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Questions turn border tragedy into mystery
Austin American-Statesman June 29, 1997

By Suzanne Gamboa
American-Statesman Staff

REDFORD -- One by one, Maria De Luz Hernandez pulled the snapshots of her son, Ezequiel Hernandez Jr., from a tightly clasped envelope.

Ezequiel atop his nameless horse in Presidio's last onion festival parade.

Ezequiel smiling after helping his young niece fill a basket with Easter eggs they collected in the hills.

Ezequiel handsome in a white western-cut tuxedo with a brilliant violet cummerbund he wore to his younger sister Becky's quinceanera.

"I wanted you to see that he was a normal boy," Hernandez said, through tears that still flow a month after Ezequiel died. "He was just a normal boy."

Like other mothers who lose sons in war, Maria Hernandez mourns a death she cannot understand. Yet 18-year-old Ezequiel Hernandez was killed by an American soldier on American soil.

"He was an innocent who never did anything to anyone," his mother said. "He was a teen-ager who didn't drink, didn't smoke, who wasn't a troublemaker. He was a teen-ager whose only goal was to help us and to go to school so he could be better off one day."

Six weeks ago, one of four Marines patrolling against drug smugglers shot at Ezequiel -- known to his family as "Juni," for Junior because he was named for his father -- as he herded goats near his home. The military said Ezequiel shot at the Marines with the .22-caliber rifle he normally carried as he herded and was killed by return fire.

But what seemed to be a case of a Marine defending himself has turned into a mystery that has pitted the U.S. military against the Texas Rangers, compounding a family's tragedy and a community's fear, distrust and anger.

What really happened on the ridgetop a short walk from Ezequiel's front yard may never be known.

Did he fire on the Marines or just into the desert? Was he readying to fire again, as the Marines allege, or had he raised his gun at all? Did Ezequiel even know the camouflaged Marines, dressed to look like desert scrub, were there? Or did he mistake their movements for a coyote or rattlesnake or other animal coming after his precious goats?

And why did the Marines wait so long to call an ambulance, and why wasn't a military helicopter ambulance that was stationed a few miles away immediately dispatched?

For many people who live along the lazy, shallow Rio Grande as it flows past Redford, and even beyond, Ezequiel's death calls into question the decision eight years ago to use U.S. troops with high-cost, high-tech equipment to fight smugglers crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I think everybody needs to back off and go back to the drawing board and come up with a better plan," said Dan Bodine, Presidio County justice of the peace, who pronounced Ezequiel dead six days after the young man's 18th birthday. "The border is very different and is very hard to comprehend unless you come out here and see it yourself and realize that river flowing down is not really a border."

Lingering questions

Redford is a simple, serene town, despite the complexities of the international border that is its neighbor.

At times you can wade across the river, a boundary that may divide two nations but not a culture. Perhaps 100 people live here, many with relatives across the river who legally cross to visit or shop.

In the morning shadow of the mountains that announce Big Bend National Park 50 miles or so to the east, the village is a mere flash for tourists racing over two-lane FM 170 on their way to the park.

"It's very tranquil here," said Elida Evaro, 54, who owns Redford Convenience Store with her husband, Rosendo, and has raised four children here.

A bullet from Marine Cpl. Clemente Banuelos' M-16 shattered that tranquillity at 6:27 p.m. May 20.

Texas Rangers are piecing together the events leading to the deadly confrontation between the teen-ager, whose playground was this ragged desert, and a 22-year-old Marine, for whom the landscape was a training ground for war.

Texas Rangers have questioned the military's recounting of the shooting. Ranger Capt. Barry Caver, the lead negotiator last month in the Republic of Texas standoff outside Fort Davis, said the investigation shows "a lot of little things don't quite fit."

Ezequiel had taken his goats to a ridgetop so they could feed on the greener-than-usual desert scrub, carrying with him his grandfather's antique .22-caliber rifle. Military officials allege Ezequiel fired twice on the Marines, who were camouflaged to fade into the desert underbrush, and was about to fire a third time when he was shot.

But Caver has said the angle of the wound indicates Ezequiel would have been firing away from the Marines. An autopsy performed by the Bexar County medical examiner indicated the bullet entered the chest of Ezequiel, who was right-handed, on the right side before blasting to his left side in two fragments.

Maureen Bossch, a spokeswoman in El Paso for the military operation conducting drug surveillance along the border, said the Marines contacted the Border Patrol immediately after shots were fired. "They tried to maintain visual contact with him, and then when he raised his rifle to shoot again, they fired.

"They perceived that someone was shooting at them. They did not identify him as an 18-year-old boy."

She said troops can shoot back if they are fired upon.

"They have the right to self-defense," she said.

Should the Marines have determined before shooting that Ezequiel might have mistaken them for a wild animal or drug traffickers?

"I don't know how you would ever know that," Bossch said.

