By Marco Antonio Rivera
DENVER, CO, January 11, 2022—Working people and all supporters of democratic rights should express solidarity with Rogel Aguilera Mederos and demand his immediate release from prison.
The truck driver was involved in a tragic 28-vehicle pileup caused by a failure of the brakes in the semi he was driving while descending a mountainous section of the I-70 highway in Lakewood, a suburb of Denver. The April 2019 accident resulted in the death of four people. After a jury found Aguilera guilty last October of four counts of vehicular homicide and 23 other criminal offenses, a judge sentenced him to an incredible 110 years behind bars!
The news of such cruel and unusual punishment struck a chord with millions around the world who quickly expressed indignation at the draconian sentence. Aguilera’s family, groups of fellow truck drivers, and Hispanic organizations in the United States organized protests in Colorado, Texas, Florida, and elsewhere. More than 5 million people have signed a petition demanding clemency for the Cuban-born immigrant worker—who was 23 years old at the time of the crash—and commutation of his sentence to time served.
Musicians and other artists have joined the solidarity campaign. They include “Cenzontles de Burgos,” a band based in Tamaulipas, Mexico, that composed the song “Sentencia 110” (Sentence 110).
“Because I’m not of their race, they see me as a threat,” says the song, composed in the popular Mexican genre “corridos.”
Other musicians have followed suit, creating their own versions with this narrative musical style, which often depicts “the blues” working people experience.
Celebrities, including the model Kim Kardashian and the Colombian performer Shakira, have joined the calls for justice.
As a result of this explosion of solidarity, the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office suddenly experienced a change of heart. The DA’s office announced it would pursue a reduction of the sentence to 20-30 years and issued an apology for the obscene boasting by the lead prosecutor for his “victory” against Aguilera. After the announcement of the 110-year sentence, the prosecuting DA had published a picture of a trophy celebrating his “success.”
Colorado governor reduces sentence
Meanwhile, on December 31, 2021, Colorado governor Jared Polis cut Aguilera’s sentence to 10 years, with a chance of parole in five.
Polis made the year-end announcement after family members and other supporters of the young truck driver demonstrated in front of the Capitol and met with the governor to press the demand for clemency. One of the loudest and most emotional voices during the December 22 solidarity rally here was Oslaida Mederos, Aguilera’s mother. Through a translator, she said in Spanish, “Free my son because I’m going to die. I can’t handle this anymore.”
In his commutation letter, the governor said the fiery crash was “a tragic but unintentional act.”
Jefferson County chief District Attorney Alexis King criticized the governor’s decision for short-circuiting “a more deliberative judicial process,” as an article in Al Jazeera put it.
Defense lawyer James Colgan called King’s move “disingenuous,” correctly so. “Two weeks ago, they [prosecutors] were perfectly fine with my client getting 110 years until there was a public outcry,” Colgan told Reuters. “It’s all political.”
Aguilera’s case, while unusual in some respects, is a good example of what justice under capitalism has in store for working people.
From the day of the tragic accident, the prosecution began a campaign to portray Aguilera as a killer, accusing him of homicide and charging him with “recklessness” and “extreme indifference.”
Aguilera, however, apologized to the families of those killed in the crash and cooperated fully with the investigation by the police department. The police found no evidence the trucker had used drugs or alcohol, and said Aguilera had no prior record of any criminal offenses or driving violations.
Nevertheless, the DA charged Aguilera with 40 counts of criminal wrongdoing.
Aguilera testified at the trial that he was hauling lumber when the brakes on his semitrailer failed as he was descending a steep grade of Interstate 70 in the Rocky Mountain foothills. The truck driver made a split-second decision not to divert his truck onto a runaway ramp because he thought he could pull on the side of the road and stop the vehicle once he reached the flat portion of the roadway at the bottom of the hill. But when he got there there was stalled traffic because of another accident. When he attempted to move over to the side to avoid the idled vehicles another semi that had already stopped on the shoulder blocked his way. His truck plowed into vehicles that had slowed, setting off a chain-reaction crash and a fireball that consumed vehicles and melted parts of the highway.
During the trial, the prosecution did its best to exonerate Texas-based Castellano 03 Trucking LLC, Aguilera’s employer, from all culpability in the crash. The DA enlisted managers and mechanics as witnesses to testify how well the truck had been allegedly maintained and lay all blame solely on Aguilera. The fact that this firm had received 30 notifications for safety violations in the two years prior to the crash did not matter.
