Tragedy along the Rio Grande Shooting: In what is called a "tragic mistake," an American teen is killed by Marines patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border. The incident has raised questions about the necessity, and the efficacy, of the patrols.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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

One river nourished Esequiel Hernandez Jr.'s goats. The other took his life.

Born inside his family's adobe cottage, the 18-year-old high school sophomore seemed more attuned to the ebb and flow of the murky waters than to the neon temptations that have lured away all but 100 of Redford's people.

Junior, as he was known, talked of becoming a park ranger or game warden. He was the only boy at the first meeting of his folkloric dance class. He combed the land on horseback in search of old coins and arrowheads. 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.

But lurking behind the simple patterns of Hernandez's world was a more dangerous tradition, the relentless tide of contraband across America's southern frontier.

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

The Camp Pendleton-based Marines, who were helping the Border Patrol stake out a reputed smuggling corridor near the Hernandez clan's ranchito, do not allege that Hernandez was trafficking in narcotics -- not then, or at any other time. They say only that, for some inexplicable reason, he shot twice at them with his World War I-era rifle 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 R. Kelly, deputy commander of the military's anti-drug task force, told reporters 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, who was in the midst of a history report about the crime-fighting Texas Rangers, 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 to make arrests or enforce civilian laws. Prosecutors in Presidio County, who plan to present the case to a grand jury this month, have blasted the military for impeding their investigation. The region's top police official, Texas Rangers 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."

While the investigation is under way, the use of troops to patrol the border has been suspended along parts of the border with Texas, and all of the border with New Mexico.

Regardless of how the case is resolved, it has reinvigorated the long-standing debate over the use of American troops on American soil.

"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," says Timothy J. Dunn, a University of Texas scholar and author of "The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border, 1978-1992." "If you deploy the military on the border, shootings like the one in Redford are almost unavoidable."

The Hernandez family settled here about 30 years ago, building a compound of mud-brick huts near the river's edge. Until a couple of years ago, drinking water had to be carted in by barrel.

Junior -- the sixth of eight children -- never appeared to feel stifled by his surroundings. "He was very quiet or timid, or old-fashioned, you might say," says Rosendo Evaro, the 64-year-old owner of the Redford Convenience Store, who doubles as the town's postmaster and school bus driver.

On May 20, as he did every day, Evaro picked Hernandez up from Presidio High School -- a 32-mile round trip -- and dropped him off at home about 4 p.m. Hernandez ate supper. He studied his driver's manual. At 6 p.m., his father reminded him to take out the goats.

Unknown to Hernandez -- 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 in the desert scrub. Their faces were streaked with green and black paint. Full-length suits of camouflage netting, transforming the Marines into human bushes, hung from their helmets to their boots.

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.

"We've had the military down there several times, in and around Redford, over the last few years," said Joe Harris, an assistant Border Patrol chief for the region. "Nobody ever knows about it." But this time, something went wrong -- "a tragic mistake," Harris said.

Some neighbors, who heard only one shot that evening, question whether Hernandez ever fired his weapon. If he did, they are certain that he never saw the Marines. He might have been shooting at a jackrabbit or a tin can or one of the wild dogs that sometimes tormented his goats, but not at another human.

Investigators are inclined to agree. "I tend to doubt that he ever had visual contact with them," says Caver, noting that the Marines, by design, were supposed to be invisible. If Hernandez did see them, he would have been looking at "four strangers, dressed up in all this regalia, out there in the middle of nowhere."

After the first two shots were allegedly fired at them, the Marines hit the ground in a "defensive posture," according to military officials. As required, the Marines radioed the Border Patrol. But it would take at least 20 minutes for an agent to arrive.

Meanwhile, the Marines kept Hernandez in their sights. They followed him 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 pear or, if they perceived an imminent threat, respond with lethal force.

Hernandez, they allege, raised his rifle a third time. The Marines were spread out in the brush, about 100 yards away. But Banuelos, authorities said, apparently believed that one of his troops was about to be shot. He pulled the trigger once, striking Hernandez in the right of his rib cage.

By the time law enforcement officers arrived, there was nothing left to do but identify the body.

Pub Date: 7/12/97

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