YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


A Good Shepherd's Death by Military

A Marine patrol tracking smugglers say they killed a young Texan tending his goats because he fired first. The role of troops in the border drug war on U.S. soil is angrily debated.


REDFORD, Texas — There are two Rio Grandes wending past this lonely 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 shy, unassuming, 18-year-old high school sophomore seemed rooted in another time, 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 souls.

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, storing his treasures--along with a souvenir sword from the Alamo--in a locked box by his pillow. And then he had his goats, about 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 to his father to him.

"That was his life, taking care of those little creatures," said his father, Esequiel Hernandez Sr., a farm worker with a face the color of rusty earth.

Yet lurking behind the simple patterns of Junior'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 Junior 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 Junior was trafficking in narcotics--not then, nor 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, who had ridden in the Presidio Onion Festival parade with a white cowboy hat just 10 days earlier, 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.

Case to Be Sent to Grand Jury

"We were invaded, and one of our sons was slaughtered," said the Rev. Mel LaFollette, a retired Episcopal priest in Redford who is helping residents prepare a class-action lawsuit against the federal government. "The whole community has been violated."

Even Texas authorities have been harsh in their assessment of the Marines, who are allowed under U.S. rules to conduct surveillance but not make arrests or enforce civilian laws. Prosecutors in Presidio County, who plan to present the case to a grand jury next 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."

Regardless of how the case is resolved, it has reinvigorated the long-standing debate over the use of American troops on American soil, a once-forbidden measure that has gained favor in recent years as a stopgap against the flow of drugs.

Military's Role in War on Drugs

Given the vast quantity of narcotics smuggled across the border--as much as 70% of the cocaine in this country is transported through Mexico--federal authorities say it would be foolish not to use every weapon at the nation's disposal. While mindful of the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which bans military personnel from performing police functions, they insist that the military's supporting role has helped level the playing field against an army of increasingly sophisticated traffickers.

"We give law enforcement an extra set of eyes and ears," said Maureen Bossch, spokeswoman for Joint Task Force 6, the El Paso-based military unit that has conducted more than 3,300 domestic missions, including the one in Redford, at the request of the Border Patrol and other police agencies.

Los Angeles Times Articles