18-Year Old Texan, Herding Goats, Killed by U.S. Marine Corps Anti-Drug Patrol; Criminal Investigation of Shooting Underway
On May 20, eighteen-year-old high school student Esequiel Hernandez Jr. was shot and killed near his house by the leader of a U.S. Marine Corps patrol on an anti-drug operation near the U.S.-Mexico border in Redford, Texas. Hernandez was tending goats about a mile from his home when the shooting occurred. The incident is the first time that military forces on anti-drug duty have shot and killed a U.S. citizen. After the incident, border patrol activities by the military were suspended (Thaddeus Herrick, "Marine on anti-drug duty shoots, kills student," Houston Chronicle, May 22, 1997, p. 37A; "Border Drug Patrols Are Halted After Killing," New York Times, July 11, 1997, p. A17).
Military officials claim Hernandez inexplicably fired his antique .22-caliber rifle twice at four Marines, and was preparing to shoot a third time when he was fatally shot in the side with an M-16 combat rifle. The soldier named in the shooting is Cpl. Clemente Banuelos. The Marine patrol was on loan to the Border Patrol from Camp Pendleton (CA), and was participating in operations under Joint Task Force-6, which runs military anti-narcotics efforts on the Border. By law, military personnel involved in domestic law enforcement are not allowed to search, seize, arrest or confront a suspect. Military involvement is strictly limited to activities such as surveillance and intelligence (10 USCA Sec. 375). Soldiers are allowed to return fire in self-defense.
Neighbors said Hernandez used his rifle to ward off coyotes, and for target practice, and suggest that is what the teenager thought he was doing if he fired any shots. "Personally, I don't think this kid ever saw them, by the indication my Rangers are telling me," said Captain Barry Caver, spokesman for the Texas Rangers, the state law enforcement agency that is investigating the killing. The Marines were heavily camouflaged, and were trained to conceal themselves so as not to be detected. The shooting appears to have taken place from a distance of 375 to 600 feet (James Pinkerton, "Ranger says Marines' account doesn't `exactly jibe,'" Houston Chronicle, May 24, 1997, p. 18A).
Family and neighbors say Hernandez was law-abiding and respectful and would never have knowingly shot at people, much less soldiers. Officials found no evidence that the teenager was involved in illegal activities, and an autopsy showed that he did not have any drugs or alcohol in his system. Before he was killed, Hernandez was studying for his drivers license, and dreamed of going to college, working as a wildlife ranger, or possibly joining the Marines.
An autopsy contradicted statements that the Marines had acted in self-defense. "The angle [of Hernandez's bullet wound] is consistent with him pointing away from the Marines. He would have been shooting away," said James Jepson, first assistant district attorney in Fort Stockton. Investigators say they asked the Marines involved in the incident to remain in Texas so they could reenact the shooting at the site, but they were sent back to Camp Pendleton after four days. Tests on Hernandez's rifle are incomplete, and investigators have not been able to corroborate that the teenager fired two shots in the incident. Neighbors report only hearing one shot (Thaddeus Herrick, "Doubts raised in border case," Houston Chronicle, June 11, 1997, p. 1A).
Apparently, investigators said, the Marines followed Hernandez from "bush to bush" for 20 minutes after he fired his .22 caliber rifle. At a news conference two days after the incident, Marine Corps Col. Thomas Kelly, deputy commander of Joint Task Force-6, said only that the Marines "took immediate defensive posture" and tried to "maintain visual observation." Caver said the Marines may have violated military policy when they followed Hernandez. "My understanding is that this is totally against the rules of engagement," said Caver, adding, "I'm not sure what their intent was" (Thaddeus Harrick, "More questions in border shooting," Houston Chronicle, June 21, 1997, p. 1A).
The investigation has revealed that the Marines failed to administer first aid or call for emergency medical help for Hernandez. Hernandez suffered massive internal bleeding while the Marines checked his pulse and called the Border Patrol. The Marines reported a "man down" at 6:27 p.m., but the call for a helicopter did not go out until 6:49 p.m. "Apparently the Marines did not treat him until the responding Border Patrol agents got there and called for an ambulance," said Sergeant David Duncan, head of the investigation of the shooting. The 4-man Marine team included a member trained as an emergency medic. An autopsy later revealed that Hernandez did not die instantly, but bled to death (Staff and Wire Reports, "Teen shot by Marine at border bled to death, autopsy finds," Houston Chronicle, June 24, 1997, p. 15A; Eduardo Montes, "Autopsy shows how Marine fire killed teen," Austin American-Statesman, June 24, 1997, p. B3).
