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Fatal shooting of goat herder by Marines enrages border town

Associated Press Writer
copyright Associated Press 06/29/97

REDFORD, Texas (AP) -- Esequiel Hernandez Jr.'s father was gathering firewood along the banks of the Rio Grande when he heard the thundering blast. It was loud and deep, certainly not the plink of the turn-of-the-century .22-caliber rifle his son carried.

A knot formed in the father's chest: The gunshot seemed to come from a nearby hilltop, where his 18-year-old son, affectionately called ``Juni,'' was grazing his prized goat herd.

With the branches piled in back of his old gray truck, Esequiel Hernandez Sr. rushed back to his family's ramshackle adobe compound just up the dirt road.

``Juni's with the goats!'' his wife, Maria, shouted frantically as he pulled into the driveway. ``Go and look for him!''

Dark storm clouds were beginning to block the sun in this tiny town on the Mexican border as Hernandez raced up the hill, past his neighbors' trailer homes and an abandoned Catholic church and through the open range of mesquite trees and prickly pear cactus.

Sheriff's deputies stopped him at first, then hailed him back.

Could he identify a young man with a pencil-thin mustache, wearing black jeans and a dark green shirt?

They wouldn't let him get too close, but he knew just the same. There lay Juni on his back next to an old stone watering trough. His little white goats grazed nearby.

Through his tears, Juni's father saw four Marines in camouflage fatigues. They carried M-16s.

Juni almost always toted his .22 when he tended his goats. The pump-action rifle had been handed down from his grandfather to his father and then to him. Never could tell what he might encounter out there. Wild hogs and stray dogs seemed a constant menace to his 42 goats. And there was always a tin can, a jack rabbit or a boat-tailed grackle that made for good target practice.

But never did Juni expect to encounter U.S. Marines.

Redford, a West Texas town of 100 souls, has a reputation at the U.S. Border Patrol as a corridor for drug smugglers. The Rio Grande runs shallow a couple hundred yards behind the Hernandez compound and, a few times a year, it is passable by truck.

The rest of the time, a small rowboat routinely ferries residents on both sides of the border back and forth to visit their extended families or buy fresh milk and beer at the Redford convenience store.

The Border Patrol usually looks the other way. Besides, it doesn't have the manpower to keep constant surveillance here at ``El Polvo,'' the shallow crossing.

Unbeknownst to the Redford locals, however, the Border Patrol had called upon Joint Task Force Six, a federal agency established in 1989, to send soldiers to El Polvo to help stem drug trafficking. The Marines were to remain undetected -- ``organic unto themselves'' -- and be the ``eyes and ears'' of the patrol. Yet they were forbidden by law to act on what they saw or draw conclusions. They would simply report their observations to the patrol, which could take action.

But the law had one exception: The soldiers could defend themselves.

On the evening of May 20, 22-year-old Marine Cpl. Clemente Banuelos and three other privates from Camp Pendleton, Calif., were stationed along a ridge overlooking El Polvo. It was their third day in the stifling hot desert sun; they had spent part of it sleeping under a camouflaged tent of netting tethered to bushes.

They had made their own camouflage clothes, covering their helmets and guns with brown burlap and draping a hybrid of branches, leaves and vines over their military fatigues from head to toe.

The four had spent the past two nights a few hundred yards away at their night observation post at the edge of the ridge. From this high point, they could eye the Rio Grande below. It rushed and gurgled over rocks in its shallowest parts, which were only a few feet deep and 30 or 40 feet wide.

That afternoon, thunderclouds began to form behind the purple Sierra Rica Mountains as the Marines left their day camp and began making their way to the ridge's edge.

The sky was still clear and the hot air thick when Juni opened the goat corral in the back yard. He had come home from high school a couple of hours earlier, eaten supper, studied for his driver's license exam and loaded hay for his father.

Now, it was time to take his goats for their dinner. He grabbed his rifle and began the 10-minute walk up the hill.

At the top, he and the goats walked over loose gravel and dirt and slipped through the waist-high creosote bushes to a dilapidated trading post, where the U.S. Cavalry had built a fort during the Mexican Revolution to prevent Pancho Villa and his troops from spilling their conflict across the river into Texas.

It was abandoned in the early 1920s, and now the walls were crumbling, exposing the old adobe bricks. Sunlight filtered through the holes in the roof and birds nested in the rafters. The post was more than 200 yards from the Marine's ridge, separated by a deep, dry gully.

As Juni began to tend his herd, the Marines, disguised as bushes, were heading to their night post.

What took place starting about 6 p.m. has pitted the residents of Redford and some Texas authorities against the military. It also has called into question whether the War on Drugs -- deploying U.S. troops on U.S. soil to patrol the border -- is worth the risk.

But just exactly what happened on that hilltop and why remains unclear.

The Marines say they crouched on the ground when they spotted Juni near the trading post. For reasons unknown, Juni fired once or twice at them, according to Maureen Bossch, a spokesman for Joint Task Force Six in El Paso, which coordinates the military missions along the border.

We're taking fire! the Marines radioed the Border Patrol at 6:07 p.m.

They didn't fire back immediately. Instead, they sidestepped along the ridge, paralleling Juni for 20 minutes as he headed across the hilltop toward an abandoned house and an empty water trough about 200 yards away.

They wanted to make sure he wasn't trying to double back and flank them, Bossch says.

Just before 6:30 p.m., she says, Juni again turned and aimed his rifle at the Marines. This time, Cpl. Banuelos fired, piercing Juni in the side under his right armpit. Juni fell into the shallow trough, his legs draped over the side, and he bled to death.

``I can't tell you why Hernandez shot at the Marines,'' Bossch says. ``The Marines acted in self-defense. Of course, it's an unfortunate incident.'' An empty shell casing was found in Juni's rifle, and another spent shell was on the ground at the spot where the Marines said Juni fired.

But the Texas Rangers, who are investigating the shooting, say some of the Marines' story doesn't match the other evidence at the scene.

First, they doubt Juni ever saw the camouflaged Marines. The teen-ager might have thought he was shooting at a wild animal rustling in the brush, Texas Ranger Capt. Barry Caver speculates.

But the Marines had roughly identified Juni, Caver says. Some time before the shots were fired, he says, they radioed that they were observing a young man carrying a rifle and herding goats. Bossch contends the Marines never identified Juni as a goat herder and that the first radio transmission reported only that shots were being fired.

Another puzzling discrepancy: Can the Marines rightfully claim self-defense when they followed Juni for 20 minutes and Banuelos fired through brush and mesquite trees from at least 75 yards away?

``That sounds just a little strange,'' Caver says. ``To me, that tends to question their self-defense strategy that they're claiming.''

This article copyright 1997 the Associated Press and is reproduced for non-profit educational purposes only.

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