Before shots were fired, however, the Marines had radioed that they were observing a young man herding goats and carrying a rifle, The Associated Press quoted Caver as saying. The Rangers also said the Marines followed Ezequiel for 20 minutes and said Banuelos fired through brush and mesquite trees from at least 75 yards away.

A medical helicopter was not called until the Border Patrol arrived 20 minutes after the shooting. Ezequiel's body was removed from where he fell in a well and placed on flat ground. A patrol agent could not find a pulse.

A Presidio County grand jury plans to review the case in July.

The military's investigation has a different focus from the Rangers': reviewing whether policies and procedures were followed.

Banuelos is back at Camp Pendleton with his unit. A Marine Corps attorney declined an interview on Banuelos' behalf.

He also declined to provide any background information, citing privacy laws, except to say that Banuelos is from California, is married and turned 22 the day after Ezequiel turned 18.

A hard life

In Redford, serenity masks a hardscrabble existence.

Many in the village, including the elder Ezequiel Hernandez, are farm laborers who endure the Chihuahuan Desert's unforgiving sun to bale hay in area fields. When the seasonal farm work ends, some find work in Presidio, 16 miles northwest, or at the nearby Big Bend Ranch State Natural Area to the north of town. But some townspeople head for six months to Odessa or, like Ezequiel's father, to Dallas for temporary jobs, said 51-year-old Dora Marquez, a resident.

"There are no jobs here," Marquez said. "If we have cows, that's good, because there is so much grazing land."

Simple adobe or concrete-block homes and trailers dot small plots, where vegetable and flower gardens brighten the desert.

Like many of their neighbors, clustering their homes for several generations of a family, the Hernandezes share a small stretch of land with Maria Hernandez's parents and with her married children.

Running water came to Redford homes about two years ago, and a government grant will help bring flushable toilets to many.

Against this background, Ezequiel herded goats that would contribute to a goat cheese cooperative the community hopes to create for good-paying jobs. Ezequiel's father served on the cooperative's board of directors.

"We are not drug dealers in Redford. We are not terrorists," said Enrique Madrid, a archeological steward for the Texas Historical Commission who had worked with Ezequiel on a history project to make a model of a Spanish fort.

Former President Bush honored Enrique Madrid's mother, Lucia Mede Madrid, for starting a library in Redford that served children on both sides of the border.

Madrid said Ezequiel was one of the biggest users of the library.

"This is what Redford really is," Madrid said, "hardworking, humble farmers and families, and we are trying to educate the children."

Shattered tranquillity

But law enforcement officials see the expansive area around Redford as a notorious drug-smuggling route. No one accuses townspeople of drug trafficking, but U.S. Border Patrol, military and other authorities call the area ideal cover for traffickers.

"This was an area known to have better than average amount of trafficking of both narcotics and aliens," said Joe Harris, an assistant chief patrol agent with the Border Patrol's Marfa sector, which is responsible for the Redford area.

At the village, with its frequent border crossings, smugglers can move into the United States as normal traffic, Harris said, and the grand stretches of the Big Bend are difficult to patrol.

That's why the Border Patrol requested military assistance to watch for trafficking in the area through Joint Task Force Six, a military operation begun in 1989 to dispatch reserve and active-duty troops from all four military branches to parts of the border.

Bossch, the JTF-6 spokeswoman in El Paso, said federal law will not allow soldiers to make arrests or conduct searches, only to watch.

"We provide, in these types of missions, eyes and ears," Bossch said.

Banuelos was on a patrol dispatched by Joint Task Force Six.

Many Redford residents say they have never seen drug smuggling or been bothered by drug traffickers, and many never even knew that the military trained so close. They now fear that the tranquillity they thought existed here may not exist at all.

Dora Marquez's 14-year-old son, David, who sometimes grazed his goats with Ezequiel and who joined him on horse rides atop his burro, sold his goats at his grandfather's prompting.

"We are afraid now," Dora Marquez said.

As investigators continue their work, Maria Hernandez is left with Ezequiel's collected treasures: pictures of horses and Pancho Villa on his wall; an ink drawing Ezequiel made for her of a man and woman trying to move a stubborn burro; a box of coins, military buttons and belt buckles he found in the hills.

The horse he always rode and the goats he was feeding when he was shot remain penned at their home. He had planned to increase his herd and one day have a ranch that would give his family a better life.

"So many memories," Hernandez cried.

She cannot understand why her son was not shot in the leg or arm by these trained soldiers. Isn't that what the people who are enforcing the law should do because they are the law, she asks.

Hernandez is pleading for justice, but she doubts she'll ever see it.

"The only defect (Ezequiel) had was he was Mexican," she said. ""He had parents who were from Mexico. We immigrated here. But we are not going to get justice because we are Mexicans."

In his room, Ezequiel had pinned up a Marine poster after hearing so much about them in school, she said.

"After this happened," his mother said, "my youngest son took it down and ripped it apart." .

This article copyright 1997 the Austin American-Statesman and is reproduced for non-profit educational purposes only.

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