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Fatal Error: The Pentagon's War on Drugs Takes a Toll on the Innocent

Austin Chronicle (Texas)
December 25, 1998

by Monte Paulsen

On the day he died, Esequiel Hernandez Jr. took his goats to the river. He led them from their makeshift pens of wire and branch, then shooed them down the dusty lane. They wandered past the ruins of the Spanish mission, through the abandoned U.S. Army post, and down a stony bluff to the Rio Grande.

When he reached the crest of the bluff, Hernandez stopped. Behind him lay the mud-red adobe homes and melon-green alfalfa fields of Redford, Texas. Before him stretched the Chihuahuan desert, Texas' vast gravel backyard, speckled with squat greasewood bushes and whip-like ocotillo plants. Except for Hernandez, whose goats brought him here late each afternoon, the residents of the little oasis rarely ventured into this no man's land.

But on this, his final walk to the river, Hernandez spotted something in the desert. It looked small and shaggy. He'd lost a goat not long before. He suspected wild dogs had taken it. His herd was already at the river's edge, halfway to the gray-brown creature. It moved. He couldn't afford to lose another goat. He raised his ancient .22-caliber rifle and aimed into the desert.

Twenty minutes later, Hernandez's 18-year-old body lay grotesquely twisted across a stone cistern at the edge of the village. He died trying to protect his goats. He was killed by a 22-year-old soldier trying to protect America's youth from drugs.

When Esequiel Hernandez Jr. died, he became the first civilian killed by U.S. troops since the student massacre at Kent State University in 1970. His death led to a temporary suspension of troop patrols near the U.S.-Mexican border. And last month, the government paid his family $1.9 million to settle a wrongful death claim.

At the same time, Clemente Manuel Banuelos became the first-ever member of the United States Marine Corps to kill a fellow citizen on U.S. soil. Four investigations and three grand juries probed the May 1997 shooting. Each concluded that because Banuelos followed orders, he was innocent of criminal wrongdoing. Those who issued the orders were never tried. Both young men became victims of the Pentagon's quixotic $1 billion-a-year war on drugs.

Hooked on Drug Money

Hernandez's days were numbered since 1989, the year then-President George Bush waved a bag of crack on TV. Seated in the Oval Office with pictures of his family behind him, Bush held up the clear plastic bag and told the nation that it was crack cocaine seized in the park located directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.

U.S. presidents have been declaring "war on drugs" ever since the Nixon administration. Bush's remedies were much the same as those proposed by his predecessors: more cops, stiffer sentences. But because few police officers and no judges report to the White House, most presidents waged this war rhetorically. Bush changed that. He ordered the Pentagon to the frontlines of the drug war.

For more than a century, stationing U.S. soldiers in American backyards was against the law. The Posse Comitatus Act, passed by Congress in 1878, made it a felony to deputize the armed services for domestic duty. Thus, since Reconstruction, not the U.S. Army but state-run National Guard units were called on to suppress labor strikes, race riots, student protests, and other acts of civil disobedience. Today, this separation of military and police powers no longer exists, though it is still touted in high school civics textbooks as a hallmark of U.S. society and democratic ideals.

Congress began chipping away at Posse Comitatus in 1982 -- the same year then-Vice President Bush was put in charge of the War on Drugs -- with a defense bill that allowed the military to loan equipment and facilities to civilian law enforcement agencies. A 1989 bill went further, allowing military personnel to work in the field. And a 1991 act authorized the services to conduct armed anti-drug reconnaissance missions. The definition of these missions has been expanded in every defense bill since.

Just two months after Bush waved his bag of crack, the Pentagon created Joint Task Force Six (JTF-6). Headquartered in a former Army stockade near El Paso, JTF-6 was initially conceived as a temporary operation, with duties confined to the U.S.-Mexican border. As it now approaches its 10th birthday, JTF-6 is one of the longest running task forces in U.S. military history. More than 72,000 soldiers have served in JTF-6 operations scattered across 30 states.

