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San Jose Mercury News August 4, 1997

Killed . . . by the drug war

ESEQUIEL Hernandez Jr. didn't know he was at war with the U.S. Marines. The 18-year-old high school student was herding goats near his home in tiny Redford, Texas, when he was shot dead May 20 by a Marine corporal, a member of a surveillance team assigned to the border war against drugs.

A Presidio County grand jury met last week to consider criminal charges, including murder, against Cpl. Clemente Banuelos, 22, and his three squad members. Surely, the blame should fall primarily on those who ordered the Marines into action on U.S. soil.

Hernandez was a quiet, law-abiding, church-going kid who dreamed of being a park ranger or a Texas Ranger. He carried a .22-caliber rifle to defend his goats from wild dogs and coyotes, and to plink at tin cans. There's no reason he would have tried to kill U.S. Marines, and no reason to believe he knew they were there.

The heavily camouflaged Marines, armed with M-16s, were hiding near the Hernandez farm, hoping to spot drug smugglers crossing the Rio Grande. They say Hernandez fired twice in their direction, then walked across the hill. The squad stalked him for 20 minutes, hiding behind creosote bushes. Hernandez was lifting his rifle to shoot at one of the Marines, they say, when Banuelos shot him in the side.

Texas Rangers who investigated the shooting complained that Hernandez lay bleeding for 22 minutes without medical aid, although the squad had an emergency medic. Finally, the Border Patrol arrived and rushed Hernandez to a hospital. It was too late. He bled to death.

Pentagon spokesman Col. Dick Bridges says the Marines acted in ``accordance with the rules of engagement.'' And they're very sorry that Hernandez is dead.

The problem is that Esequiel Hernandez didn't know about the rules of engagement. He didn't know that his goats' grazing land had become a combat zone, where a kid with a rifle would be taken for the enemy. Last week, military drug patrols on the Texas and California border were suspended. The Pentagon has pledged to rethink the idea of using ground troops for domestic anti-drug missions.

It's a very bad idea. Soldiers are trained to fight wars, not enforce laws. Hernandez was the first U.S. citizen to be killed, but he will not be the last victim caught in the crossfire if the suspension is lifted and the militarization of the drug war continues.

This article copyright 1997 the San Jose Mercury News and is reproduced for non-profit educational purposes only.

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