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Official calls border shooting `a mistake', then takes it back
Houston Chronicle June 28, 1997

Copyright 1997 Houston Chronicle San Antonio Bureau

SAN ANTONIO -- A high-ranking military official in the war on drugs called the fatal shooting of Ezequiel Hernandez Jr. "a mistake," marking the first time the armed services have said the anti-narcotics troops who killed the Presidio High School sophomore acted in error.

"We don't accept mistakes like that," said Air Force Col. Henry Hungerbeeler, chief of staff of Joint Task Force-6, the group that coordinates law enforcement-military anti-drug efforts. "We're as anxious as anybody to know what investigators have found."

But when pressed on the comment, Hungerbeeler in an interview this week retracted it. "I wish I hadn't called it a mistake," he said.

The military has thus far backed the actions of four camouflaged Marines who were on a surveillance mission on the Texas-Mexico border near Presidio when Hernandez inexplicably fired twice with a .22-caliber rifle. When the youth raised his rifle a third time, investigators say, Cpl. Clemente Banuelos shot and killed him with an M-16.

"The Marines in this case acted in accordance with the established rules of engagement and were using lawful self- defense," Maj. Len Ryan said last week from Camp Pendleton, Calif., where the four Marines involved in the shooting are stationed.

But investigators say Hernandez, who was tending his family's goats at the time, was not aiming at the troops when he was killed. They say he initially fired from a distance of 700 feet -- suggesting he may not have known he was firing in the direction of the troops -- and then was followed "bush to bush" before being shot dead.

The Texas Rangers served the commander of JTF-6 with a subpoena last Tuesday in hopes of gathering military documents related to the May 20 shooting. Local prosecutors, meanwhile, hope to present evidence to a grand jury in July.

Hungerbeeler did not directly dispute the Marines' version of the incident, in which they say they acted justifiably. But he said a death such as Hernandez's can usually be explained by either criminal intent on the part of the victim or error.

"I certainly haven't seen any criminal intent," Hungerbeeler said.

Pressed on the issue, Hungerbeeler sought to redirect the focus of the incident to the two shots investigators say Hernandez fired in the desert hills near Big Bend National Park. He fired the shots within shouting distance of his family's cinderblock home.

"There's nothing that leads me to believe they made a mistake," said Hungerbeeler, finally. "But a young man was killed. Why did he shoot at the Marines?"

The shooting in the tiny town of Redford has sparked vigorous debate over whether the military should participate in law enforcement operations. Though troops cannot search, seize or arrest, they have been employed since the 1980s to assist law enforcement in the escalating war on drugs.

Critics say the blurring of the lines between the military and law enforcement makes human and civil rights abuse more likely, since troops are trained to kill. Backers say the military's manpower and resources are critical in stemming the tide of illegal narcotics.

The military is a leading advocate for its expanded anti-drug role. But congressional testimony shows that in the early stages even top armed services officials acknowledged the incongruities of military and police training.

Addressing a panel of the House Armed Services Committee in 1989, just months before the formation of JTF-6, now retired Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly likened the troops involved in the anti-drug effort to an infantry soldier who when confronted with a hostage situation "just flips a grenade through the door."

"We're learning to work with law enforcement agencies and there's a difficulty in doing that, and it's a cultural difficulty," Kelly told the subcommittee. "When you deal with police officers, they think in terms of going to court and we don't."

"Such `cultural difficulties' are part of what makes the expanded use of the military in drug interdiction so potentially dangerous," writes University of Texas doctoral candidate Timothy Dunn in his book, The Militarization of the Border. Dunn cites Kelly's comments to the House subcommittee.

But according to Hungerbeeler, troops have learned to work effectively with law enforcement since the creation of JTF-6, not by imitating law enforcement officers but rather by maintaining their limited military role. That role is to be the "eyes and ears" of law enforcement, he said, nothing more.

"We work well together by keeping our separate and distinct roles," said Hungerbeeler. "We're out there to observe. If we are observed in the process, we haven't done our job."

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

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