Many JTF-6 missions do not involve combat troops. The Army Corps of Engineers, for example, has built hundreds of miles of fencing and roads along the U.S.-Mexico border. Others, such as the mission to Redford, have placed armed soldiers in American backyards.

JTF-6 cannot launch a mission on its own. The work must be requested by a civilian law enforcement agency fighting drugs within one of the nation's 21 High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas. But the U.S. Border Patrol is JTF-6's main client. The two agencies have collaborated on an average of 157 missions a year.

The mission to Redford, for instance, began with a request from the Border Patrol's sector headquarters in Marfa. Spanning 2,200 square miles of West Texas desert, Marfa is the most rural and least active of nine sectors along the U.S.-Mexican border. As a result, Marfa also has the fewest agents. So in 1996, the sector chief requested JTF-6's help. The request was approved by Operation Alliance -- JTF-6's civilian sister agency -- and the El Paso task force issued a call for military volunteers.

The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force quickly signed on. Like the Border Patrol, the California-based 1st Marines were regulars at JTF-6's desert headquarters. The 1st Marines participated in 119 missions prior to Redford, with 28 scheduled for 1997 alone. And like the Border Patrol, the 1st Marines were hooked on drug interdiction money. The division burned an extra $9.1 million worth of JTF-6 green during the four years prior to the Redford mission. Wrote the ranking general: "Unequivocally, my commanders depend on, and plan for, this annual infusion."

Friendly Fire

Late one afternoon in February 1997 -- the very same month that JTF-6 and the 1st Marines began planning the Redford mission -- Border Patrol agents Johnny Urias and James DeMatteo heard gunshots while patrolling the Redford riverfront. Urias and DeMatteo were at the landing used by Juan Olivas, Redford's part-time boatman. Olivas rows passengers across the Rio Grande for 50 cents a head. If a friend lacks the fare, Olivas has been known to take groceries in trade. The service isn't legal. Nor is it lucrative. For most of the year, the river is shallow enough to ford without getting a knee wet.

The two agents were walking among the cottonwood trees by the river, Urias recalled, when they heard a "firecracker kind of pop at a distance." DeMatteo recalled "three popping sounds coming from out left." Unsure what was happening, they climbed back into their truck and drove slowly up the dusty lane to Farm Road 170, the two-lane blacktop that winds through Redford.

Before they reached the village, a beat-up truck approached them from behind. It flashed its headlights. The agents stopped. So did the old white pickup. A boy hopped out and ran up to the Border Patrol vehicle. "I'm sorry that I was shooting," the agents recalled the boy telling them. "I thought someone was doing something to my goats. I didn't know you were back there."

The tall, lanky teenager was Esequiel Hernandez Jr. Known as "Skeetch" or "Zeke" to his friends, and simply as "Junior" to the adults in the village, Esequiel was the sixth of eight children of Maria de la Luz and Esequiel Hernandez Sr.

Esequiel Sr. farms a small tract of land in the oldest part of Redford, called El Polvo. It was named after a Catholic mission established here in 1684. The Franciscans called it San Jose Del Polvo, or St. Joseph of the Dust. The name fits. The Hernandez family draws its blood from this river, and this dust.

High mountains let few raindrops pass into this part of the desert. But where the river floods, there are small strips of muddy soil. The adobe-and-cinder-block village of Redford stands in the desert above one such stretch of precious red soil, every inch of which is planted in alfalfa, melons, pumpkins, or other crops.

Esequiel Jr. was a popular kid at Presidio High. He was the only boy to sign up for the folk dance troupe. He was a straight kid who didn't smoke, drink, or do drugs, according to his peers. His only brushes with the law were a result of his habit of driving without a license -- a common West Texas transgression.

Esequiel wasn't college bound. The only visible indication of personal ambition was a large Marine Corps recruiting poster mounted on the wall above his bed. For the time being, he played cowboy. He rode horses in parades wearing an embroidered shirt and large white hat. When he wasn't on horseback, he helped his father tend the family's 43 goats. It was his chore to walk them to the river each afternoon. And he usually took with him a World War I-era .22-caliber rifle his grandfather had given him. The old gun was mechanically unreliable, but straight shooting. This, too, he hung on the wall above his bed.

