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By SAM HOWE VERHOVEK|
REDFORD, Texas -- It was an encounter between four camouflage-clad United States marines and a young man herding his family's goats on a rocky, desolate bluff of desert above the Rio Grande. It ended when one marine fired his M-16 rifle and hit the local teen-ager, Esequiel Hernandez Jr., who bled to death on a windswept hill overlooking his adobe home and the cemetery where he was buried a few days later.
As the controversy continues to deepen over just what happened here on the Mexican border on one evening late last month, the incident has also raised a wider question, one being asked angrily by people in this tiny village in the Big Bend of West Texas and one currently being debated in Congress.
Should the soldiers have been here?
The marines, from Camp Pendleton, Calif., were on a drug-surveillance mission, part of a growing military presence along the border that began a decade ago, when the Reagan administration secured a historic loosening of 19th-century laws forbidding the use of military forces in domestic law-enforcement operations.
With Mexico now the prime gateway for cocaine and other illegal narcotics coming into the United States, many in Congress say the military's role in the nation's war on drugs should be vastly expanded.
But critics of the policy say the death of Hernandez, who had no criminal record and is not described by anyone as any kind of suspect in the drug trade, is a chilling example of the misunderstandings and the tragedies that they say will inevitably occur with the militarization of the border or any other patch of American soil.
Days after the incident, which occurred on May 20, the deputy commander of military operations along the border stepped forward to defend the soldiers, saying they had acted in "strict compliance with the rules of engagement." That proposition itself is sharply debated by Texas officials, who say they have found numerous inconsistencies in the Marines' account of acting in self-defense after the 18-year-old Hernandez pointed his World War I-era shotgun at them.
As the citizens of Redford, who said they had never been told that armed forces were in their area on patrol, continue to mourn the death of a young man widely described as polite and bashful, they find the military's defense -- and the terminology it used -- deeply disturbing.
"What are these 'rules of engagement?' " asked Diana Valenzuela, a neighbor of the Hernandez family, whose trailer is just down the hill from the spot where Hernandez died, six days after his 18th birthday. "We had no idea we were being engaged in the first place. I was amazed when I heard that the military was walking around the hills in our backyard."
Leonel Ceniceros, a local schoolteacher, said: "It seems crazy to me now that they were even here. When you think about it, these are young marines brought in here from out of state. They've probably been told there are drug dealers all over the place, you're in enemy territory, protect yourself. But the result is, this good young man is dead."
Maureen Bossch, a spokeswoman for Joint Task Force 6, the El Paso-based military unit that conducts the border operations, said the military forces were "extra eyes and ears" for domestic federal agents and typically act as covert observers.
While not allowed to make arrests, they have carried out hundreds of observation sorties along the border, passing on information to the Border Patrol and drug-enforcement agents.
There is no question that drugs come into the United States all along the 2,000-mile border and that armed bandits pose a major threat to federal law-enforcement agents. But in poverty-plagued Redford, population 90, where people struggle to grow alfalfa and onions or ranch on the harsh land, residents say no one here is getting rich off the drug trade.
They seem to worry most that officials in Washington, in declaring a war on drugs, have turned their home into a war zone.
Moreover, they say, it is not always easy to tell who the good guys are. One of the county's biggest drug dealers ever is the former sheriff, Rick Thompson, sentenced five years ago to a life term for conspiracy to smuggle more than 2,000 pounds of cocaine.
Ms. Bossch said that contact of any kind between the armed marines and Hernandez would be highly unusual. "They're certainly not looking for confrontation with anyone," she said, "whether civilians or drug traffickers."
The incident itself, which is the first killing of an American civilian by troops since the armed forces were stationed along the border eight years ago, remains shrouded in extraordinary legal contention. Albert Valadez, the district attorney representing a six-county area here, plans to bring all the evidence before a grand jury next month, holding out the possibility that one or more of the marines could be indicted on a murder charge.
According to the military's account, provided at a news conference in Marfa, Texas, in late May by Marine Col. Thomas R. Kelly, the deputy commander of the military's anti-drug task force, the marines were at the end of a three-day observation mission in the hills above the Rio Grande when Hernandez fired two shots in their direction with the .22-caliber shotgun he had inherited from his grandfather. They crouched in self-defense, Kelly said, and one of them fired only when the young man threatened them with another shot, the colonel said.
But the marines had followed the youth for about 20 minutes through the hills, and his fatal bullet wound indicates that he was not aiming at the soldiers when he was shot from a distance of about 230 yards, said James Jepson, the prosecutor in charge of the case. "The problem is, the evidence at the scene and the evidence from the autopsy are not consistent with the marines' statements," Jepson said in an interview.
Texas Rangers Capt. Barry Caver, the chief negotiator in the surrender last month of the Republic of Texas separatist group and who is also investigating this incident, said recently, "It just doesn't sound like your typical self-defense case."
Moreover, while Kelly said the youth had known that he was firing directly at people, investigators here say that if he fired at all in the direction of the camouflaged soldiers -- a fact not yet established -- he may well have had no idea that they were there but instead thought he was firing at a javelina or other wild animal that prowls the hills here and threatens livestock.
That he was carrying a gun was not unusual. Nearly everyone here has one, and Hernandez, who was widely known as "Junior" in Redford, carried one with him as he took his 40 goats up into the hills every afternoon after he returned home from nearby Presidio High School.
Investigators also said they were disturbed that the marines had waited 22 minutes to radio for medical assistance for the young man, had rendered no first aid other than to check his pulse as he lay dying and had initially told a deputy sheriff arriving at the scene that the youth had hurt himself by falling into a well.
The four marines were sent back to Camp Pendleton in Southern California, and a spokeswoman there said that they had "returned to business as usual," carrying out their normal duties, and that none were available to discuss the incident. "It's never a good idea to let them do interview kinds of things when there's an investigation going on," said Lt. Megan Mason, the camp's media liaison.
Valadez, the local district attorney, has complained that the Marines had failed to provide sufficient cooperation in the case, though that assertion has been heatedly denied by the military.
"The U.S. Marine Corps is committed to the full factual investigation into all of the events related to this tragic incident so that it is never repeated," said a statement issued by the First Marine Expeditionary Force in Camp Pendleton.
Just what steps might be taken to avoid a similar incident will surely be a subject of intense debate. Many drug-enforcement officials describe the military as providing critical logistical support and intelligence in the drug war, and many members of Congress have proposed measures to expand the deployment of the anti-drug military forces on the border or even give them wider authority to apprehend suspected drug runners.
The Clinton administration, meanwhile, is expected to issue a report this fall calling for a tripling of Border Patrol agents, to 20,000 from 6,200, in tandem with a gradual phasing out of the military along the border. In the interim, Douglas Kruhm, the Border Patrol's chief, has proposed that at least one agent accompany all military expeditions along the border.
But for the people here, none of this will bring back Junior Hernandez, who had dreams of being a park ranger, and almost everyone here remains incensed about his death.
"The marines left their observation post, they stalked him, they came onto private property," said the Rev. Mel LaFollette, a retired Episcopal priest and friend of the Hernandez family. "And then they killed him."
They also remain convinced that he would never have engaged the marines in a gun battle.
"There's no way Esequiel would have initiated anything like that," said his high school principal, Teloa Swinnea. "If anything, he stood out because he was so respectful. That's why this is such an atrocity."
Enrique R. Madrid, who knew Hernandez all his life, said: "I'm telling you, the only way they could have botched this up more was if they shot Mother Teresa. If there was one truly innocent man on the border, it was this young man. And he's the one who got killed."
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