By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
"No! No! ¡Ayuda!" the 42-year-old Mexican wailed, pleading for help in Spanish. "¡Ayudenme!"
It was late in the evening of May 28, and his cries could be heard throughout the San Ysidro border-crossing area dividing San Diego and Tijuana.
Witnesses said Hernandez Rojas was facedown on the ground, his arms handcuffed behind his back. Three agents were piled on top of him, one driving his knee into Hernandez Rojas' back, another pushing his knee into the deportee's neck. Other federal agents were kicking the father of five on each side of his body.
His chilling cries for mercy caught the attention of pedestrians on a nearby bridge that leads to Tijuana.
"¡Ya! ¡Por favor! [Please, enough!] ¡Señores! ¡Ayudenme! ¡Ayudenme! ¡Por favor!" Hernandez Rojas was heard sobbing between his broken screams.
"Noooo!" he wailed. "Noooo! ¡Dejenme! [Leave me alone!] No! ¡Señores!"
Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection said after the beating that Hernandez Rojas became combative when agents removed his handcuffs.
They said he fought with agents, who used a baton to try to subdue him. When that didn't work, they used a Taser. After agents stun-gunned him, federal officials said, he stopped breathing, and agents tried to revive him using CPR.
The border agents' account of that night is markedly different from ones shared by witnesses who gathered around the fenced walkway used by the Border Patrol to deport immigrants to Mexico.
Humberto Navarrete, a young San Diego man, was among the witnesses who watched and listened in horror. He pulled out his cell phone and started recording the scene—never imagining he was filming the final moments of a man's life.
The 2.5-minute video he captured is grainy and dark (see it at www.phoenixnewtimes.com), but the sounds of Hernandez Rojas' begging for his life are clear.
Navarrete called out to two agents who had just driven up to the port of entry: "Hey! He's not resisting. Why are you guys using excessive force on him?"
One of the new arrivals told Navarrete he didn't know what was going on. But even as Hernandez Rojas cried miserably in the background, the agent said, "Obviously, he's doing something. He ain't . . . cooperating."
To Navarrete, it defied logic that a Border Patrol agent who had not witnessed what was going on could conclude that these were the screams of an uncooperative immigrant.
Navarrete called out again, this time loudly to the agents pummeling Hernandez Rojas: "He's not resisting, guys. Why are you guys pressing on him? He's not even resisting! He's not even resisting!"
A woman yelled in Spanish through the fence at the agents: "Leave him alone already!"
As the crowd grew increasingly uneasy, agents picked up Hernandez Rojas by his arms and hauled him to a nearby spot behind some Border Patrol trucks.
Witnesses no longer had as clear a view, but they reported that federal agents poured out of the Border Patrol station. They could tell that about 20 gathered around Hernandez Rojas, who was again facedown on the ground, still in handcuffs.
His cries, by this time, were faint.
Navarrete said he saw one of the agents gesture to his comrades, and they all stepped back. It didn't mean that agents should lay off Hernandez Rojas. It apparently was a warning to fellow agents to step back. The agent then pulled out his stun gun and delivered electrical jolts to the restrained man.
Navarrete said he heard four, maybe six, shots from the stun gun and saw the victim's body convulse.
Hernandez Rojas' whimpering could no longer be heard. His body was stone still.
Realizing their deportee had stopped breathing, agents used CPR to try to revive him. About 10 minutes later, an ambulance arrived, and paramedics scooped up the broken man and took him to a hospital.
Eugene Iredale, a representative for the victim's family, said medical officials who examined Hernandez Rojas believe his brain was deprived of oxygen for about eight minutes after his heart stopped. He already was brain-dead when he arrived at the hospital.
About 12 hours later, doctors removed him from life support and pronounced him dead.
A deputy at the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office told Phoenix New Times that the cause of death was a combination of methamphetamine in his system, high blood pressure and a heart attack.
The medical examiner noted in the autopsy report that Hernandez Rojas' death was a homicide—a term used because he had been restrained in police custody when he died. The term does not dictate criminal guilt—that's up to prosecutors—and no one has been charged in the killing.
When Navarrete heard later about a fatal incident involving the Border Patrol, he realized the man who died was the one he had filmed getting beaten and stunned. He went public with his video and his recollection of that night.
That was about seven months ago, and there still are no official answers about what happened and no police reports about the incident available to the public. Guadalupe Valencia, an attorney for the dead man's family, said he will soon file a wrongful-death lawsuit in federal court in San Diego.