As the February sun crept behind the high, hard mountains to the west, Urias and DeMatteo studied the boy who had followed them down the dusty lane. No harm intended, they figured. No harm done. Urias left the boy with a friendly warning. "Use more discretion when shooting your weapon," he later recalled telling Esequiel. "Especially at night."

Team 7 Takes the Field

Corporal Banuelos first set foot in the Redford desert three months later. On the morning of May 13, 1997, as he scouted the stony bluff just downstream from El Polvo with his commanding officer, Capt. Lance McDaniel, Banuelos noticed an empty cardboard bullet box that had contained .22 caliber rounds. Unaware of the Hernandez's habits, the pair speculated that the box had been left by drug smugglers. McDaniel picked Banuelos to lead a four-man team that would surveil the Redford crossing. The 22-year-old corporal's team, called Team 7, was to watch the crossing at night, and radio reports of any illegal activity to the Border Patrol. During the day, Banuelos and his men were to retreat to a "hide site" in an arroyo just downriver. There the soldiers were to conceal themselves from the villagers.

The assignment was a coup for Banuelos, who was not much older than Hernandez when he joined the Marine Corps. The boy from San Francisco had matured noticeably during his three years in service, earning an achievement medal rarely awarded such a junior enlisted man. And now, while still a corporal, he had been selected to lead an observation team at Redford. All the other team leaders were sergeants. If the mission went smoothly, Banuelos would soon be a sergeant, too.

But mission No. JT414-97A, as the soldiers called it, was not going smoothly. For although McDaniel's senior officers at 1st Division HQ were hot to take JTF-6's money, their support for the captain's efforts to prepare for the mission was tepid at best.

McDaniel was hamstrung at every turn by bureaucracy, paperwork, and the fact that 1st Division's command viewed the mission as little more than a free training exercise. That's the conclusion of an exhaustive report authored by retired Maj. Gen. John T. Coyne, from which many of the operational details described in this story were drawn. The Coyne report highlights how different police work is from military action, and harshly rebukes the 1st Division for failing to adequately prepare its soldiers for this policing mission.

In one striking example, McDaniel's men were pulled away from a training exercise in order to participate in a dress uniform review. The officers' club mentality was visible in a statement from the man who ordered McDaniel's men to participate in the formality. Maj. Steven Hogg said he was comfortable with the order because he "was satisfied that Capt. McDaniel was hitting all the wickets."

As a result of this type of bureaucratic interference, Capt. McDaniel was able to conduct only three days of training before his teams left Camp Pendleton for Texas. And because mission assignments weren't settled until the last minute, Team 7 never trained as a unit.

Cpl. Roy Torrez Jr., Banuelos' second in command, hadn't received any field instruction since his basic Marine combat training after boot camp. Torrez, whose main job in the Marine Corps was driving a tow truck, was also Team 7 medic. He had completed a first-aid course in order to meet a quota at the garage where he worked. Like Torrez, Lance Cpl. Ronald Wieler had received no field training since basic. Wieler was a radio operator. Most of his preparation consisted of cutting rags and sewing his own camouflage "ghillie suit." Lance Cpl. James Blood, the team's junior man, did attend the three days of training. But Blood was assigned to another team during that time, and hadn't even met his teammates until the day before McDaniel and Banuelos found the empty bullet box by the river. Upon returning from that walk, McDaniel briefed his men at a Marfa base camp. The two-hour talk addressed safety issues, communication protocols, and the "rules of engagement." The soldiers were handed ROE cards that listed specifically what they could and could not do. They were told what to do if they encountered drug smugglers. But they neither discussed nor rehearsed what to do if they came across a civilian.

Staff Sgt. Daren Dewbre concluded the briefing, warning the soldiers that drug gangs posed an "organized, sophisticated, and dangerous enemy." He told them that other teams had taken fire on previous missions. He told them that "the enemy" would employ armed lookouts -- and that some villagers were in cahoots with the smugglers. His briefing notes read: "Redford is not a friendly town."

