Esequiel Hernandez Jr. could not be sure what was out there. He was 18,
a high school student, a simple kid who lived for his goats. Every
afternoon, he left his adobe cottage and walked them to the river's edge,
keeping watch with a .22 handed down from his grandfather. Now, in the
distant clumps of greasewood, something seemed to be rustling. Wild dogs?
Thieves? Did they mean to harm his goats? He fired at least once, maybe twice.
"As soon as he readies that rifle back down range, we are taking him,"
Banuelos radioed to his superiors, who were 65 miles away at the Marines'
Tactical Operations Center in Marfa.
"Roger," the radio operator affirmed. "Fire back." Twenty minutes
later, the goatherd was dead--a casualty of "systemic failures at every
level of command," according to a scathing Marine Corps investigation that
for the first time makes public a detailed chronology of the May 20, 1997,
The report recommends no criminal or disciplinary action against
Banuelos, whose decision to use lethal force was reasonable "in light of the
training he received for this mission." But in remarkably self-critical
language, Marine investigators concluded that Banuelos' training--and almost
every other step before and after the Camp Pendleton-based Marine returned
Hernandez's fire--was either "inadequate" or "problematic" for a domestic
"Basic Marine Corps combat training instills an aggressive spirit,"
wrote retired Maj. Gen. John T.
Coyne, who led a 22-member investigative team that pored over 13,000
pages of interviews and evidence.
While that spirit may be desirable in an armed confrontation with a
hostile enemy, Coyne added in a summary of his findings, it is "far removed
from the reality of manning an observation post on private property,
adjacent to a small community, on United States soil." The shooting
rekindled a national debate over what role, if any, the armed forces should
play in the war against drugs, with critics condemning the "militarization"
of the U.S.-Mexico border and proponents insisting that every available
weapon must be used to combat international smugglers. A series of criminal
investigations, including two state grand juries and a federal civil rights
inquiry, failed to produce any indictments. Nonetheless, the Pentagon
suspended armed anti-drug patrols on the border, and the Justice Department
paid Hernandez's family $1.9 million to settle a wrongful-death claim.
Military Policies Are Questioned Throughout the ordeal, military
officials described the incident as tragic but justifiable, an act of
self-defense by one good young man against an inexplicable attack by
another. The Marine Corps investigation did reaffirm that basic judgment; in
fact, when its completion was announced in June, most news organizations
reported only that Banuelos had been cleared, once again, of any wrongdoing.
But when the weekly San Antonio Current posted the entire 141-page summary
on its Web site this month, it revealed a far more critical document--a
catalog of miscues and blunders that calls into question the policies that
put the Marines on the border in the first place.
By acknowledging systemic errors, the Marines raised Hernandez's death
to "the stature of a war crime," charged Mel LaFollette, a retired clergyman
in Redford, Texas, who is trying to organize a class-action lawsuit on
behalf of the community's 100 residents. "This is proof of misconduct above
the level of the guy who did the shooting. This was an apparatus, a
hierarchy, carrying out a policy." A spokesman at Marine Corps headquarters
in Virginia, Lt. Col. Scott Campbell, acknowledged that "the findings from
Gen. Coyne are very candid." He noted that several officers with direct
responsibility for the mission had been "officially counseled in writing"
but said no other punitive measures were being taken.
In a dissenting opinion, the commander of Camp Pendleton's 1st Marine
Division blasted the report as arbitrary and misleading, full of
"unsupported and inconclusive allegations." Gen. John H. Admire conceded
that the shooting was a tragedy but one that Hernandez alone provoked.
"We regret his actions and their contributions to his death," Admire
No Emergency Plans for Marine Mission Before shipping out to Redford,
the 1st Marine Division had participated in 118 domestic anti-drug missions.
In four of those missions, Marines came under fire. In one of them, a Marine
was wounded. Yet according to the investigation, the four Marines in
Banuelos' unit were never required to plan or rehearse how they would
respond to an emergency. Some of them did not even meet each other until a
week before the mission.
"Cpl. Banuelos was not leading a cohesive unit, and the situation which
confronted him was different from anything for which he had been trained,"
the report stated. In fact, the mission itself appears to have been viewed
primarily as a training opportunity, not as a "real-world deployment," the
report added. "The failure to appreciate the difference had tragic
consequences." What little training the Marines received--about three
days--was done in Southern California, not Texas. They knew almost nothing
about Redford, which lies about 200 miles southeast of El Paso, other than
that the drug traffickers operating there represented "an organized,
sophisticated and dangerous enemy" and that residents were assumed to be in
cahoots. "Not a friendly town," the Marines were briefed.
Hernandez had no criminal record and was never suspected of involvement
in the drug trade. He did, however, have one brush with the law a few months
before his fatal encounter with the Marines.
On a February night in 1997, two Border Patrol agents heard gunshots on
the riverbanks. Later, they came across Hernandez, who apologized to the
agents, saying he "thought he had seen someone trying to steal his goats, so
he shot to try to scare them off," according to the investigation. Hernandez
said he would not have fired his weapon if he had known the agents were in
the area. The agents warned him to be more careful but did not report the
That decision ultimately denied the military "an essential element of
intelligence," the investigation found, noting that it might have led the
Marines to stake out a different location.
Instead, the Marines ended up at the Polvo Crossing, between
Hernandez's home and the Rio Grande. They were to remain in a hiding spot
during the day, then move to an observation post at night. The first team of
Marines went in May 14. On May 17, Banuelos' team--which included Cpl. Roy
Torrez Jr., Lance Cpl.
Ronald H. Wieler Jr. and Lance Cpl. James Blood--relieved them. The
departing crew had little to report--other than to tell Banuelos' team to
"watch out for the goats" that tended to wander into their camp.
