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Emergency at the border
Oakland Tribune July 8, 1997

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By Raoul Contreras

DASHING in from school, he grabbed a sandwich, his .22-caliber rifle, his hat and headed for the desert brash to tend the family's goat herd. The desert of Texas is a dangerous place, what with snakes, coyotes and wild pigs, javelinas; six-guns, rifles and shotguns are necessary to survival.

Ezequiel Hernandez was 18 years old the last time he took his goats out to forage May 20. Late that afternoon, Ezequiel saw something to shoot at; no one knows what. He fired twice, then walked away, tending his foraging goats. As far as he knew, there wasn't a soul within a mile.

He didn't see four clumps of bushes, individually and apart, following him; at least they looked like bushes. They followed him hundreds of yards: the length of 2 football fields at least. They were United States Marines. They were part of Joint Task Force-6, a combined military and Border Patrol operation assigned to sniff out drug smugglers in the desert.

This and other similar task forces have been operating along the Mexican border for five years or so, with minimal publicity. Minimal publicity is called for, you see, because using soldiers as police to enforce civilian laws is illegal. It has been since the 1870s.

FEDERAL troops were used in Los Angeles in 1992 when looters and thugs torched the city and killed at will. But that was a true emergency. Today, there are some who think we should use troops on the border, for they consider the daily movement of drugs across the border an emergency.

They think it's an "invasion," a threat to our "sovereignty," a "mortal threat" to the United States of America, in general, and to California and the Southwest, in particular. They want troops on the border. They want them now!

Democratic Congressman James Trafficante of Ohio does also. That's why he introduced a bill that passed in the House of Representatives authorizing the president to use up to 10,000 troops on the border just a month after Ezequiel Hernandez went out the last time to herd his goats.

No such effort exists, however, in the Senate.

Using hand signals, and heavily trained movements, these four Marines moved like phantoms across the desert, from rock to rock, bush to bush, arroyo to arroyo, stalking the 18-year-old, the boy who didn't have a clue they were there. Nor was he aware, we think, that anyone was anywhere in the area when he fired his rifle twice.

As the boy raised his rifle to fire again, at whatever it was he saw, Cpl. (E-4) Clemente Banuelos, United States Marine, Fire Team leader, from a concealed prone position 240 yards to Hernandez' right, squeezed off one single round from his M-16 rifle.

Hernandez fell in his tracks, one shot through his right ribs. Twenty-two minutes later, the Marines radioed the Border Patrol that a "man was down." The patrol arrived 20 minutes later. Two minutes after they arrived, a helicopter was called. No matter, the boy was dead.

The Marines were interviewed by sheriff's deputies, then spirited out of Texas four days later. The Texas Rangers entered the case. The Rangers have not been permitted to re-interview the Marines. The Rangers' investigation includes a walk-through of the shooting scene. In brief, the facts as related by the Marines don't fit with the scene and physical evidence.

RANGER Captain Barry Carver is quoted in the Associated Press as saying, "a lot of little things don't quite fit." The Rangers and district attorneys are talking indictment of Cpl. Banuelos, indictment for murder, and of the three other Marines on lesser charges, criminal negligence and reckless endangerment of human life.

The Marines? "We fully stand behind the level of training our Marines receive and believe the Marines in this case acted in accordance with the established rules of engagement and were using lawful self-defense," stated Major Len Ryan on the weekend news leaked out of possible indictments. They have assigned a Marine lawyer to advise Banuelos, who's stationed at Camp Pendleton, 1,500 miles west of where Hernandez was killed.

Marines who have actually served in the desert on this task force duty revealed that few, if any, Marines who have so served, care for the idea and believe that the $100,000 spent to have their team in the desert for several weeks could have been better spent.

If Banuelos is charged and found guilty, he will be punished. One wonders, however, if the rocket scientists who dreamed up assigning troops to the border and were, as the Mexicans say, the "intellectual authors" of the death of Ezequiel Hernandez, American citizen, will ever be punished, as well.

Raoul Contreras is a columnist and radio talk show host based in San Diego.

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

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