Men With Guns

Redford is one of the most remote towns in the United States. It is also one of the oldest. And it's among the most often visited by soldiers. Located in Presidio County, eight hours west of San Antonio and five hours east of El Paso, Redford is in many ways more Mexican than American. Spanish is the language of choice. The most popular shopping center is in Ojinaga, a Mexican border town half an hour upriver. An American flag flies out front of Redford Elementary School. But its flagpole erupts from the center of the school's basketball court, leaving visitors to wonder whether the patriot who erected the pole was entirely familiar with the rules of the game. Directly across Farm Road 170 -- which until it was paved in the 1960s was called Muerte del Burro, or Death of the Donkey -- stands the Madrid library. In 1979, schoolteacher Lucia Rede Madrid started the small library in her husband's store. She loaned books to the kids in Redford, and also to Mexican kids from across the river. By the mid-Eighties, her library had swelled to an estimated 50,000 volumes, overflowing both the store and the attached stucco home. Lucia's "bridge of books" earned her two presidential medals, and made her the most famous person in Redford -- until Zeke.

Three Days in the Desert

Banuelos and his team were dropped off along Farm Road 170 late Saturday night, May 17. The soldiers leaped out of the Chevy Suburban wearing camouflage face paint and shaggy burlap "ghillie suits." They carried two five-gallon water cans, two radios, and assorted gear. Each carried his M-16A2 rifle. Team 7 walked half a mile to the observation post. The team they were replacing was dehydrated and nauseous after its three-day tour. The departing team commander told Banuelos: "Watch out for the goats." Banuelos, Torrez, Wieler, and Blood settled into the stony bluff above the river. A canopy of stars revealed itself overhead. They saw two vehicles cross the river that night, and radioed the Border Patrol both times. As dawn came Sunday, Banuelos moved his men to the arroyo. The day passed slowly, punctuated by fitful naps. The goats came in the afternoon -- dozens of them, scrabbling through the hide site, foraging among the greasewood bushes. Some came so close that one soldier feared they would gnaw on his leaf-like ghillie suit.

Team 7 moved up to the observation post early that evening, some time between 7-8pm. This was a departure from mission JT414-97A's plan, which instructed them not to move until after dark. The soldiers reported more vehicle crossings that night -- pickups, Suburbans, and Blazers rolling back and forth across the river. But the Border Patrol only stopped one or two.

On Monday the desert began to be very hot. At midday, the surface temperature of the Chihuahuan desert can reach 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Snakes stay in their burrows to avoid being cooked. The soldiers had no burrows. They lay on hot stones, wrapped in their burlap suits. Each man had only three quarts of water per day. All they had to eat were fibrous goo bars called Meals Ready to Eat, like Slim-Fast shakes without the liquid.

The goats returned in the afternoon. They stuffed their mouths with desert weeds. They gurgled as they drank deeply from the river. By that evening, Team 7 had begun to realize that El Polvo was a well-worn crossing, and that most of what was smuggled across wasn't drugs. Vehicles of every description arrived laden with tires, cement, furniture, produce, and other contraband. Torrez and Blood griped about how rarely the Border Patrol responded to their calls. "If they don't care," Blood recalled asking, "why do we need to be out here?"

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

In fact, they didn't need to be there -- at least not in May. A decade's worth of federal statistics prove it: More than 85% of all illegal drugs entering the United States arrive via official Ports of Entry monitored by the Customs Service. Most come concealed within legitimate cargo. Nearly 100% of all heroin shipped to the United States last year flowed through official ports, according to federal estimates, and 99% of the methamphetamine tumbled through those same ports.

Ninety-seven percent of the cocaine blew in this way as well. Marijuana is the lone exception. Half the weed consumed in this country is grown here. Much of the rest comes across at places like El Polvo. Last fall, the Border Patrol caught a motor home stuffed with 2,700 pounds of marijuana. Its driver claimed he crossed at El Polvo. Large busts like this happen every fall. That's because marijuana is a crop. Most of it gets harvested and shipped across the border in the fall and winter. Only tourists and amateurs bother smuggling in May.

