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Washington Post July 30, 1997

Troops Pulled From Anti-Drug Patrols
Pentagon Action Rises Out of Killing of Border Resident by Marine

By Sue Anne Pressley
Washington Post Staff Writer

AUSTIN, Tex., July 29 All U.S. ground troops involved in the anti-drug effort along the U.S.-Mexican border have been pulled from patrol work indefinitely, in a move Pentagon officials said was prompted by the controversial Marine shooting of a young Texas man in May.

"The entire policy is now under review," Pentagon spokesman Kenneth Bacon said today, "and that review has several elements in it. One is whether it's appropriate for troops to be involved in border patrol activities. Another is, if it is appropriate for them to be involved in border patrol activities, what are the proper operating procedures for them? . . . And another question is, do they have adequate legal protections?"

Withdrawal of all 240 military personnel along the 2,000-mile border came as a Presidio County grand jury in Marfa begins hearing witnesses this week in the death of Ezequiel Hernandez Jr., 18, of Redford, Tex. Hernandez, by all accounts a hard-working, focused youth who was well-liked in his border town about 180 miles southeast of El Paso, was killed May 20 by the leader of a camouflaged Marine patrol unit assigned to monitor drug-trafficking routes into the United States.

Although the military has defended the Marine, saying he fired in self-defense after Hernandez fired his .22-caliber rifle twice in the about to fire again when he collapsed, that account has been sharply challenged by family, neighbors, and other border residents. Hernandez's family said the youth was carrying the rifle to protect the goats he was herding as part of a church project, and sometimes shot at targets, but that he would never have opened fire on the Marines.

Immediately after the shooting, the military's Joint Task Force 6 in El Paso, which sometimes deployed small teams of three or four to help spot smugglers, suspended operations in the section that includes Redford. Earlier this month, Lt. Gen. Carlton W. Fulford, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Pendleton, Calif., said he was satisfied Marine Cpl. Clemente Banuelos had done nothing wrong. But Fulford also said the killing might not have happened had civilian law enforcement agencies patrolled the border. Hernandez's death marked the first time a U.S. citizen has been shot by a member of a military drug-surveillance team, and has thrown wide open the controversial issue of how involved the military efforts along the border.

Bacon said today that "the military is very committed to providing support to the war on drugs. I think we provide about between eight hundred million and a billion dollars worth of support a year to the war. . . . We perform mainly reconnaissance, listening, observation activities."

He said the suspension of troop operations hardly means the U.S.-Mexican border is unprotected since the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Border Patrol is mainly responsible for guarding the border. "Right now there are a small number of people who would have been patrolling the border [who] are not patrolling the border," he said. "There are still many more people in the Border Patrol patrolling the border. There were always more people in the Border Patrol. . . . That's their job. They continue to perform that job. So the border is not unguarded."

Critics of the military patrols today applauded withdrawal of the troops.

"It's a good first step," said Kevin Zeese, president of Common Sense for Drug Policy, a D.C.-based group that looks at drug-policy alternatives. "I hope when they review their policy, a demilitarized border with Mexico makes the most sense. Because we are not at war with Mexico."

Zeese said his group funded a private investigation of the Hernandez shooting at the request of the Redford Citizens Committee for Justice, a group that includes the youth's family and friends. Among the investigation's findings, released today, were reports that some residents said they heard only one shot that evening, challenging the account presented by the Marines. There also is concern that no ballistic report estimating the last time Hernandez's rifle was fired has been released by police agencies, and that residents of Presidio County were not made aware that Marines were patrolling the area.

In a letter sent today to Presidio County District Attorney Albert Valadez, who is conducting the grand jury, members of the citizens committee stressed, however, that they hoped Banuelos would not be made a scapegoat. "This community has been grievously wounded by the actions of Cpl. Banuelos and his team," the letter said. "Nevertheless, the community feels that there are others in the chain of command . . . who should be sought out and made to admit responsibility for the sorry desecration of traditional American values."

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

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