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Border killing protest seeks end to friendly fire
El Paso Herald-Post June 19, 1997

By Larry Lee / El Paso Herald-Post

Diana and Jesus Valenzuela live near the Rio Grande, where he works with the father of 18-year-old victim, Ezequiel Hernandez Jr. The Valenzuelas said they haven't seen any Border Patrol agents or officials since May 20, when Hernandez was shot to death.

The Valenzuelas joined several others Wednesday night at a forum sponsored by the Border Rights Coalition, which plans to protest the increased use of military troops along the border by rallying at noon Friday outside the Federal Building.

They gathered on Wednesday to plan attempts to change the conditions that led to the death of young Hernandez, who was grazing his goats when he was shot, at what authorities have called an odd angle under suspicious circumstances, by Cpl. Clemente Banuelos. The Marines said Hernandez shot at them first with his .22-caliber rifle. They were 230 yards away and carrying M-16s.

Hernandez is the first American killed by soldiers on U.S. soil since the 1970 Kent State, Ohio, National Guard killings of four students.

Tim Dunn of El Paso, author of the book "The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978-1992," told the forum that the border has been the site of large troop buildup in the past two decades. Militarization, he said, is "the military acting like police and the police acting like the military or a paramilitary force."

That's a condition that he said often leads to loss of civil rights, because military training envisions battling a foreign enemy without stressing respect for constitutional guarantees.

Kevin Zeese of Washington said the quartering of troops on national soil was one reason the 13 colonies went to war against England. Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy, said Congress and former President Reagan in 1981 began eroding the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which separated the military from law enforcement.

"The Contras of our own country turned the Revolution on its head," said the former head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "I believe the people in this room have the power to demilitarize this border," he said to applause.

He added that the war on drugs has proved to be impotent. "It's become a nonsensical thing that we can arrest our way out of this."

Elizabeth Rogers, an assistant federal public defender, agreed. She said her office has grown as more and more people are being prosecuted in federal court and sent to prison for drug crimes as the drug problem continues to mushroom. The typical drug defendant is younger than in the past, she said, and West Texas' 900 federal prisoners are held as far away as Kermit, 250 miles from El Paso, forcing defenders to travel long distances just to hold client conferences.

El Paso has only 250 spaces for federal prisoners, she said.

Despite increased enforcement and mandatory sentencing laws, "drugs are pouring across the border," she said. Even though Congress is passing more and more laws, "It has no effect," she said.

"It works very well for politicians to tell us how tough they're getting and to build more prisons."

Suzan Kern of Border Rights Coalition said that rather than arm the border, the government should try to solve the causes of immigration and drug-trafficking. Immigration problems could be lessened by strengthening the Mexican economy through sustained development and holding U.S. corporations accountable for internationally recognized labor standards, like the right to earn a living wage.

"Americans want a pill for everything," a quick-fix mentality that throws the problem to the police to solve, she said. "We've got to get to the bottom of these problems."

Retired Episcopal priest Melvin La Follette of Redford scored the conditions that led to Hernandez's death.

"As a community we feel violated -- raped, if you like. Our private space was entered by bandidos," he said of the Marines of Joint Task Force 6.

He called Hernandez, a high-school sophomore, a well-behaved, likable young man: "That kid was just as model an American youth as you could ever hope to find."

This article copyright 1997 the El Paso Herald-Post and is reproduced for non-profit educational purposes only.

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