If Congress were serious about employing the armed forces to stop the northward flow of drugs, it would post search teams at each of the 39 customs checkpoints along the 2,000-mile border. Three and a half million trucks rolled through in 1996. Customs was able to inspect but a quarter of them.

The main reason these trucks go uninspected is because truckers -- and the corporations who hire them -- complain the wait at customs is too long. These corporations, which finance political life in America, complain to Congress that more searches would slow down the progress of the North AmericanFree Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

But Washington wants it both ways. It wants to stop the flow of drugs and immigrants while increasing the flow of goods and services. Putting troops in places such as Redford is a compromise. It allows Congress to appear tough on drugs, while not hindering trade. Congress has strained to expand the military's role along the border ever since JTF-6 was created. Both the House and Senate versions of the 1989 bill would have given the military the power to arrest civilians. These provisions were killed as a result of strong opposition from the Pentagon, which trains soldiers to kill their enemies, not arrest them. Many, many military scholars warn that training the armed services to do police work will render them unprepared for actual combat.

Timothy Dunn chronicles America's longstanding efforts to station soldiers along the Rio Grande in his book The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border. The El Paso-based professor explains how "complex international issues such as undocumented immigration and illegal drug trafficking are reduced to one-sided, domestic border-control problems, and framed as threats to national security, which in turn require strong law enforcement, or even military responses."

Even as Banuelos was struggling to prepare his team for mission JT414-97A, U.S. Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, was pushing a 1997 bill that would have put 10,000 troops on the U.S.-Mexican border. Traficant reintroduced the troop plan this year, and tore a page from Dunn's book when he said on the House floor: "The border is a national security issue, and, by God, the Congress of the United States better start securing our borders." The House passed the Ohio congressman's amendment in June, along with proposals for bigger fences, fancier technology, and more agents along the border. The Senate nixed the Traficant plan, but moved to swell the ranks of the Border Patrol from 6,200 to more than 20,000 agents.

"It's an easy, simple, and politically safe target," says Kevin Zeese, who heads the nonprofit group Common Sense for Drug Policy. "Shout 'drug war' as loud as you can, and you sound like you are protecting America's youth."

"Fire Back"

Esequiel Jr. got home from school about 4pm on the day he died. He thanked the driver of the big yellow bus and walked down the lane to his family's little rancheria. He studied his driver's handbook, then he helped his father unload some hay. After that it was time to walk the goats.

Banuelos led his men out of the hide site even earlier that afternoon. It was three full hours before nightfall. They hadn't even seen the goats yet. They were hot, tired, hungry, dehydrated, and still dressed like shrubs. They looked forward to being relieved shortly after dark. As Team 7 crept toward the observation post, Banuelos spotted a man on a horse on the Mexican side. The corporal put his team in a halt. Just then, Esequiel and his goats crested the small bluff. The soldiers -- who had been warned to expect armed lookouts and "unfriendly villagers" -- saw a young man of Latino descent carrying a .22 rifle. Banuelos whispered into the radio: "We have an armed individual, about 200 meters from us." A time-stamped recording of the radio traffic showed it was 6:05pm. "He's in front of the old fort. He's headed toward us. He's armed with a rifle. He appears to be in, uh, herding goats or something."

Hernandez saw something move in the brush at the bottom of the far ravine. He had warned friends and family members of what he would do if he ever found the wild dog he believed had taken his goat. The goat-herder may have fired once, as Banuelos and Blood claimed. (One spent shell was later found in the rifle.) Or he may have fired twice, as Torrez and Wieler recalled. Or he may not have fired at all, as the lack of gunpowder residue on his hands later suggested.

What is certain is that the four tired soldiers believed they had been fired at by a drug smuggler. None was hit. Banuelos ordered the men prone. Face down in the hot gravel, he told them to "lock and load." Hernandez stood on his toes. He peered across the desert. Torrez recalled he was "bobbing and weaving ... like when you look at something in the distance, you stand on your tippy-toes and try to move your head around to see."