Class character of ‘justice system’
The case of Ethan Couch, the “affluenza kid,” provides a sharp contrast to Aguilera’s treatment by the courts. Couch, a wealthy 16-year-old whom the press described as a “spoiled Texas teen,” crashed in 2013 while driving drunk and killed four people. He walked free with a probationary sentence after his attorneys argued that Couch’s parents had never “taught him the difference between right or wrong.”
The class character of the “justice system” becomes even clearer when contrasting Aguilera’s case with the way prosecutors and judges have treated major corporations responsible for heinous crimes.
A prime recent example is the proven responsibility of the pharmaceutical barons for promoting the opiate epidemic in the United States in order to exact gargantuan profits. Since 1999, over one million people have died from overdosing on opiates in this country. One hundred thousand people last year alone!
In a 2020 trial, billionaire John Kapoor and four other executives of Insys Therapeutics were convicted of conspiracy to bribe doctors to prescribe their company’s potent opioid painkiller Subsys, including to folks who didn’t need it. They then lied to insurance companies to make sure the costly oral fentanyl spray was covered. The drug, which was intended for cancer patients, could cost as much as $19,000 a month. Kapoor, the company’s founder, was sentenced to 5 years and 6 months in prison. Other executives received between one year and 33 months. During this first successful prosecution of pharmaceutical executives for their role in the opioid crisis, U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs cited Kapoor’s “philanthropy” as a factor for her leniency in his sentencing.
Other representatives of Big Pharma have not even faced criminal charges.
In November 2020, the opioid giant Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty to one count of dual-object conspiracy to defraud the United States and to violate the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and two counts of conspiracy to violate the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute. In other words, Purdue admitted responsibility for pushing narcotics on a scale that would be the envy of every drug cartel in the world and lying to the feds about it. As part of the plea deal, the company agreed to pay billions of dollars in fines and civil lawsuit settlements. Nevertheless, Purdue’s owners, the Slackler family, who made billions from pushing OxyContin to unsuspecting patients, secured immunity from opioid lawsuits as part of this agreement.
These are just a few of the countless examples that illustrate how the U.S. justice system protects the capitalist class at the expense of the lives and suffering of working people.
Truck drivers’ disgust at Aguilera’s sentence
Truck drivers in many parts of the world, particularly in Latin America, reacted with disgust to Aguilera’s sentence. These drivers know well the terrible job conditions and unusual challenges workers like Aguilera face: working 60 to 70 hours a week without overtime pay, facing difficulty finding parking on their own time, and being under constant pressure to deliver loads within strict time limits in order to avoid fines or pay deductions.
The capitalist rulers are on a campaign to recruit new drivers to solve the difficulties with “the biggest kink in America’s supply chain,” as an article in the November 19, 2021, issue of the New York Times put it. The Times was referring to the bottlenecks in global commerce that have mushroomed during the coronavirus pandemic.
President Joe Biden recently announced his “Truck Action Plan” to assist the capitalists with their supply chain issues, but it stopped short of calling for higher wages or improved working conditions for truck drivers. Biden’s plan simply promises to study truck driver’s “pay and unpaid detention time” as well as “predatory truck leasing arrangements,” as if they were some kind of elusive mystery.
Just like the Jefferson County prosecutors went out of their way to exonerate Aguilera’s employer from any responsibility, Biden’s plan is aimed at helping the trucking bosses solve their problems while paying lip service to the unsafe job conditions truck drivers are often forced to endure.
Rogel Aguilera Mederos is a 26-year-old worker born in Surgidero de Batabano, Cuba, and resident of Houston, Texas. He is married and has a young son. He is a permanent resident of the United States. As even the Colorado governor admitted, the crash Aguilera was involved in was not the result of a criminal act but an accident. No one but the trucking company he was working for should be held accountable for this disaster.
Aguilera’s attorney James Colgan has announced that “there will be an appeal as to the facts and mistakes made in the trial.”
We can aid the legal effort by demanding that Aguilera’s sentence be reduced to time served and that he be freed from prison immediately. The reduction of his sentence to 10 years is not enough to remedy this gross class injustice.
Join Aguilera’s family and the millions who have signed the Change.org petition promoting this solidarity campaign. The petition can be found here.
Categories: Labor Movement / Trade Unions