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By JOHN W. GONZALEZ|
Copyright 1997 Houston Chronicle
EL PASO -- In a California forest near the Mexican border in 1991, a poacher saw a greenish glint in the darkness. Assuming he was looking into an animal's eyes, the poacher fired his rifle, wounding a camouflaged U.S. Marine wearing night-vision optical gear.
In Northern California four years later, a carload of target shooters rolled to a stop on a desolate forest road. A passenger got out and fired randomly into the woods, striking a well-hidden U.S. Army soldier who was stationed there to monitor illegal drug activity.
Although military rules of engagement allow fired-upon troops to shoot civilians in self-defense, these soldiers held their fire after deciding that they were attacked unintentionally.
But in May, on the stark desert terrain near Redford, Texas, a Marine who felt threatened by a goat herder, who had fired two shots from a .22-caliber rifle, returned the fire with his M-16. The 18-year-old civilian was killed, and new questions were raised about the wisdom of using battle-ready troops in the border drug war.
Military officials adamantly defend the legal authority of the troops in Texas to answer a perceived threat. But they also call the California troops' decision not to shoot back an example of quick thinking, proper training and restraint. They also acknowledge that new training has been mandated since the Redford shooting to clarify that deadly force isn't always warranted.
"The last thing we want to do is have the American people afraid of us," said Air Force Col. Henry Hungerbeeler, chief of staff of Joint Task Force-6, an El Paso-based command that has coordinated 3,300 military counterdrug missions since its inception in 1989.
The shooting of Esequiel Hernandez in Redford has prompted a Presidio County grand jury probe and a military investigation -- unprecedented in the history of the U.S. armed forces' role in the war on drugs. Military officials say it is the ninth incident in which gunfire has erupted during JTF-6 missions.
In the Redford shooting and three other confrontations, gunfire was exchanged; in two of those cases, civilians were shot. (In addition to Hernandez's death, an illegal Mexican immigrant was wounded near Brownsville earlier this year.) In the other shooting incidents, the military did not return gunfire, officials said.
JTF-6 has faced more than flying bullets in its eight-year history. The group is the target of persistent allegations that it trounces the civil rights of border residents and illegal immigrants and harms the ecology of the Southwest desert. It also gained notoriety for providing military hardware to federal agents at the Branch Davidian siege near Waco in 1993.
The task force, authorized by Congress, operates under laws that bar the military from making arrests, searches and seizures. Its charter requires the military branches to assist federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in combating drug shipments into the continental United States -- a mission accomplished by scores of troops hidden along the border and stationed in urban ports of entry.
Dressed to blend into the West Texas desert as they monitored a suspected drug smuggler's route in the Big Bend area, the group of four Marines near Redford was so stealthy that area residents weren't aware of their presence for six days. The Marines had been secretly dropped from helicopters into the barren foothills overlooking the Rio Grande, officials and residents said.
Some Redford residents doubt that Hernandez intentionally threatened the Marines, and state investigators cite autopsy reports showing the teen likely was not aiming at the troops when he was shot.
Furthermore, the soldiers apparently were unaware that in February, Hernandez had riled U.S. Border Patrol agents by firing his .22-caliber rifle while they were in the same area. Hernandez reportedly apologized to the agents afterward and explained that he was trying to protect his goats from stray dogs.
The residents and other critics accuse JTF-6 officials of not adequately preparing troops for their work on the border, and are urging prosecutors to seek indictments of the four Marines, including Cpl. Clemente Banuelos of Camp Pendleton, Calif., who fired the fatal M-16 shot.
"We've seen helicopters going up and down the river for years now, but you can't see these troops. They look like bushes," said Redford resident Enrique Madrid. "Their job is not to be seen. They take pride in that. They brag about it.
"They're a machine to kill the enemies of the U.S., and we're not the enemy here," he complained. "It's just not the right way to stop the drug problem." Hungerbeeler vigorously disputes those contentions.
"I take offense when people say that we're not adequately trained to be doing what we're doing," he said.
However, he noted that JTF-6 has revamped training in light of the Redford shooting. New rehearsal scenarios are "primarily aimed at the proportional use of force, trying to clarify that although deadly force might be authorized, it might not be necessary," the colonel said.
Hungerbeeler said officials found that their current procedures "were sound," but they have created "two new situational training exercises" dealing with use of force.
Rigorous training helped the California units deal appropriately with their confrontations, the colonel said, explaining those earlier two incidents.
"There was a poacher who was illegally hunting in the area and saw the green glint from the (night-vision) optics and shot (the Marine). Shot him in the jaw," he said, describing events that occurred in California's Cleveland National Forest in 1991.
"His teammates observed this happening and obviously could have returned fire and killed the poacher," Hungerbeeler said. "They had the capability to shoot the guy that had shot him. They could legally have done so. But they recognized there was no hostile intent, that it was an accident.