"We're taking fire," Banuelos radioed at 6:07pm. Capt. McDaniel was working out in a gym at the Marfa compound when he heard the news. He sprinted to the nearby operations center. He and his fellow officers immediately began debating what actions were authorized under the JTF-6 rules of engagement.

Banuelos and his teammates were still carrying the ROE flash cards they were given a week earlier. The first of six points listed was: "Force may be used to defend yourself and others present." The second and third points were: "Do not use force if other defensive measures could be effective," and "Use only minimum force necessary."

But Banuelos didn't have time to re-read his card. Nor was he aware that McDaniel and the other officers were in the midst of an intense debate about what he could and could not do. At 6:11pm, he radioed the operations center: "As soon as he readies that rifle back down range, we are taking him."

Lance Cpl. James Steen was manning the radio in Marfa. He replied: "Roger, fire back." McDaniel exploded. He and the other officers in the operations center believed that Steen's authorization to "fire back" was wrong, according to written statements. Steen was pulled off the radio. Sgt. Dewbre took the chair. But the order to "fire back" was neither corrected nor withdrawn. Dewbre radioed at 6:14pm: "Just give us an update."

To keep the boy within his line of sight, Banuelos led his team down another stony arroyo and up the opposite bank. From the top of the next plateau, the soldiers could see in all directions. Banuelos told Dewbre: "We have a visual." Dewbre replied: "You're to follow the ROE." Banuelos did not acknowledge Dewbre's order. Nearly four minutes had passed since the incorrect order to "fire back" was issued. McDaniel and the other officers discussed whether or not Banuelos had heard Dewbre. But they did not re-transmit the instruction.

Worse Than the Drugs

The war that Esequiel Hernandez wandered into is not confined to the U.S.-Mexican border. The Pentagon spends about $1 billion a year fighting drugs. JTF-6 has conducted missions in 30 states and the Caribbean territories. An estimated 4,000 National Guard troops are involved in 1,300 counter-drug operations nationwide. And 89% of police departments now have paramilitary "SWAT" teams, which primarily serve drug warrants. In spite of all this, the drugs are winning. The availability and potency of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine has skyrocketed over the past decade. At the same time, street prices have fallen. The United Nations estimates the annual revenue generated by the illegal drug industry at $400 billion. That's 8% of the total international trade, or about the same size as the global automobile industry.

The war has not proved either as easy, simple, or politically safe as its proponents had hoped. Days after he waved the plastic bag of crack on TV, Bush was embarrassed by revelations that it was not "seized" in Lafayette Park -- but in fact had been purchased for $2,400 by an undercover agent who had lured a drug dealer there. The seller was baffled by the agent's request; on a DEA tape of the phone call, the 18-year-old dealer asked, "Where the fuck is the White House?"

"We can't even keep drugs out of prison," says Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy. "To think we could keep them out at the borders is absurd." Common Sense for Drug Policy argues that drug abuse is a social problem that requires a combination of social, not military, solutions. The evidence bears them out. Where drug use has fallen, experts attribute the difference to lifestyle changes, not law enforcement.

Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz, right-wing economist Milton Friedman, and broadcaster Walter Cronkite all make the same case. They are among the hundreds of signers of a June 1998 letter urging the United Nations to abandon the War on Drugs. The signatories hailed from 40 nations, and included federal judges and Nobel laureates from across the political spectrum. Published in TheNew York Times and elsewhere, the letter was blunt: "We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself.

"This industry has empowered organized criminals, corrupted governments at all levels, eroded internal security, stimulated violence, and distorted both economic markets and moral values," the letter stated. "These are the consequences not of drug use per se, but of decades of failed and futile drug war policies."

