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Questions on Military Role Fighting Drugs Ricochet From a Deadly Shot
Washington Post June 22, 1997

By William Branigin
Washington Post Staff Writer
EL PASO -- By all accounts, Ezequiel Hernandez Jr. was a hard-working, good-natured youth who never caused trouble. A high school student who had just turned 18, he was devoted to a goat-raising project funded in part by the Episcopal church in his border town of Redford, Tex. He planned to be the first member of his Mexican immigrant family to go to college and dreamed of becoming a wildlife officer or, perhaps, joining the Marines.

Instead, Hernandez became a casualty of America's drug wars, the victim of an upsurge of violence along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexican border that has put residents and law enforcement officials on edge. While grazing his goats on rolling, windswept ranch land near his home one evening last month, he was killed by the leader of a heavily camouflaged Marine patrol assigned to conduct surveillance of suspected drug-trafficking routes into the United States.

The military insists the killing was in self-defense, that Hernandez fired a .22-caliber rifle twice toward one of the Marines and was about to shoot again when the squad leader felled him with a single round from his M-16 combat rifle. Hernandez's family and neighbors say they heard only one shot, and that the Marine fired without warning in what amounted to an ambush.

Although the incident marked the first time a U.S. citizen has been shot by a member of a military surveillance team, it was preceded by other shootings that have contributed to a sense of heightened danger along the U.S.-Mexican border. In most of these incidents, agents of the U.S. Border Patrol, a branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, have come under fire from suspected Mexican drug smugglers.

In this climate of violence, the latest incident has raised the question of whether the shooting of Hernandez was an act of self-defense or a jumpy overreaction. Much about the case remains murky, and the question may go to a jury. But the episode has cast a pall over the role of the U.S. military in supporting federal anti-drug efforts along the border. Immediately after the shooting, the military's El Paso-based Joint Task Force 6, which deploys small teams of troopers to help spot traffickers in border areas, suspended operations in the sector that includes Redford, a remote town of about 100 people west of Big Bend National Park.

Human rights groups have strongly protested the killing as a tragic example of what they call the "militarization" of the border, most recently with a vigil in Washington last week. And outraged local residents feel the Marines have added insult to injury by insisting they acted in "strict compliance" with task force regulations. Aided by civil rights and religious organizations, Hernandez's family and the local community plan to file lawsuits.

"I don't understand it," said the youth's distraught father, Ezequiel Hernandez Sr., a legal U.S. resident and father of seven other children. "I want there to be justice."

An investigation by the Texas Rangers has found discrepancies between physical evidence and the Marines' account of the incident and so far has failed to confirm that Hernandez fired two shots from the rifle he commonly carried to protect his goat herd from coyotes. A local prosecutor, District Attorney Albert Valadez, says he will take the case to a grand jury next month, a move that could lead to a trial of the Marine squad leader in state court.

Under the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, the U.S. military is prohibited from engaging in domestic law enforcement. But as part of the "war on drugs" in the 1980s, the act's restrictions were loosened to allow military units, including Army Special Forces, to help the Border Patrol by conducting on-the-ground surveillance, intelligence-gathering and observation using advanced night-vision equipment. Friday, the House moved to make up to 10,000 additional troops available to help stop illegal immigration and drug smuggling along the border. The units are barred from making arrests and may use weapons only in self-defense. If they spot drug traffickers, they are not supposed to confront them.

"We serve as the eyes and ears of the Border Patrol," said Maureen Bossch, a spokeswoman for Joint Task Force 6. "The goal is to avoid any contact with the civilian population."

For a while, violence along the border seemed to be abating. Federal officials say reported assaults and "armed encounters" involving Border Patrol agents dropped from 606 in 1992 to 274 in 1995, largely because of new surveillance technology and deterrence measures that enabled agents to avoid being surprised by large groups of illegal border-crossers, officials said. But the numbers began rising again last year, spurred in part by a surge in drug-trafficking in certain sectors.

In January, a Special Forces sergeant shot and wounded a Mexican illegal alien who had opened fire on him in a late-night encounter with a military team along the Rio Grande near Brownsville. The Mexican later pleaded guilty to assault and weapons charges and faces up to 15 years in jail.

