It was a blistering Monday evening in El Paso. The heat had jumped past 95 degrees and it was about to get a lot hotter in this militarized border town, with checkpoints and helicopters flying over head.
Pedestrians, who were crossing the Paso del Norte International bridge that links El Paso, Texas to Juarez, Mexico, had stopped to watch a real-life drama play out in the dried waters of the Rio Grande just below the bridge – a dangerous drama that occurs more and more in this highly militarized region of the Southwest U.S.
On this Monday, the daily confrontation between U.S. border patrol and so-called “illegal aliens” swiftly turned deadly, ending with a 14-year-old junior high student, from Juarez, being shot through the eye and killed.
Sergio Adrian Hernandez Huereka and several other teens were heading back to the Mexican side of the Rio Grande, when they were spotted and pursued by an armed border patrol agent on a bicycle. According to the initial FBI investigation, the border patrol agent was surrounded by stone throwing teens, and opened fire in self-defense.
FBI spokesperson Andrea Simmons characterized the slain Mexican teen as a “juvenile smuggler.” She said the Border Patrol agent “had the second subject detained on the ground, and then gave verbal commands to the remaining subjects to stop and retreat. However, the subjects surrounded the agent and continued to throw rocks at him. The agent then fired his service weapon several times, striking one subject who later died.”
But a cell phone video provided by one of many eyewitnesses appears to contradict the FBI and Border Patrol’s claims that the agent fired only to protect himself from bodily harm. The video shows the agent drawing his gun as soon as he jumps off his bicycle. He then drags one teen to his knees, takes a second into custody at gun point, and then takes aim and opens fire at the two others, who had already fled, crossing the Mexican side of the border.
One eyewitness told El Diario from Juarez, “I was at the flagpole on the [Paso del Norte] bridge waiting for my wife, and I suddenly saw the boys entering the American side. Immigration agents chased them, as they returned back. The boys were on the Mexican side, and an immigration officer or a police officer on a bicycle shot at the boys.”
Another eyewitness, 53-year-old Bobbie McDow, was walking across the Paso del Norte bridge as well. She paused to watch the young men crossing back to Mexico. She said that the border patrol agents arrived and detained two men, but the others escaped back to Mexico.
McDow said the 14-year-old teen was slain on the Mexican side of the border and was not throwing stones.
“At first,” she said “I didn’t think anyone was hit. I thought he had missed. As I was looking down there, I saw something lying by the Black Bridge. Then I realized the body was not moving, and I got very upset. … I never expected it to escalate like that. I never saw that coming, that there would be a shooting over this. I’m not saying that they [the teens] did the right thing, but kids are kids. It’s like a little game of cat and mouse.”
The Border Patrol maintains the video actually confirms their claims, that their agent was in harm’s way, and Fox News is reporting that the Border Patrol had the slain teen on a “most wanted” list of juvenile smugglers that was compiled by U.S. authorities.
But by Friday, with the revelations of the cell-phone video, even the FBI began to shift their stance, opening up a civil rights investigation into the killing. It also was reported that President Obama was briefed on the story.
The boy’s family – along with activists, local residents and Mexican politicians – angrily rejected the Border Patrol’s claims that young Hernandez Huereka was a seasoned alien smuggler. Juarez Mayor José Reyes Ferriz said – after watching the cell phone video of the killing – that “it is going to be very difficult to prove that there was [a] substantial threat to life or safety for the officer to use lethal force like he did.”
The deadly incident, the second killing of an unarmed Mexican national at the border by U.S. Border Patrol agents in less than two weeks, has not only inflamed residents throughout the border region but has turned it into an international incident. Mexican President, Felipe Calderon, said he was “concerned about the growing violence against Mexicans” at the border. “I demand the United States government conduct a thorough, impartial, investigation,” Calderon said on Thursday, “concluding with an establishment of the facts and punishment of the culprits.”
