efforts to beef up border security.

Still, none of the agents involved have been fired or disciplined or “lost a dime of pay,” for a beating that broke five of Hernandez’s ribs, damaged his spine and ultimately killed him, according to Eugene Iredale, the family’s attorney, who claims the immigrant was handcuffed as he was beaten.

“In 90 minutes, this case exemplifies the range of deficiency and misconduct that typifies the action of law enforcement that handles immigration enforcement,” Iredale told The Washington Post. “These agents are doing this in front of God and the world.”

‘Whacking away with batons’

Hernandez crossed into the United States at age 15 and lived the next 27 years as an undocumented immigrant.

In May 2010, San Diego Police arrested the 42-year-old after he tried to shoplift steak and tequila from a grocery store, according to a PBS documentary, which said the items may have been for a Mother’s Day celebration. The police department’s computers showed that he was in the country illegally, and he was deported to Mexico without incident.

But within days, he was on the phone with his wife. He missed her and their five young children, he said. He and his brother were going to try to cross back into the United States.

They didn’t make it far. Sensors in the ground detected their footsteps on Memorial Day weekend, PBS said, and they were corralled by Border Patrol agents. For the second time in a month, Hernandez was processed for deportation.

When they got to the Border Patrol station, an agent told Hernandez to throw away a jug of water he’d been carrying. But Hernandez began to pour the water out, and the agent thought he was being disrespectful, Iredale told The Post. The agent “slapped the jug out of Anastacio’s hands, spun him around, marched him to a wall, and there kicked his legs apart,” the settlement agreement says, “striking, in the process metal screws implanted in Anastacio’s ankle from an old accident. When Anastacio complained of pain, (the agent) pushed him back against the wall, and handcuffed him.”

A border agent didn’t behead a man for a cartel, jurors ruled. But they still found him corrupt.

Inside the station, Hernandez complained about his leg and said he needed a doctor, the settlement documents say. Instead, a supervisor ordered Hernandez to be returned to Mexico immediately — in the custody of the same agent who’d kicked his leg, the settlement says.

They drove him to a drop-off point on the Mexican side of the border and began to take the handcuffs off, according to a statement from the Department of Justice.

“Supposedly because Anastacio put his hands down, instead of behind his head, the agent grabbed Anastacio from behind,” the settlement said. Hernandez began to struggle with and kick the agents — and they struck back. Two agents started “whacking away with batons,” according to the court documents. They were swinging so wildly that they struck other agents, Iredale said. Those were the only injuries to the Border Patrol agents.

Hernandez lost consciousness and was brain dead when he arrived at the hospital. He was taken off life support a few days later.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, “the San Diego coroner classified Mr. Hernandez’s death as a homicide.” He had a heart attack during the confrontation with border agents, and there were signs that he had been beaten all over his body: He had “several loose teeth; bruising to his chest, stomach, hips, knees, back, lips, head and eyelids; five broken ribs; and a damaged spine.”

Criminal and internal investigations ensued. Five years after Hernandez died, the Justice Department announced that it would not pursue federal criminal or civil rights charges against the agents involved in Hernandez’s death. In clearing the agents, the Justice Department news release highlighted the fact that Hernandez had methamphetamine in his system and preexisting heart disease.

But a lawsuit against the government by Hernandez’s family still loomed. And the brutality of Hernandez’s death had shocked communities along the U. S-Mexico border.

‘Unable to find justice’ 

Hernandez’s death galvanized the immigrant community and shed a spotlight on claims of abuse by Border Patrol agents.

PBS aired a documentary called “Crossing the Line at the Border” that included a 23-minute segment on Hernandez’s case. Protests made headlines. And the nation took notice that Hernandez’s death was among a string of eight Border Patrol-related deaths in less than two years. No agents were charged in any of them.

After Hernandez’s case, “more families came forward, and we were able to bring those cases to D.C.,” said Andrea Guerrero, of Alliance San Diego, which advocates for immigrant rights. “It was the case that led to congressional inquiries, that led to agencywide reviews of use of force and prompted the release of new use-of-force guidelines.”

Puga and her family emerged as advocates, calling on the U.S. government to change immigration policies and discipline procedures and to equip agents with body cameras.

“We, along with other families, have been struggling for more than five years in search of justice,” Puga said in a video to Border Patrol in 2016 that was posted on YouTube. ” … I’ve spoken with families and I know the great pain they feel, which is the same as mine, from having lost a loved one and being unable to find justice.”

Critics say the Border Patrol had escaped scrutiny that other law enforcement agencies have faced during the nation’s ongoing conversation about the use of force against racial minorities.

“Whether it’s the result of an infusion of civility and gentility among police, of the fact that departments just don’t want to get sued, most local police departments have made a concerted effort to improve the way they handle cases involving racial and ethnic minorities,” Iredale said. “That’s not the dynamic among the federal agencies that do federal immigration enforcement.”

Immigration and Customers Enforcement referred questions about the case and its impact to the U.S. attorney’s office in Phoenix. Cosme Lopez, a spokesman for the office, said, “I can confirm we are handling this case, but currently offer no comment.”

The settlement comes as Trump’s administration has taken steps to build a wall on the Mexican border and increase the number of Border Patrol agents.

The administration has given immigration officials more power to apprehend and deport immigrants who are in the country illegally. As The Post’s David Nakamura wrote in February, the Department of Homeland Security had “plans for the agency to hire thousands of additional enforcement agents, expand the pool of immigrants who are prioritized for removal, speed up deportation hearings and enlist local law enforcement to help make arrests,” plans that would “supersede nearly all of those issued under previous administrations.”

Human rights groups and Democrats have called the expansion “xenophobic,” Nakamura wrote, and have said the beefed-up enforcement could lead to increased racial profiling of minorities.

Hernandez’s family’s fear, Iredale said, is that the progress that’s been made since the immigrant’s death will be canceled out in the rush to build a border wall and expand Border Patrol.

“What we are seeing now is that the agents have the feeling that the restraints are off,” Iredale said. “I think that, psychologically, that translated to a generalized sense that they can do whatever they want to do.”

ICE does not need additional agents, Iredale said. “They need better training, proper training. They need better discipline.”

This post has been updated.

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