Death in the Desert

Border Patrol agent Johnny Urias was picking up undocumented immigrants 15 miles away when he heard the 6:07pm radio call: "They're taking fire from a man with a rifle at position three. ... Please assist position three." Urias and partner Rodolfo Martinez sped back to the Presidio station. They dropped off their suspects. They picked up M-16 rifles and protective vests. Two other agents arrived, and did the same. Within minutes, the four agents were speeding toward Redford, lights and sirens blaring.

Urias radioed Banuelos, who told him that Hernandez was at the old fort. "He's armed with a rifle, a .22," the corporal said. Banuelos and his team were atop a plateau about two football fields away from Hernandez. They knew the Border Patrol was only minutes away. But Banuelos wanted to be closer. He handed the radio to Torrez, then waved for Wieler and Blood to follow him into the next ravine. From that moment on, Banuelos was out of radio contact with both McDaniel and the Border Patrol.

The next arroyo was steeper than the last. Wieler stumbled several times. He scraped his hands on the sharp, loose gravel. He didn't understand what Banuelos was doing. He said later that he "would have stayed and let the Border Patrol handle the situation." Instead, he followed orders. Once atop the next plateau, the Marines moved toward the abandoned fort. Soon they were within 130 yards of Hernandez. They scurried forward one by one, in short rushes, crouching low among the waist-high greasewood bushes. Banuelos watched Hernandez through the scope on his M-16 as his men moved. At 6:27pm, Banuelos believed he saw the boy raise his old .22 and aim toward Blood. (Neither Torrez nor Blood were watching Hernandez. Weiler initially stated he didn't see Hernandez move, then later testified that he did.)

The corporal, an expert marksman, squeezed the trigger. The bullet entered Esequiel Hernandez Jr. beneath his right arm. It fragmented and cut two trails through his chest, destroying every organ in its path. Torrez looked up just in time to see the boy's feet fly in the air.

Myth of the Frontier

The books in Lucia Madrid's library tell many stories. They tell of the soldiers who came through Redford, and of the powerful men who sent them. But these books do not explain the shooting of Esequiel Hernandez. Enrique Rede Madrid still lives in the white stucco home where his recently deceased mother built the library. An anthropologist, he has spent much of his life resisting the military. Way back in 1967, he was the first student at the University of Texas to return his draft card -- a gutsy move for a young Chicano from La Frontera. He waged a three-year court battle challenging the constitutionality of the Vietnam War. Today, he translates books and works at a community college.

Sifting through the artifacts of his life, Madrid pulls out newspaper clippings and photographs. One picture shows President Bush awarding his mother her medal of honor. Another shows her reading to a group of village children. At the center of that photograph is a squirmy little boy, hamming a grin for the camera. The boy is Esequiel Hernandez Jr. "Isn't it schizoid?" he asks, fingering his mother's silver and gold medals. Madrid speaks through a clenched jaw, as if he is holding back anger.

"Two presidential medals and an M-16 bullet in a kid's chest. She received these medals for educating Esequiel. America has a schizoid mentality about the border," Enrique continues. "We address the problem with the wrong tool. It's a failure of our ability to test reality. ... A psychiatrist would call it a psychosis of some sort."

Richard Slotkin, a historian who has spent the past 25 years studying the stories that Americans tell each other, calls it America's oldest and most powerful story: the myth of the frontier. Slotkin argues that "regeneration through violence" is the heart of the myth. The United States has pursued violent regeneration through a series of "savage wars" fought first against Native Americans, and later against competing settlers such as the Mexicans. This century, distant enemies such as the Soviet Union filled the savage shoes. These heroic tales of men with guns have been handed down through literature, culture, and ritual for three centuries.

The repetition of this mythology is easy to spot in dozens of newspaper and magazine reports on Esequiel's murder. Rather than describing a quiet little village of alfalfa and pumpkin farmers, many thrilled readers with exaggerated descriptions of a rough-and-tumble Wild West border town populated with "drug lords" and "illegal aliens." Likewise, these myths are at the heart of the many Western movies filmed at the Contrabando Creek movie set, a faux village just downriver from Redford. "The reporter's role is to see the reality in terms of the established myth," Slotkin says. "The reporter goes back and tells the tale to a congressman, who is prepared to believe it because he already knows the story. It has the power of familiarity. It confirms what we've known all along."

