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By SAM HOWE VERHOVEK|
New York Times, July 31, 1997
HOUSTON -- Facing a storm of controversy over a U.S. Marine corporal's fatal shooting of a local teen-ager along the Rio Grande on the Texas-Mexico border, the Pentagon has abruptly suspended all anti-drug operations by military forces along the entire Mexican, Defense Department officials said Wednesday.
The announcement came as a grand jury convened Wednesday in West Texas to consider criminal charges against the four Marines who were involved in the May 20 shooting in Texas' Big Bend region of Esequiel Hernandez Jr., 18, who was tending his family's goat herd at the time.
Marine officials had initially offered a staunch defense of the men involved in the shooting, saying they had acted in self-defense after Hernandez, of Redford, Texas, fired his shotgun in their direction and that the Marines had followed the military's "rules of engagement."
But Texas investigators said that they had found numerous discrepancies in the Marines' account, and said they thought the young man might not have even known there were Marines in the area when he was fatally stricken. He was not a suspect in any drug-related activity and had no criminal record.
The military's drug patrol, which involves observation of suspected drug corridors along the border, began nearly a decade ago after the Reagan administration secured a loosening of 19th-century laws prohibiting the use of military forces in domestic law-enforcement operations. While soldiers are not authorized to engage drug suspects or arrest them, they have been charged with reporting their observations to federal agents with the Border Patrol or the Drug Enforcement Administration, who can make arrests.
The suspension of all military anti-drug activities was ordered by Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, said Lt. Commander Scott Campbell, a Pentagon spokesman. While anti-drug patrols in Texas had been halted several weeks ago pending an inquiry into the shooting, Cohen's order covers the entireborder and will include a review not only of military procedures in any operations along the border, but also of the legal rights of soldiers who take part.
At a briefing for reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon, Kenneth Bacon, another Defense Department spokesman, said the military was concerned that soldiers who follow proper military rules be protected against civilian prosecution. "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," Bacon said.
However, prosecutors in West Texas have already suggested that Hernandez might have been unjustly killed, and the 12-member grand jury meeting Wednesday in Marfa, Texas, was considering whether criminal charges should be lodged against Marine Cpl. Clemente Banuelos, who fired the fatal shot with his M-16 rifle, or against any of the other three Marines.
Military spokesmen have maintained that Banuelos fired to protect one of his men, James Matthew Blood, after Hernandez fired twice at the patrol and then raised his rifle in preparation for a third shot.
"This was a tragedy, but not a criminal act," said Jack Zimmermann, a lawyer for Banuelos. But investigators for the Texas Rangers and for the local district attorney's office that covers the region say they believe that Hernandez never saw the camouflaged troops, and that an autopsy report indicated he was not facing the soldiers when he was killed.
The killing was the first of a U.S. civilian by troops since the armed forces were stationed along the border eight years ago.
When or even whether the military's anti-drug patrols will be restarted along the border is unclear, although Bacon, at the Pentagon, told reporters that the military remained "very committed to providing support to the war on drugs."
The grand jury that is hearing evidence in West Texas will likely review the statements by military officials in support of the Marines, as well as testimony from some local citizens that has contradicted the soldiers' account.
Several people living near the windswept hill along the river where Hernandez was shot say they heard only one shot -- the one that killed the young man -- and not the ones that the Marines had said he fired in their direction.
The shooting itself sparked considerable debate over the military's presence in the region, and several rallies have been held in El Paso and other border cities to protest what some groups opposed to the policy have called the "militarization" of the U.S.-Mexican border.
At the same time, though, there has been considerable support in Congress for the notion of using the military to help stop drugs from coming across the border.
Many people in Hernandez's hometown of Redford, a tiny farming community along the Rio Grande, have expressed dismay over the shooting and have angrily called for criminal charges not only against Banuelos and his fellow Marines, but against other military officials as well.
"The community feels that there are others in the chain of command in the various agencies above these low-ranking persons who should be sought out and made to admit responsibility for the sorry desecration of traditional American values," said a recent letter from the Redford Citizens Committee for Justice that was sent to Albert Valadez, the district attorney for the six-county region that includes the spot where Hernandez was shot.
The incident has also sparked tension between the Pentagon and other government agencies. The military official who oversaw the joint operations between the armed forces and the Border Patrol at the time of the shooting, Air Force Col. Henry Hungerbeeler, said recently that the incident might have been averted if Border Patrol agents had responded more quickly to the Marines' initial report about sighting Hernandez.The colonel made his comments at a community meeting in El Paso.
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