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Local immigrants rights groups call on District Attorney to investigate alleged 'shadow police units' in CBP

These "critical incident teams," according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition, tamper with evidence and cover up wrong-doing by border patrol agents.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — A San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium held a news conference on Thursday to call for the San Diego County District Attorney's Office to “independently investigate and pursue charges against Border Patrol agents, supervisors and chiefs who obstructed justice in the San Diego Police Department homicide investigation of the death of Anastasio Hernandez Rojas.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Border Patrol is responding to allegations of using so-called "shadow police units" to cover up investigations into lethal incidents involving its own agents.

Local and regional human rights groups have alleged that while these "critical incident teams" have no federal authority, they are brought in to conduct criminal investigations, often tampering with evidence to protect border agents.

One of the most high-profile incidents is the 2010 confrontation at the San Ysidro Port of Entry between border patrol agents and Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, who was handcuffed as he was beaten and Tasered, ultimately led to Hernandez Rojas' death. Federal investigations later found the killing "justifiable."

These "critical incident teams," according to the Southern Border Communities Coalition, tamper with evidence and cover up wrong-doing by border patrol agents, yet have no authority to undertake criminal investigations.

In response, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said, "The U.S. Border Patrol maintains teams with specialized evidence collection capabilities across the southwest border," calling the work of these teams vitally important, as many critical incidents involving CBP operations occur in remote locations where other agencies may be unwilling or unable to respond.

Maria Puga is the widow of Anastacio Hernandez Rojas and the mother of his five children. When she found out about the Shadow Team she wasn’t surprised. 

"In the beginning I was mad, I was very mad, I'm not going to lie. But me and my family, we always knew this was the case," said Puga. 

Michelle Celleri is working with Puga and is also the Human Rights Counsel of Alliance San Diego. Their goal is to bring Roja’s case back before San Diego District Attorney, Summer Stephan. 

"This happened in 2010. All of the evidence was destroyed," said Celleri. "We got this footage because a brave young woman came forward and gave us this footage," 

Celleri believes they now have evidence of a cover-up with the revelation of the new Critical Incident Investigative Team and wants DA Stephan to investigate Roja’s death and hold the CIIT accountable. 

"This case could have been brought forward years before if this information had been presented,"

Genevieve Jones-Wright is the Executive Director of Community Advocates for Just and Moral Government. 

She says, she and other groups have been working to establish more accountability with law enforcement groups throughout San Diego. 

"We know that people lose their lives routinely at the hands of Border Patrol. These facts are particularly egregious because we now know about the Shadow Unit that operated to cover-up the death of Mr. Hernandez Rojas," said Jones-Wright. "Falsifying evidence, directing witnesses, tampering with evidence. And to think that a government agency engages in this level of corruption with impunity is sickening. Enough is enough. End that unit. End the corruption and hold these folks accountable."

When asked if racism was a factor, Celleri offered, "We're not encountering this among white immigrants. We're just not." 

Meanwhile, Rojas’ family waits for answers. Maria Puga concluded in her plea to DA Summer Stephan, "Take a look at the evidence and see this case out because it's been 11 years of injustice."

The San Diego District Attorney's Office gave News 8 a statement which read: 

We have 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 US Attorney’s review of this matter.

Here is the U.S. Customs and Border Protections' response in its entirety: 

"CBP stresses honor and integrity in every aspect of our mission and expects officers to adhere to the oath they take to uphold the laws of this country, whether on or off duty. CBP also has strong accountability measures in place to promptly review all use of force incidents cooperating closely with other local, state, and federal agencies with investigative interest. Responses to use of force incidents can be complex and frequently involve overlapping investigations carried out by numerous entities. 

As part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), CBP has a multi-tiered oversight framework in place to address allegations of misconduct involving agency personnel. Allegations of serious and criminal misconduct are initially referred to the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and may be investigated by that office or CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR). Complaints involving mismanagement or less serious misconduct may also be assigned to fact finders trained by OPR within CBP's operational components. In addition, the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties (CRCL) and Office of Immigration Detention Ombudsman (OIDO) may also investigate or review specific allegations of misconduct or broader agency activities.

CBP's Office of Professional Responsibility (OPR) leads CBP's Use of Force Incident Team (UFIT) process, which includes a comprehensive review of incidents leading to the facts and circumstances being presented before CBP's National Use of Force Review Board (NUFRB). The NUFRB is comprised of voting members from CBP's operational components along with representatives of the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties as well as the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division. The NUFRB reviews serious use of force incidents to determine whether the actions of CBP personnel were consistent with agency policy as well as to identify any training, tactics, or policy issues requiring further review. 

The U.S. Border Patrol maintains teams with specialized evidence collection capabilities across the southwest border. These teams consist of highly trained personnel available to respond around the clock to collect and process evidence related to CBP enforcement activities as well as critical incidents. In the case of serious incidents involving CBP personnel, members of these teams are sometimes called upon to assist investigators from CBP OPR and other local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. This is a vitally important capability as many critical incidents involving CBP operations occur in remote locations where other agencies may be unwilling or unable to respond.

To help ensure key stakeholders, including the public, have insight into CBP's oversight processes, we are launching a new section on our website allowing easy access to a variety of relevant resources including our annual discipline report, searchable information regarding use of force trends, the results of our National Use of Force Review Board, a copy of our procedures for reviewing in-custody deaths, and public statements regarding each such death during FY21. CBP employees and officers perform their duties with honor and distinction, and we will not tolerate corruption or abuse within our ranks."

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