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San Diego DA asked to prosecute shadow Border Patrol investigation unit

Border Patrol team investigated its own agents involved in the death of San Diegan Anastasio Hernandez Rojas without authority to do so

Immigrant rights advocates called on San Diego District Attorney Summer Stephan to file charges against Border Patrol agents involved in the 2010 beating death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas based on bombshell evidence a shadow police unit within the federal agency impeded the investigation of his death.

Attorneys representing Maria Puga, Hernandez's widow, said at a press conference outside the Hall of Justice Thursday Critical Incident Investigative Teams within U.S. Border Patrol sectors along the U.S.-Mexico border illegally investigate incidents of agent-involved use of force and work to mitigate agents’ culpability by withholding, destroying or tampering with evidence.

The units have no congressional authority to engage in such investigations, according to Puga’s attorneys, who are calling for state criminal charges to be filed.

Because Stephan has the authority to ensure the integrity of local law enforcement investigations, Puga’s attorneys say she can file criminal charges against CIIT agents for obstructing justice. They suggested felony charges should be filed for preparing false evidence, offering false evidence, destroying or concealing evidence and tampering with witnesses.

A spokesman for the DA's office said they had not received a case for review.

“The district attorney’s office stands ready to pursue justice when the evidence supports it and where we have jurisdiction. We can’t comment on the Department of Justice’s review of this matter,” the spokesman added.

If Stephan files charges, she could set precedent for other prosecutions across the borderlands where advocates Thursday said 100 people have been killed by Border Patrol agents without any charges filed.

Pedro Rios, director of American Friends Service Committee U.S./Mexico Border Program said it’s “correct” for Stephan to investigate the alleged obstruction of justice.

“The hope is that if the district attorney does take this case up that it gets replicated in every county along the border so that justice does not remain denied and the families that have been injured and the communities that have been hurt by such trauma are able to finally have justice in their cases,” Rios said.

Last week, border organizations with the Southern Border Communities Coalition sent a letter to congressional leaders asking for an oversight hearing of the investigatory units based on revelations in Hernandez's case.

The units have existed since at least 1987, with the first CIIT unit established in San Diego, according to a PowerPoint presentation obtained by journalist John Carlos Frey and cited by Puga’s attorneys.

Attorney Michelle Celleri, Human Rights counsel for Alliance San Diego, said new evidence revealed agents working for CIIT impeded the San Diego Police Department’s investigation into Hernandez's death.

“The CIIT team showed up at the scene and never notified the San Diego Police Department. They were there for 15 hours before SDPD ever found out about it — by a news source,” Celleri said in an interview.

Hernandez, a father of five U.S. citizen children, was beaten, kicked, punched and tasered by Border Patrol agents May 28, 2010. His death was investigated as a homicide by SDPD but the Department of Justice declined to prosecute the case.

Celleri said while his children were paid a $1 million civil settlement in 2017, attorneys for his family were still investigating the case “for criminal charges to be brought forth or some type of reprimand for the agents involved in his death.”

In preparing for arguments before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Puga's attorneys learned high-ranking CIIT agents were present during the SDPD investigation into her husband’s death.

This month, Celleri was able to compare Border Patrol’s CIIT report of Hernandez’s death with one compiled by the SDPD and found CIIT agents had provided SDPD altered government documents and inaccurate video footage of the incident.

When SDPD agents realized they had been provided the wrong video footage and requested the correct footage, it had already been destroyed, Celleri said.

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CIIT agents also failed to share an autopsy report with SDPD agents which was improperly obtained through an immigration subpoena on the hospital Hernandez was brought to, Celleri said.

“Every step of the way, everything that they were doing it made it difficult for SDPD to do their job,” Celleri said of CIIT, noting the Border Patrol investigation unit acted as a “buffer” and set up interviews for SDPD but interjected to ask their own agents questions.

A spokesman for U.S. Border Patrol did not immediately return a request for comment. 

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Layers of concertina wire added to existing barrier infrastructure along the U.S.-Mexico border near Nogales.