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Houston Chronicle July 30, 1997

Pentagon ends patrol on border
Grand jury to start probe of teen's fatal shooting

By WILLIAM E. CLAYTON JR. Copyright 1997 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon's anti-drug patrolling role on the U.S.-Mexico border has been suspended indefinitely, pending inquiries prompted by the killing of a Texas teen-ager, military officials said Tuesday.

Anti-drug patrols in Texas were suspended shortly after the shooting, and Defense Secretary William Cohen has broadened the order to cover all anti-drug units along the border.

A South Texas grand jury is to begin an investigation today into the fatal shooting in May of 18-year-old Esequiel Hernandez of Redford, who was killed while tending the family goats. The Marines have said the leader of a surveillance unit fired on Hernandez after the young goatherd fired his rifle twice.

The "entire policy" involving military troops helping in anti- drug patrolling and reconnaissance along the border is being looked into, said Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon.

"That review has several elements to it. One is whether it's appropriate for troops to be involved in border patrol activities. Another is, if it is appropriate for them to be involved . . . what are the proper procedures for them, what's the proper relationship between them and the Border Patrol and other law enforcement agencies?"

Although the support personnel in drug operations might total into the many hundreds, the troops whose role was suspended indefinitely were "mainly the folks out on the ground," said Ensign Kevin Stephens of the U.S. Atlantic Command in Norfolk, Va.

He said the ground personnel would total no more than a few dozen at any given time, out of a pool of "a couple hundred" who might fill patrol assignments. The front-line troops would be staffing patrols, listening posts, ground radar equipment and remote sensors.

Other military personnel in the anti-drug effort are involved in airborne reconnaissance, communications and record-keeping, and are unaffected by Cohen's order, Stephens said.

The suspension applies only to "the people who could get into a similar situation" as the deadly confrontation in Redford, Stephens said.

Cohen issued the order suspending the drug patrols on Thursday, but it was not revealed until Tuesday.

Bacon said one part of the military's inquiry will be the legal rights of the military personnel taking part in the border patrols.

"I'm basically talking about their liability to civil or criminal legal action for performing their jobs under the rules of engagement and the procedures that have been assigned to them by the military, and that has to be sorted out," Bacon said.

The issue of liability for the death of a civilian "is in dispute" in the border matter, Bacon said.

"That is something that domestic law enforcement agencies are looking at and its something that we want to look at as well," he said.

Bacon said that although the investigation has no set completion date, "The military is very committed to providing support to the war on drugs." He estimated the support at $800 million to $1 billion a year, mainly in reconnaissance, listening and observations.

"We will continue to play a role of some sort," Bacon said. "The question is what that role will be."

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, who chairs the House immigration subcommittee, said Cohen's decision to suspend the patrols seriously weakens protections against drugs and illegal immigration.

"The Clinton administration has dragged its feet on adding enough Border Patrol agents to confront this problem and now they're depriving understaffed border agencies of their eyes and ears," Smith said.

Larry Neal, a spokesman for Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, said his boss has pressed for beefing up the Border Patrol, but that the Clinton administration has budgeted a much lower force than Congress has authorized.

Gramm believes that "militarization of the border" is not the solution to its problems, Neal said.

Bacon pointed out that the military's role on the border is limited.

The civilian Border Patrol personnel far outnumber the military personnel assigned to anti-drug duties, he said, but if the military role were ended, "then the Border Patrol would have to be enhanced in some way to fill that gap."

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

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