"I think his team showed remarkable discipline and training in the way they handled that situation," he added. Then he described a 1995 shooting at Los Padres National Forest.
"There was another situation where a team was on patrol in the forest and observed people driving down a road close to their position. Honest to God, they just happened to stop right there and start shooting at the woods, and they hit one of the troops," he said.
"They could have returned fire in that case, but they knew it was an accident. They knew the people firing didn't know they were there. So he was accidentally shot. So they controlled the situation and nobody else got hurt."
The task force draws on Air Force, Army, Marine and Navy units. Missions have included detecting and observing smugglers, gathering intelligence for police and patrolling the 2,000-mile border in helicopters and on foot.
Laden with high-tech gear, troops sometimes are posted several days at remote locations, where they silently watch for illegal entries and smuggling, then report their observations to law enforcement agents who are authorized to make arrests and seizures.
JTF-6 employs 169 people at their headquarters in the former stockade at Biggs Army Air Field, adjacent to Fort Bliss near El Paso. The task force collaborates with Operation Alliance, a coalition of federal law enforcement agencies also based at Biggs Field. Operation Alliance screens and prioritizes requests for help before referring them to JTF-6, which selects the military units to do them.
In the 1995-96 fiscal year, JTF-6 deployed a total of 8,441 troops from various units, officials said.
Many of the task force troops work at ports of entry, such as El Paso, where most illegal drugs make their way into the United States in vehicles. Other troops work in the Southeast, where traffickers rely on ships to evade detection.
In the Southwest, troops help the U.S. Border Patrol, Customs Service and Drug Enforcement Administration to guard against drug shipments from Mexico. Banuelos was near Redford on a "listening post-observation post" mission requested by the Border Patrol, officials said.
Hungerbeeler said JTF-6 has conducted 576 such listening and observation missions along the border. In each case, the military has obtained approval from owners before operating on private land. Because of the Redford controversy, the Border Patrol has temporarily stopped requesting military listening and observation posts in West Texas while patrol officials re-examine their worth.
For more than a century, U.S. law has forbidden the military from becoming entangled in civilian law enforcement. But as the war on drugs has escalated, that prohibition has been relaxed.
As early as 1982, at the urging of then-President Reagan, the Department of Defense was authorized by Congress to conduct military training along the border. In Texas, National Guard troops initially cleared brush and roads along the Rio Grande to help the Border Patrol. But the militarization of the border has increased dramatically in recent years.
With the approval of Reagan's successor, George Bush, Congress extended "detection and monitoring" authority to the military within 30 miles of the border. On any given day, about 100 missions are under way without fanfare, officials said.
"We try to minimize any possibility of confrontation with anybody," Hungerbeeler said. "Not just confrontation, we don't want to be seen. We don't want to be noticed. We don't want to be heard. We don't want people to know we're there. "That's really of training value to us because of what we would have to do in wartime."
Although JTF-6 fields pleas for help from law enforcement agencies across the nation, most petitions come from the Border Patrol. To help seal the porous frontier, troops have patrolled, made aerial maps, planted seismographic motion detectors and built several miles of solid-steel fences in heavily trafficked areas of California and Arizona.
Task force lawyers review requests to make sure only those with a counterdrug connection are authorized, officials said. Consequently, JTF-6 declined a Border Patrol request to build a mammoth fence near El Paso in New Mexico.
"Last year, we were instrumental in taking over $1 billion worth of drugs off the table. That was over 150 tons of cocaine, and that's significant," Hungerbeeler said. He explained that the sum includes only those seizures that law enforcement agencies said were made possible only with military assistance.
Still, public concerns about JTF-6 are widespread. Although task force officials said they are proud of their environmental record, ecologists claim that border fences are harming the habitat of jaguars, flat-tailed horned lizards and other wildlife in Arizona and cut off movement across the border.
"JTF-6 is an agency that believes itself to be exempt from our nation's wildlife laws," said David Hogan, desert rivers program coordinator for the Southwest Biodiversity Project in Tucson, Ariz. "JTF-6 has fundamentally rejected any wildlife conservation measures on the border."
Immigration rights activists complain as well. They have described the Redford shooting as a "human rights violation" that resulted from a "covert operation." "This was bound to happen," said Roberto Martinez of the American Friends Services Committee in San Diego.
Gov. George W. Bush likewise has raised questions about JTF-6. Responding to a citizen's complaint about Hernandez's slaying, Bush said, "I am concerned about the militarization of the Texas border. I support the use of military equipment and supplies to help fight drug trafficking, but I believe the U.S. Border Patrol should be in charge of the border."
Yet Hungerbeeler insisted that JTF-6 fulfills a valuable purpose, especially while the Border Patrol and DEA seem overwhelmed.
"I wish, personally, that the Border Patrol had all the resources that it needs to do its job and didn't have to ask for help," he said. "I wish the DEA did not have to ask for help. But in the meantime, we have a lot that we can offer."
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