Cpl. Banuelos and the three other Marines will be subject to a grand jury investigation in July, said Presidio County prosecutor Albert Valadez. "This is not government soil, and we're not on a military base," Valadez said. "We're going to act as we would in any case involving a shooting" (Douglas Holt, "Marine who killed herder faces inquiry," Dallas Morning News, May 24, 1997).
On June 24, Texas Rangers served Brigadier General James Lovelace, commanding officer of Joint Task Force-6, with a subpoena, asking him to provide a list of military reports, notes, witness statements and communications logs related to the shooting. A military lawyer told the Rangers that federal law may prohibit the military from turning over all of the documents requested. Service of the subpoenas, which were signed on June 5, apparently was delayed by miscommunications and unreturned phone calls, according to the Dallas Morning News (Douglas Holt, "Subpoena served in shooting," Dallas Morning News, June 25, 1997).
The U.S. Attorney's office is expected to begin a civil rights investigation into the incident. The U.S. Attorney's office in El Paso has presented the U.S. Department of Justice with the names of several defense lawyers if they are needed to defend the Marines.
Hernandez's family is considering a lawsuit against the government, and the towns of Redford and Presidio are exploring the possibility of legal action to demilitarize their communities. "We were invaded, and one of our sons was slaughtered," said the Rev. Mel La Follette, a retired Episcopal priest in Redford who is helping residents prepare a class-action suit. La Follette continued, "The whole community has been violated." Military personnel must have permission from landowners before conducting operations on their property. But Hernandez was shot on the property of Albert Carrasco, who said he never authorized the exercises.
"The whole community has been violated."
The incident has focused the debate over the "militarization" of anti-drug efforts, which opponents contend leads to violence and violations of human rights. "Whether or not the soldiers in the Redford case followed the rules of engagement or broke the law, the problem is the policy that put them there in the first place," said Timothy J. Dunn, a University of Texas scholar and author of The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978-1992. For more information on the "militarization" of anti-drug efforts, see article in this issue of NewsBriefs.
At the Federal Building in El Paso, the Border Rights Coalition and other concerned Americans protested the military presence in their community. On June 20-22, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) held "National Days of Reflection On the Militarization of the Mexico-U.S. Border" as a time of study, dialogue and mourning of the Redford incident. Kevin Zeese, President of Common Sense for Drug Policy, spoke at the El Paso meeting and went to Redford to meet the family and neighbors of Hernandez. AFSC arranged meetings for Redford residents with top federal officials, including "drug czar" McCaffrey, and the news media in Washington, DC on July 15-17.
U.S Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-El Paso), who served as chief of the Border Patrol in El Paso, has urged Congress to replace the military presence on the border with more Border Patrol agents. The White House is calling for an increase in the number of Border Patrol Agents over the next 10 years from 6,200 to 20,000. However, regardless of the number of Border Patrol agents, many members of Congress feel that using the military is necessary to combat sophisticated and well-armed drug traffickers. (The shooting took place in the district of Rep. Henry Bonilla (R-TX).)
Comprehensive articles referred to for this story include: Thaddeus Herrick, "Borderline Shootings," Houston Chronicle, June 22, 1997, p. 1A; William Branigin, "Questions on Military Role Fighting Drugs Ricochet From a Deadly Shot," Washington Post, June 22, 1997, p. A3; Jesse Katz, "A Good Shepard's Death by the Military," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), June 26, 1997, p. A9.
Contact Suzan Kern at the Border Rights Coalition - Tel: (915) 577-0724, Fax: (915) 577-0370, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact J. Ron Byler or Rachael Kamel at AFSC - 1501 Cherry Street, Philadelphia, PA 19102-1479, Tel: (215) 241-7060, Fax: (215) 241-7275, E-mail: email@example.com, Web: http://www.afsc.org.
U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes - 514 CHOB, Washington, DC 20515, Tel: (202) 225-4831, Fax: (202) 225-2016, District Office: (915) 534-4400.
U.S. Rep. Henry Bonilla - 1427 LHOB, Washington, DC 20515, Tel: (202) 225-4511, Fax: (202) 225-2237, District Office: (915) 686-8833.