The war on drugs has invoked the myth of savage war to rationalize its illogical use of violence. "Here the myth of the frontier plays its classic role," Slotkin says. "We define and confront this crisis -- and the profound questions it raises about our society -- by deploying the metaphor of 'war' and locating the root of our problem in the power of a 'savage' enemy."

Following Orders

Cpl. Banuelos was standing over Hernandez's body when the Border Patrol arrived. Agent Urias recognized the boy he had warned only three months before. Hernandez had dragged himself 10 yards through hot gravel after he was shot. From atop the old Army watering hole, Hernandez could have seen the adobe home where he was born, the lush green oasis that fed his family, the cinderblock schoolhouse where he had dreamed of becoming a soldier, and the village graveyard, where he soon would be buried.

A desert thunderstorm approached. More cops arrived. Texas Rangers. A justice of the peace. The district attorney. FBI. Marines. They trampled through the evidence for hours. Then the storm rumbled through. Hard rain washed over the body, the gun, the scene. Team 7 was driven back to Marfa, put in a motel room, given a six-pack of beer, and told to write statements. The story that emerged was that Banuelos was not "pursuing" Hernandez -- as prohibited by the rules of engagement -- but was "paralleling" the goat-herder out of fear that the boy was running a "flanking maneuver." Banuelos was frank and forthright about what he had done. He reportedly concluded one interview by stating: "I capped the fucker."

The Texas Rangers investigated the shooting. The Justice Department investigated the shooting. JTF-6 investigated the shooting. And the 1st Marine Division investigated the shooting. All concluded that Banuelos followed orders. All concluded that he committed no crime.

A county grand jury refused to indict Banuelos on criminal charges. A federal grand jury refused to indict him. And a second county grand jury, given substantially more evidence than the first, also refused to indict him. All concluded that Banuelos followed orders. All concluded that he committed no crime. Banuelos was under investigation for more than a year. But the orders that sent him to El Polvo in May -- the orders that put him in the field with an under-prepared team, and the incredible order to "fire back" -- these were never put on trial. And by agreeing to pay the Hernandez family a mere $1.9 million, the Navy and the Justice Department effectively closed the most viable legal route through which the family or the village could have put those orders on trial.

Human rights activists fear that the settlement will clear a political path for JTF-6 to resume armed border patrols in the near future. And if they take such missions, future Marines will follow orders just as Banuelos did. In a response to the scathing Coyne report, Gen. C.W. Fulford Jr. noted that even the best trained Marines would likely behave much as Team 7 did. "Indeed," Fulford wrote, "it is probable that a superbly trained team of infantrymen would have immediately returned fire."

Clemente Manuel Banuelos is no longer a member of the Marine Corps. His promising military career died the same day Hernandez did. The 23-year-old now struggles to support his young wife, Luz Contreras, in their modest Southern California home. He is looking for work as a physical therapist.

Rounding Up the Goats

On the day Esequiel Hernandez Jr. died, his father brought the goats back from the river. Hernandez Sr. was chopping wood when he saw the crowd of Border Patrol agents, sheriff deputies, and other authorities gather on the hill across from his adobe home. He drove the old white pickup over to see what was happening.

Not knowing who he was, a deputy sheriff asked whether Hernandez might be able to identify the victim. The old man stared curiously at the soldiers, still dressed in their ghillie suits. The leather-faced father was then shown the lifeless body of his son. He wept, and wailed, in Spanish.

The Hernandez family was kept away from the scene that night. Pushed back by sheriff's deputies, sobbing family members shared their grief and anger within the privacy of the Hernandez rancheria.

Later, the old man went down to the river to round up the goats. Ten-year-old Noel went with him. After the goats were put away, Noel marched into Esequiel's bedroom and tore the Marine recruiting poster from his dead brother's wall.

Monte Paulsen (mpaulsen@aminc.com) is National Editor of Alternative Media Inc.

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