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PBS NewsHour with Jim Lehrer broadcast August 13, 1997

Casualties of the Drug War

A grand jury is currently considering whether to charge a Marine, who shot and killed a U.S. citizen during drug interdiction on the U.S.-Mexico, with murder. The controversy has brought the use of regular military units to patrol the border under intense scrutiny. Correspondent Tom Bearden reports.

TOM BEARDEN: Most of the flowers on Esequiel Hernandez's grave turned brown long ago in the brutal West Texas sun. But he is far from forgotten. The 18-year old was buried in May, after he was shot near his home in an encounter with a four-man Marine Corps surveillance unit that had dug in alongside the Rio Grande River, which divides the tiny village of Redford, Texas, from Mexico. The Marines were looking for drug smugglers, part of an eight year old program that provides troops for drug interdiction. Hernandez's family says he was herding goats on the U.S. side of the border at about 6 PM, when 22-year old corporal Clemente Banuelos fired the single shot from his M-l6 rifle that killed him. Esequiel's brother, Margarito, pointed out where it happened.

A murder or an accident?

MARGARITO HERNANDEZ: This is where my brother was laying down. His head was facing that way and his legs in this direction. And that's where he was shot from, from that spot over there.

TOM BEARDEN: About, what, a 100 yards away?

MARGARITO HERNANDEZ: Probably about a 100 yards.

TOM BEARDEN: The family claims the Marines stalked and killed Hernandez in violation of their orders. The marines say Banuelos fired only after Hernandez had fired two shots at the unit with his 22-caliber rifle, and that he was about to fire a third time. But the family says Esequiel would never have deliberately fired on anyone.

MARGARITO HERNANDEZ: Well, he was taking care of his goats, you know, he was herding his goats and there's a bunch of dogs; we have always had a problem with dogs, you know, some people come and throw them away because they don't want them anymore, and they'll get in a pack and kill some goats, you know.

TOM BEARDEN: So the rifle was to chase the wild dogs away?

MARGARITO HERNANDEZ: That's why we mostly use the rifle for, you know.

TOM BEARDEN: But attorneys for the soldiers say Hernandez had fired shots at two border patrol agents in the same area three months earlier. They say Banuelos shot Hernandez because he was aiming at a fellow Marine.

JACK ZIMMERMAN, Attorney for Corporal Banuelos: It's been reported that Mr. Hernandez was shooting at rocks, or he was shooting at animals. I want to make it clear that these Marines were not, as has been reported in the press, at the time that the shooting occurred stationary people that looked like bushes.

It's been reported that Mr. Hernandez did not even shoot at the Marines. Mr. Hernandez fired two shots at the Marines. Those shots were contemporaneously reported to the Border Patrol and to the Marine Corps headquarters at the time of the shooting. At seven minutes at 6, Corporal Banuelos fired only as a last resort. And, in our judgment, he did not violate any criminal law of the State of Texas or of the United States.

The Fallout of Esequiel Hernandez's Death

TOM BEARDEN: There are a host of charges and countercharges about what happened that day. A Texas grand jury will decide if there is enough evidence to warrant an indictment and a trial. But the shooting has rekindled a highly-charged debate about the policy of using active duty troops in the war on drugs. Pentagon involvement began in 1989, when the restrictions imposed by the Civil War-era posse comitatus law, which forbids the use of military forces in law enforcement, were loosened. Since then, thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen have assisted in counter-drug operations around the world. Border operations are only a small part of that effort. But some believe the presence of armed troops has militarized the border with Mexico, and in the wake of the Hernandez shooting, they are on the offensive. Enrique Madrid lives in Redford. He says people there are still in shock and very angry about the military presence.

ENRIQUE MADRID: If you can imagine the most decent young man that you know, who had just turned 18 and you wake up one morning and you find out that he's been shot, and not only that, but he's been shot by United States Marines, their function is to defend us, to defend this most defenseless of families, not to-not to assassinate them.

ENRIQUE MADRID: (speaking to group) The U.S. military and the U.S. Border Patrol lost complete control of four Marines.

TOM BEARDEN: Madrid was part of a delegation organized by the American Friends Service Committee that visited Washington to lobby for an investigation. According to a press release, the committee has "worked since 1987 to support border communities in their efforts to restrain abusive and discriminatory treatment by U.S. authorities, and to speak out against the militarization of the border." Among others, the delegation visited Ohio Congressman James Traficant, who advocates more troops on the border. He thinks the committee is using the Hernandez case to push a broader agenda.

