Last week I sat with Maria Puga as she watched the PBS "Need to Know" episode of an investigation into the brutal beating, tasing and subsequent death of her husband and the father of their 5 children, Anastasio Hernandez Rojas. They had been together for decades when he was deported and then killed by U.S. border officials in May of 2010. I watched her as she sat next to her in laws. They held onto each other and listened and saw the gruesome details of border official brutality and torture. I helped to uncover the videotape that showed over a dozen border officers repeatedly beating a subdued man while he was on the ground. Hernandez Rojas was handcuffed and hogtied. Border officials used a taser, beat him with billy clubs as well as kicked and punched him repeatedly. The family members, while they watched, averted their eyes, hunched over in pain and cried.
In total, U.S. border officials have killed at least eight border residents in the past two years. Some of the victims were undocumented, three were standing in Mexico and two were U.S. citizens. The Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice have kept the details of the investigations secret. For a year, I tried to publicize the disturbing case of Hernandez Rojas and seven other victims of border patrol related shootings. I struggled to find a news agency willing to run this story. I had videotape evidence of a man being beaten to death by federal officers and national media was not interested. I am grateful to Need to Know for having the courage to produce the episode as well as The Nation Institute for helping to fund my investigation but I couldn't stop thinking about why other national media outlets were not willing to air this story. Is the brutal killing of an undocumented immigrant by U.S. officers less important than Rodney King or Trayvon Martin?
After the videotape evidence of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas was released on Friday, April 20 there was some national press reaction. Some local affiliates and national cable networks picked up the story for a day and aired the gruesome video but where was national NBC, CBS or ABC? Where was FOX News? Where were the primetime cable shows? More importantly, where was the Latino community or the Mexican government? One of our own was tortured and killed and we have a videotape to prove it yet we remained silent.
I have been a resident of Los Angeles for 25 years. I remember the Rodney King video. I remember the reaction from the community and the press coverage and of course I remember the riots. Rodney King survived his brutal beating and today, he speaks out against racism and police brutality. Anastasio Hernandez Rojas did not survive. He left behind his wife, Maria Puga and five children. Since his death nearly two years ago, Maria has attended numerous press conferences and has helped to organize rallies and marches all in the hope of receiving justice. She is not a professional spokesperson. She doesn't speak English. She is a widow and spends most of her time working and struggling to raise her children. A few strong organizations like the Southern Border Communities Coalition (SBCC), Presente.org and American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) have taken up her cause but where is NCLR, MALDEF, LULAC and NALEO? Where is the Catholic Church? Where is the Hispanic Caucus? These organizations have been powerful advocates for the Latino community in the past but so far have remained silent about the homicide of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas. On Wednesday, May 3, Maria Puga will travel to Los Angeles and meet with the wife of another border agent brutality victim, Shena Wilson. In March of 2011, her husband, Jose Gutierrez Guzman was tased and beaten by border officials and left in a coma. Wilson had to quit nursing school to tend to her husband's injuries and care for their two children. Maria Puga and Shena Wilson, will hold a press conference to raise awareness and ask the Obama administration and the Department of Justice to prosecute the unresolved cases of violence against border residents. Presente.org, SBCC and AFSC are supporting their efforts with petitions, letters to congress and days of action across the country. Maria Puga will return to San Diego and lead a candlelight vigil in honor of the 8 recent victims killed by border officials. (See details)
I applaud the efforts of the Latino community's long sustained fight for equality and justice. I am proud that the Latino community may cast the deciding vote for many key races in this election season. But if we cannot pressure media to play the damming video of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas on a loop or force the Department of Justice to investigate a two-year old case then we have no power at all. If we cannot focus our collective energy to help Maria Puga, the grieving widow, then we should look at our priorities. The fight for justice begins at home by defending our loved ones. Our strength as the Latino community is our family. Eight families have been destroyed by border officer violence. If the Latino community is going to decide who will be the next president of the United States, we better first decide that a mother's pain and cry for justice is just as important and worthy of our support.