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Teen's death sours image of border drug war
Los Angeles Times & San Francisco Examiner June 21, 1997

Marines say Mexican American shepherd shot first


REDFORD, Texas There are two Rio Grandes wending past this lonely border town, one river that feeds the alfalfa banks and one river that mocks America's war on drugs.

One river nourished Esequjel Hernandez Jr.'s goats. The other took his life. Born inside his family's adobe cottage, the shy, unassuming, 17 year-old high school sophomore seemed rooted in another time.

Junior, as he was known, talked of becoming a park ranger or game warden. He combed the land on horseback in search of old coins and arrowheads, storing his treasures along with a souvenir sword from the Alamo in a locked box by his pillow. And then he had his goats, some 45 head, which he grazed every evening after supper, watching over them with a .22-caliber rifle that had been handed, down from his grandfather to his father to him.

"That was his life, taking care of those little creatures," said his fa-ther, Esequiel Hernandez Sr., a farm worker with a face the color of rusty earth.

On a late May afternoon, just a few minutes after Junior ventured out with his flock, a squad of four camouflaged U.S. Marines on a co vert anti-drug mission shot and killed the young shepherd -- the first time in the long, quixotic bat tie against drugs that a U.S citizen has been slain by his own military on U.S. soil.

The Marines, who were helping the Border Patrol stake out a reputed smuggling corridor near the Hernandez clan's ranchito, do not allege that Junior was trafficking in narcotics. They say only that, for some reason, he shot twice at them and was preparing to shoot a third time when one of them returned fire with a semiautomatic M-16.

"This was in strict compliance with the rules of engagement," Marine Col. Thomas Kelly, deputy commander of the military's anti-drug task force, said after the shooting, describing it as an unfortunate but justifiable act of self-defense.

But to the many people touched by Esequiel Hernandez Jr. - an estimated 800 mourners trudged up a dirt road to Redford's cemetery - his death was more than a tragic footnote on a volatile border.

They say it is inconceivable that the same boy who was still studying for his driver's license exam, knowingly could have fired at another human being. They believe his death was a murder, committed by troops trained for combat, not for the subtleties of a rustic Mexican American village.

Even Texas authorities have been harsh in their assessment of the Marines, who are allowed under U.S. rules to conduct surveillance but not make arrests or enforce civilian laws. Prosecutors in Presidio County, who plan to present the case to a grand jury next month, have blasted the military for impeding their investigation.

A screwed up deal

The region's top police official, Texas Bangers Capt Barry Caver, has expressed concerns over unspecified "discrepancies" between the Marines' version of events and the physical evidence.

"It's a screwed-up deal," Caver said. "Hopefully the truth will come out." However the case is resolved, it has reinvigorated the long-standing debate over the use of U.S. troops on U.S. soil, a once-forbidden measure that has gained favor in recent years as a stopgap against the flow of drugs.

"Whether or not the soldiers in the Redford case followed the rules of engagement or broke the law, the problem is the policy that put them there in the first place," said University of Texas Professor Timothy Dunn, author of "The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978-1992." On May 20, as he did every day, Evaro picked Junior up from Presidio High School a 32-mile round trip - and dropped him off at home about 4 p.m. At 6 p.m., his father reminded him to take out the goats.

Unbeknown to Junior - or to anyone else in Redford - four Marines, including a corporal identified by local officials as Clemente Banuelos, were just starting their vigil a few hundred yards away. For three days, they had been camped out clandestinely, moving to an observation post each night near a low spot in the river.

If all had gone according to plan, the troops would have spent two weeks in this spot, keeping sentry over the Rio Grande with night-vision goggles. If they had detected any unusual activity, they would have radioed Border Patrol agents, who could have caught up with the suspects outside of town. At the end of the mission, the Marines would have left without a trace.

Something went wrong

But this time, something went wrong. Banuelos and the three other Marines have declined media requests for interviews. Ballistic tests on Junior's rifle, to determine if or how many times it was fired, are not yet complete.

Some neighbors, who heard only one shot that evening, question whether Junior ever fired his weapon. If he did, he may have been shooting at a jackrabbit, or a tin can, or even one of the wild dogs that sometimes tormented his goats, but not at another human.

"I tend to doubt that he ever had visual contact with them," said Caver, the Texas Bangers Captain. If Junior did see them, he would have been looking at "four strangers, dressed up in all this regalia, out there in the middle of nowhere," Caver added.

Meanwhile, the Marines kept Junior in their sights. They followed him - or stalked him, depending on who's doing the telling - for several hundred yards in broad daylight. No words were exchanged. They had no procedure or training for making contact with a civilian. Under their rules of engagement, they could do only two things: hide amid the greasewood and prickly peer or, if they perceived an imminent threat, respond with lethal force.

Junior, they allege, raised his rifle for a third time. The Marines were spread out in the brush, still a good 100 yards away. But Banue-los, according to authorities, apparently believed that one of his troops was about to be shot. He pulled the trigger once, striking Junior in the right of his ribcage.

This article copyright 1997 the Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Examiner and is reproduced for non-profit educational purposes only.

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