Tasering video raises border agent abuse concerns

SAN DIEGO Fri Apr 20, 2012 9:31pm EDT

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SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - In a grainy video clip shot in May 2010 on the California side of the U.S.-Mexico border, an illegal immigrant lies on the ground in a fetal position, circled by at least a dozen federal agents as one repeatedly shocks him with an electric stun gun.

The previously undisclosed footage, obtained by a lawyer for the man's family in a wrongful-death suit brought against the U.S. government, appears in a Public Broadcasting Service television documentary set to air nationally on Friday night.

The video sheds grim new light on a case that gained media attention in the immediate aftermath of the man's death but receded from public view as his family pressed civil litigation against federal border enforcement agencies and sought criminal prosecution of the officers involved.

In a promotional Internet trailer for the documentary, PBS reported that the fate of Anastacio Hernandez-Rojas, 42, highlights eight cases of illegal immigrants whose deaths involving U.S. agents along the border during the past two years remain sealed and under investigation.

The attorney representing Hernandez-Rojas' children, Eugene Iredale, said their father's death is a clear case of excessive force and abuse of power by the U.S. Border Patrol and its parent agency, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, that has been swept under the rug by federal prosecutors.

"It has been two years since Anastacio was killed, and the medical examiner ruled it a homicide, and we are still fighting to get simple discovery," Iredale told Reuters. "They applied 3,000 volts of electricity over and over to a helpless, handcuffed man and left him hog-tied until he was brain dead."

ABUSIVE OR ABUSED?

Hernandez-Rojas, a construction worker and father of five who had lived in San Diego since he was 15 and had no criminal record, was arrested without incident on May 28, 2011, after he and a brother were caught sneaking back over the border from Mexico in the mountains east of San Diego.

The lawsuit, filed in January 2011, disputes federal authorities' assertions that he became combative, saying instead that Hernandez-Rojas became the victim of abuse when he asked to see an immigration judge. A border agent responded by slamming him against a wall and kicking him so hard in the ankles that it reopened a surgical wound in his lower leg.

Hernandez-Rojas was then driven to a border crossing at San Ysidro to be summarily deported, and was assaulted by a group of agents there when he again demanded medical attention and a hearing before a judge, the complaint says.

Shoved to the ground while handcuffed, Hernandez-Rojas was set upon by several agents who repeatedly punched, kicked and stomped on his head and body, then stood back as one officer administered a series of five electric shocks to him with a Taser, according to the lawsuit.

In the video shown by PBS, a ring of uniformed federal officers stand in a loose circle around the man as one officer bends over and repeatedly shocks him. What appears to be electric sparks are visible in the footage, which the lawsuit suggests was captured by the government's own security cameras.

The man's anguished cries for help can be heard in a separate, murkier video shot from a different angle by an eyewitness, also shown by PBS. The lawsuit said that during the confrontation, federal agents seized cameras and mobile phones that a number of bystanders were using to record the incident.

According to the complaint, agents then beat Hernandez-Rojas more and used plastic zip-ties to strap his ankles to his wrists, leaving him in that hog-tied position as he stopped breathing. He was resuscitated but died later at a hospital without ever regaining consciousness, the suit says.

San Diego Police Department investigators and the county medical examiner both ruled the death a homicide, according to the complaint, which names 12 federal agents and the government as defendants.

But the U.S. attorney overseeing the case cited a coroner's finding of methamphetamine in Hernandez-Rojas' body and said the agents' action was appropriate in responding to "assaultive, violent and out-of-control conduct" by Hernandez-Rojas.

The 700-page police report and coroner's report remain sealed by federal prosecutors. The U.S. Attorney and the Customs and Border Protection offices in San Diego did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Jacqueline Wasiluk, a spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, said the agency would not comment on the incident because an investigation is "ongoing."

In a written statement, the agency said it "stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission."

"We do not tolerate abuse within our ranks, and we fully cooperate with any criminal or administrative investigations of alleged misconduct by any of our personnel, on or off duty," the statement said.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Eric Walsh)

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