Under the rules of Joint Task Force 6, which was created in 1989 to
give military personnel a supporting role in domestic anti-drug operations,
armed units are allowed only to conduct surveillance.
All contact with suspects and other civilians must be made by a law
enforcement agency. In this case, as in most, that meant the Border Patrol.
The Border Patrol agreed to respond within 15 minutes to any emergency
call. The Marines believed that meant 24 hours a day. The Border Patrol
believed the agreement only applied at night--when the Marines would
presumably be on watch.
On May 20, just about the time Hernandez was taking his goats to the
river, Banuelos' unit began making its way to the observation post. It was
only 6 p.m., and nightfall was still several hours away. But it was the
final day of their shift, and the Marines were eager to start packing up.
Their commander, Capt. Lance McDaniel, later told investigators that, if he
had known how early the Marines had broken camp, "it would have been a cause
of concern." As they hiked through the brush, hunched over to avoid
detection, the Marines spotted Hernandez. He was about 200 yards away. "He's
armed with a rifle, appears to be, uh, herding some goats or something,"
Banuelos reported on his radio.
Back at the operations center in Marfa, Lance Cpl.
James Steen responded: "You should remain in your position . . . and
try not to be seen, but you should know what to do." Just then, according to
the report, Hernandez lifted his rifle and fired. Some of the Marines heard
one shot, others remembered two. Military officials concede Hernandez could
not have known whom he was firing at. But the Marines were nonetheless
convinced he could see them, at least well enough to know he was aiming at
"Lock and load," Banuelos ordered. Then he radioed to the operations
center: "We're taking fire." The operations center alerted the Border
Patrol, which had three agents within about 15 minutes of Redford. But,
believing the Marines would not be in place for several hours, the agents
were not equipped for a shootout. Instead of racing to the scene, the
investigation found, they returned to the nearest station to pick up
semiautomatic rifles and bullet-proof vests--a delay that doubled their
Hernandez, meanwhile, was still trying to figure out who or what was
snooping around his four dozen goats.
He was standing on his tip-toes and craning his neck, "bobbing and
weaving . . . like when you look at something in the distance," one of the
Marines told investigators.
Four minutes after the shots were first reported, Banuelos and Steen
had their radio exchange about the use of lethal force. Unbeknownst to
Banuelos, however, Steen's authorization to "fire back" had triggered a
heated argument in the operations center.
The mission commander, McDaniel, believed the authorization may have
been "incorrect," according to the report. He removed Steen from the radio
and replaced him with a more seasoned officer, Sgt. Daren Dewbre. But
McDaniel did not immediately rescind or clarify the order.
"He remained too passive and deferred to Cpl.
Banuelos' judgment," the investigation contended. "He should have made
a more aggressive effort to obtain the facts and control the tactical
decision-making process." On the radio, Dewbre also seemed overly cautious.
"Just give us an update," he said.
Banuelos replied: "He knows we're out here. He's looking for us."
Finally, after another four minutes, Dewbre elaborated. "You're to follow
the ROE [rules of engagement]," he advised.
The rules of engagement, which were printed on small cards and
distributed before the mission, permit the Marines to use deadly force to
defend themselves or others against an imminent threat. The rules also
caution that force should not be used "if other defensive measures could be
effective." In an expert opinion solicited by investigators, retired Marine
Corps Col. Hays Parks argued that those rules--rules that Banuelos was found
to have followed--are inappropriate for a domestic law enforcement mission.
"The individual Marine is prepared from prior combat training to understand
'engagement' as presuming a hostile force," Parks wrote. "Accordingly, the
admonition within the rules of engagement to de-escalate--where
possible--becomes counterintuitive." The officers in the operations center
were not even sure whether Banuelos had received their admonition.
He did not acknowledge it. Instead, he handed the radio over to Torrez
and motioned to Blood and Wieler to follow him. They began closing the gap
on Hernandez, getting to within 140 yards. The Marines never attempted to
identify themselves or contact Hernandez; indeed, they were neither trained
nor obligated to do so. Under their rules, they could either retreat and
wait for the Border Patrol to arrive, or they could shadow Hernandez and
defend themselves if the occasion arose.
"Tragically, some of Cpl. Banuelos' actions . . . did not defuse the
situation," the report stated.
Banuelos later told investigators that Hernandez raised his weapon
again, in the direction of Blood.
Blood was moving and did not see Hernandez. Torrez was also out of
view. Wieler initially said he did not see Hernandez lift the rifle but
later changed his testimony to indicate that he did.
Banuelos fired his M-16, striking Hernandez once in the upper right
chest. At 6:27, about 20 minutes after first reporting Hernandez's shots,
the Marines radioed back: "We have a man down." It took the Border Patrol 10
more minutes to arrive.
It took another 10 minutes after that for agents to radio for an
ambulance. It took another seven minutes for a medical rescue helicopter to
be sent and another 12 minutes for it to land. In all, nearly 40 minutes
elapsed from the time Hernandez was shot to the moment a paramedic arrived
at his side.
The Marines told investigators they had been hesitant to render aid,
afraid at first that Hernandez might be faking his injuries, later that he
had broken his neck and could not be safely moved. The investigation found
that Hernandez would have died of the gunshot wound anyway. But the report
still chastised the Marines for failing to honor "the basic humanitarian
responsibility" to provide medical care.
The Marines were taken back to a hotel and given a six-pack of beer,
then told to write down their formal statements. Banuelos, who was 22 at the
time, left the military this summer. As the only member of his unit not to
receive immunity from prosecution, he has declined all requests for an
Copyright 1998 Los Angeles Times. All Rights Reserved
Comments to email@example.com