REP. JAMES TRAFICANT: The point is the group that came up to meet me, they support open borders. They want people just to be able to run across the border with no checks.

TOM BEARDEN: Traficant says the case should not affect the use of military forces.

REP. JAMES TRAFICANT: Yes, we did have a shooting down there, and that's a tragic situation. That saddens me very much, and I want to know the truth of what happened. But do we throw the FBI and the ATF out because of Ruby Ridge and Waco? Do we disband the police department because of a wrongful death, a wrongful shooting? I mean, lets get serious here now.

Debating the military's role

TOM BEARDEN: The Hernandez case has already had an impact. In late July, the Pentagon ordered at all ground-based anti-drug surveillance discontinued while the policy is reviewed. That includes the type of operation the Marines in Texas were engaged in. The military calls it an LP/OP, which stands for Listening Post/Observation Post. Soldiers use night vision devices like these displayed in a media demonstration to spot drug smugglers, then notify law enforcement officers to intercept them. Troops carry M-16s for protection.

But Lawrence Korb says this is not the kind of operation envisioned when the Reagan administration first brought the Pentagon into the drug war. Korb was assistant secretary of defense then and is now with the Brookings Institute.

LAWRENCE KORB: It was very controversial then. As a matter of fact, the military resisted even doing things that would only be in a supporting role.

TOM BEARDEN: Korb says active duty soldiers are trained to fight wars, not support law enforcement.

LAWRENCE KORB: The idea that you would have active duty forces patrolling the border with live weapons and be asked to use those weapons if they had to is a very far away from the idea of letting somebody from the Customs Service ride on an aircraft, or take intelligence that you gather and funnel it from the Department of Defense to any or the domestic law enforcement agencies. In my view you cross the line, because you put military people into a domestic law enforcement role, and you've created situations were what happened to Corporal Banuelos and Mr. Hernandez was almost inevitable if you kept doing it long enough.

TOM BEARDEN: The Marine who shot Hernandez was assigned to joint task force six, which coordinates active duty units involved in the drug war. Joint task force six would not allow us to photograph their troops in actual drug interdiction operations--and, instead, sent us to the National Guard.

Although funded by the Defense Department, the Guard operates under different laws and is under the control of state governors. Guardsmen are also involved in the drug war and perform many of the same functions as active duty soldiers. The California Guard has 450 troops assigned full-time to drug interdiction, and last year they helped seize over three billion dollars worth of drugs. Guardsmen are used to working with civilian law enforcement during civil disturbances and natural disasters.

Guard officers say this makes their soldiers better suited than active duty troops to border operations. Even so, the Guard has stopped operating LP/OP's Until they get further guidance from the Pentagon. Ironically, the California Guard had already planned to phase out LP/OP's in favor of longer range surveillance. This guardsman is using a surplus thermal tank sight mounted in a vehicle to keep an eye on the border from several miles away, negating the need and the risk of being on the front line.

ROBERT CARNEY, Senior Patrol Agent: The Guard is essential to this operation. Of course, the Border Patrol has a critical shortage of agents on the line. It's very difficult for us to--it takes a year and a half to get a trained, qualified agent on the line. And what this does is it relieves an agent who would normally be operating the same scope and it allows him to get on the line to actually do the interdiction of drugs and the aliens as they come into the country.

TOM BEARDEN: Other types of Guard efforts are continuing in spite of the Hernandez case. Guard engineers are still building steel fencing and improving access roads along the border in San Diego County. It's difficult work. Triple-digit desert temperatures are nearly intolerable because the troops are required to wear bulletproof vests. That's because they're occasionally fired on by people on the other side. Even so, they aren't allowed to carry weapons on this mission. They usually just stop work for a few days and return when things settle down.

TOM BEARDEN: Captain Wade Rowley has been in charge of the project from the beginning.

CAPTAIN WADE ROWLEY: I question the advantage of us pulling the military forces and our tactical forces off the border. We basically have told the drug smugglers this is a tactic that will work, if you threaten us or something happens either on purpose or by accident from our U.S. military or law enforcement, we as a military will pick up and run. Well, what we do is open the doors for the drug smugglers to bring loads and loads of drugs in because law enforcement needs our help. They can't do all the law enforcement on their--or they can't provide the coverage they need on their own.