Near San Diego, three shootings in as many weeks have left a Border Patrol agent slightly wounded and raised fears that Mexican drug cartels are trying to force federal authorities to back off from their more-aggressive border control efforts. Last month, a volley of rifle shots fired from a car on the Mexican side struck a marked Border Patrol vehicle near Imperial Beach, Calif., shattering the windshield and wounding the agent in the head and shoulder. In two similar incidents since then, agents patrolling the Goat Canyon area came under fire from the same road and shot back as the assailants sped away.

In a letter to President Clinton, Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-Calif.) charged that the shootings were "nothing less than assassination attempts against American officials" and part of "a regular pattern of violent acts, which may be linked to Mexican drug cartels."

Along the 205-mile Del Rio sector in Texas, federal officials say attacks on Border Patrol agents increased nearly 200 percent the past year.

In one recent incident in the sector near Carrizo Springs, Tex., four suspected drug-trafficking guides overpowered a Border Patrol agent, seized his gun and shot him in the back of the head, said Paul Berg, the agency's chief in Del Rio. Miraculously, he said, the bullet passed between the agent's skull and scalp. After playing dead until the men drove off in his car, the agent managed to walk to a colleague's house and was released from a hospital a few hours later. Three of the four attackers were caught.

While the Border Patrol has borne the brunt of the violence, immigration and customs inspectors also have come under attack. In April, two customs officers in Calexico, Calif., were wounded when a 74-year-old Mexican pulled out a gun and opened fire after his van caught the attention of a drug-sniffing dog. The gunman was killed in the ensuing shootout, and more than 100 pounds of marijuana were found in the vehicle, customs officials said. It was against this backdrop of violence that the incident involving young Ezequiel Hernandez Jr. unfolded.

According to a Border Patrol spokesman in Dallas, the Marfa sector in which Hernandez was killed is a "notorious area for drug smuggling." But local residents said there has been little such activity in Redford, and certainly none involving the lanky high school sophomore.

"You couldn't say enough good things about that kid," said the Rev. Melvin W. LaFollette, 66, a retired Episcopal missionary who enlisted the Hernandez family in a project to produce goat cheese in the area. "He was universally liked and never caused any trouble." Quiet, law-abiding and respectful of authority, he would never have tried to take on four heavily armed men in uniform, especially not with an old .22 rifle, LaFollette said.

He and local law enforcement officials said that if Hernandez did fire his gun, he was probably shooting at a rabbit or other target and may not have even seen the Marines. Although the incident occurred in daylight, at about 6:15 p.m., the Marines' faces were blackened, their bodies were covered in burlap and leaves, and they were apparently spread out in crouching positions on the brush-covered land more than 230 yards from Hernandez, investigators said. The .22 rifle he carried, a small model originally used in carnival shooting galleries, was at least 80 years old, they said.

Joint Task Force 6 officials said the Marines were from Camp Pendleton, Calif., but refused to identify the squad leader except as a noncommissioned officer with three years of service. Hernandez was shooting toward another Marine when the squad leader shot him from the side, task force officials said. They said the Marines never shouted a command or fired a warning shot because they were not required to do so under the "rules of engagement" governing use of their weapons.

According to Capt. Barry Caver of the Texas Rangers, the Marines' account of the shooting does not "exactly jibe" with autopsy and other physical evidence, raising questions about whether the unit was acting in self-defense. "Our perception of what occurred is not consistent with the military's version," another investigator said. "We have not been able to corroborate that [Hernandez] fired two shots."

"These men came here like they were ready for an invasion," said Jesus Valenzuela, who lives about 500 yards from the shooting scene and insists he heard only one shot. "Why do they put us in the middle of a war? It was a very big mistake. We're very disgusted." Fighting drug-traffickers "is something for the police to do, not the military," he said.

"We're very remote and isolated here," said LaFollette, a former university professor and published poet who moved to Redford in 1984. "And we feel that something terrible has happened, something that affects every citizen in the United States."

Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company


This article copyright 1997 the Washington Post and is reproduced for non-profit educational purposes only.

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