The family of Hernandez Huereka gathered Thursday in Juarez to to memorialize the slain teen. Above his casket was a photograph of him dressed in his soccer uniform and several of his report cards filled with A’s and B’s.
He was a good student, his mother said, and he had just gone to visit his brother who works near the border when he met up with a few friends and decided to play by the river.
“May god forgive (the shooter)” she told a local reporter, “because I know nothing will happen to them.”
El Universal of Mexico, reported that one of the teen’s four sisters, Rosario Hernandez, was outraged by the Border Patrol’s claims, that her brother was an alien smuggler who had been caught many times going back and forth across the border. She said he was a good person who stayed out of trouble, exclaiming:
“Who has respect now? No one… until justice is done for my brother!”
“Palestine” at the Border
According to the Mexican Foreign Ministry, including this latest border killing, 17 Mexican nationals have been killed or injured this year in actions that involve the use of force by U.S. agents, up from five for all of 2008 and 12 in 2009.
On Wednesday night, activists gathered near the U.S. side of the Paso Del Norte Bridge to hold a vigil and protest the killing of the Mexican teen. One of the organizers, Mikey Velarde, said the militarization of the border has turned the area into a constant confrontation point.
“Early in the 90’s, we saw a militarization of this area…and an enormous jump in the number of Border Patrol agents and their various apparatuses,” Velarde said. “In the case of Sergio Adrian Hernandez Huereka, he was killed point blank by a Border Patrol agent. It’s a very … violent space, as we see the mix of people” and the “state repression that exists there in all its forms.”
Velarde compared the U.S.-Mexico border to occupied Palestine. He said:
“The similarities are so obvious, especially to somebody who lives on the border. The fact that they can justify deadly force against somebody throwing a rock is absurd to me. There’s a great similarity with Palestine and Gaza. What really strikes me is that these egregious incidents are taken as normal or unproblematic in [the] larger public sentiment.”
Nativo Lopez, President of the Mexican American Political Association, one of the oldest and most prestigious Mexican-American organizations in the country, agreed: “The analogy to young Palestinian youth throwing pieces of Palestine at the colonizing army is appropriate. This can only escalate from here on in.”
Lopez added that the escalation of violence by U.S. officials along the border adds up to nothing short of war.
“Over the last 22 years… we’ve seen the escalated militarization of the border,” Lopez said. “It has exceeded 20,000 Border Patrol agents and National Guard on a line that 80 years ago was almost absent of such enforcement. … That constitutes an act of war, and the people of Mexico will not put up with it.”
Hernandez Huereka was the second victim in just 10 days. After living in the U.S. for 28 years, Anastasio Hernandez Rojas, a 42-year-old Mexican national, was killed on May 28 by Border Patrol agents in San Diego. Hernandez Rojas was the father of five children, all U.S. citizens, and had been in the U.S. since he was 14 years old.
On Monday afternoon, Enrique Marones, an immigrant rights activist and founder of LA’s Border Angels organization, explained that the violence needs to be controlled by accountability. Otherwise, more unjust deaths will occur.
Speaking about last week’s killing of Hernandez Rojas, he explained that the Mexican government is “asking the international court in Geneva, Switzerland, to look at this case. We’re really concerned that [because of] the militarization of the border and the inhumane immigration policy that exists now, there will be more [cases like] Anastasio Hernandez.”
Little did he know that the next case would come so quickly. The interview with Marones occurred only 30 minutes before 14-year-old Sergio Adrian Hernandez Huereka was shot through the eye and killed by U.S. Border Patrol agents under the Paso del Norte bridge.
Jesus Hernandez, father of Hernandez Huereka, told Juarez newspaper El Diario on Wednesday, that all he wants is an end to the war.
“I don’t want vengeance, only justice,” he said.
Dennis Bernstein and Jesse Strauss based this report primarily on interviews done for “Flashpoints” on the Pacifica radio network. You can access the audio archives at www.flashpoints.net. You can get in touch with the authors at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.