TOM BEARDEN: Unlike the residents of Redford, Ed and Donna Tisdale welcome the Guard. They're eager for them to fill in the gaps in the fence. Their ranch is right on the border about 90 minutes East of San Diego, and they say the openings are funneling illegal aliens through their property. They now carry guns for protection, and so do many of their neighbors.

ED TISDALE: In the last--this is last year--since January 1st, we've had pretty close to 11,000 people through.

DONNA TISDALE: It's not just the people coming across. We get a lot of drugs, and my husband's out there having to intercept these guys on a daily basis, simply to try and stop traffic from coming to our place, and were worried about retaliation. I would rather have a bunch of soldiers bivouacked on my property than have a bunch of smugglers using it at their whim.

TOM BEARDEN: The California Guard also continues to support anti-drug operations that have nothing to no with the border. In Northern California, the Guard provides aircraft to search for marijuana gardens hidden in the trees on private and national forest timberlands. Armed marines also conduct similar operations. Guardsmen on foot trek up and down 70 degree slopes to help chop down the plants. The plots are surprisingly sophisticated, complete with sprinkler systems on timers. When the garden has been cleared, guardsmen bundle up the plants to be airlifted out for destruction.

The National Guard is also active at the U.S. Mail facility in Oakland. They inspect overseas packages for narcotics and make seizures almost daily, like this opium found rolled up in tree bark in a package from Thailand. Guardsmen also help U.S. Customs inspectors seize drugs concealed in cars and trucks at the ports of entry South of San Diego.

Congressional questions

TOM BEARDEN: But Congress is considering a major reduction in overall funding for the National Guard. Some of these anti-drug programs may have to be eliminated. Rudy Camacho is the director of the Southern California Customs management Center. He thinks that would be a shame.

RUDY CAMACHO, U.S. Customs: Bottom line, if we didn't have the Guards, a lot more drugs would get through, and it would take away a lot of the efficiencies and effectiveness that we've been able to gain over the last few years.

TOM BEARDEN: Instead of cutting funds for military drug operations, Congressman Traficant is calling for a massive increase in troops.

REP. TRAFICANT: We've had seven Border Patrol agents that have been shot at in the last three months. We have guerrilla warfare across our border. We have billions and billions of dollars of industry of narcotics. And for those people who say our military can't handle this, I'd like to remind them hat our military is building houses, doing carpentry work in Haiti; they're giving vaccinations to dogs in Haiti. They're guarding and securing the borders in Bosnia and in the Mideast.

TOM BEARDEN: Traficant has been trying to pass legislation that would authorize the use of up to ten thousand additional troops on the border.

REP. SYLVESTRE REYES: I think it's a very foolish idea.

TOM BEARDEN: Before his election to congress, Representative Sylvestre Reyes was the chief border patrol agent in charge of the El Paso sector, which includes Redford.
REP. SYLVESTRE REYES: I think it's dangerous, I think it's ill-advised, and I think ultimately it will create more problems than solving the issue of narcotics trafficking and illegal immigration.

TOM BEARDEN: The Pentagon is also leery of the idea. Brian Sheridan is deputy assistant secretary for special operations at the Department of Defense.

BRIAN SHERIDAN: I don't see how we pay for it, and also it would have a large impact on our readiness. As you know, in this downsized military environment that were living in, as we look at possible contingencies in Southeast Asia, in Southwest Asia, Bosnias and other places, our military, I think its fair to say, has been stretched. And to divert 10,000 troops to the border doesn't make much sense.

TOM BEARDEN: President Clinton's drug czar, retired Army General Barry McCaffrey, also has reservations.

GEN. BARRY MC CAFFREY: The Secretary of Defense and the Attorney General and I and others that don't think it's a useful course of action, you really can't end up using military personnel for domestic law enforcement. And I might add, the principal drug smuggling threat we face is through these 38 ports of entry into the United States. Literally 85 million cars and trucks and a half a million rail cars from our second biggest trading partner. So that doesn't lend itself to resolution by military combat power, and that's not the way to go.

TOM BEARDEN: McCaffrey plans to tour the Southwest Border region at the end of this month as part of a policy review. He supports a gradual withdrawal of the military as long as it's accompanied by an increase in manpower for law enforcement agencies. Congress has already authorized substantial additional staffing for the Border Patrol, but training and deploying them will take time.

Posted from MAPnews, a service of The Media Awareness Project
Transcript prepared by Richard Lake (Thanks Richard!)

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

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