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USA Today July 30, 1997

Pentagon Pulls Troops Off Drug Patrols
Action Comes as Grand Jury Weighs Indictment of Marine

By Martin Kasindorg

The Pentagon is up in arms over the expected Texas indictment of a Marine in the fatal shooting of an 18-year old goat herder on the Mexican border.

As a Marfa, Texas grand jury prepared to hear witnesses starting today, the Defense Department withdrew the 200 troops conducting drug surveillance mission like the one that ended in the May 20 death of Ezequiel Hernandez, Jr.

"Such counter-drug operations expose soldiers and Marines to legal liability, which is unacceptable to the Department of Defense, and definitely not fair to the members of our armed forces," said Navy Lt. Cmdr. Scott Campbell, Pentagon spokesman.

Defense Secretary William Cohen quietly issued an order Thursday suspending the 9 year old policy of aiding the civilian Border Patrol with military reconnaissance, monitoring and communications. Missions in the Marfa sector had been suspended since Hernandez died.

The Justice Department has hired a Houston criminal lawyer to represent Marine Cpl. Clemente Banuelos. He fired the fatal shot at the leader of a four-man squad staking out a Rio Grande crossing. Banuelos told police he shot in self-defense after Hernandez, a quiet high school sophomore grazing his family's dairy goats near the farm settlement of Redford, fired his .22-caliber rifle toward the Marines.

Texas Ranger investigators have publicly questioned the Marines' version of the incident. Presidio County Judge Jake Brisbin Jr. said he anticipates a homicide indictment possibly today.

Banuelos' squad members - Cpls. Ronald Wieler Jr., Ray Torres Jr., and James Matthew Blood - could be indicted on lesser charges.

Hernandez's parents plan to sue the government for civil damages.

Staffing of the military's observation posts could resume after a sweeping policy review. The Pentagon will ask the border states of Texas, California, Arizona and New Mexico to sign agreements spelling out troops' vulnerability to local criminal laws.

Friendly foreign governments sign similar "status of forces" agreements

before U.S. troops are deployed abroad. When troops fire their weapons under Defense Department rules of engagement, "the secretary of does not want to have them between a hard spot and a rock," Campbell said.

Only about a dozen soldiers or Marines, heavily camouflaged and their presence concealed from local communities, were on the four-day missions in three observation posts at any one time.

Under an 1878 federal law, they couldn't arrest suspects. They reported suspicious activity to the Border Patrol or local law enforcement.

Cohen suspended only "a very small subset" of the military's $800 million to $1 billion in annual support for border anti-drug operations, Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said. The Army Corps of Engineers will continue surveying for new roads in remote areas. Army, Marine and National Guard troops will keep building the roads and installing fences, lights and sensors.

Brisbin said that presidio County residents, angered by the shooting, "will be relieved" by the change in policy.

This article copyright 1997 USA Today and is reproduced for non-profit educational purposes only.

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