The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez
PBS, July 8
When National Guard troops fired on student protesters at Kent State in Ohio in 1970, killing four, it entered the national consciousness. Neil Young wrote a song about it. But the next time active-duty military or National Guard killed a U.S. citizen on American soil it was a different story. In 1997, Esequiel Hernandez, a quiet high school student who liked to dance and to work on his father’s farm, was killed within sight of his home. The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez, a documentary film premiering on the PBS series POV on July 8, analyzes the evidence surrounding the killing and the subsequent grand jury hearing involving the four Marines.
It’s a troubling and complicated story of an armed man firing at a band of Marines who’d been undercover, out in the heat, eaten by ants, expecting to find criminals. But there’s plenty reason to conclude that the young farmer fired on what he thought was an animal in the brush and that the Marines methodically tracked Hernandez down and killed him simply because they were pissed off about being shot at.
On May 20, 1997, four Marines were on a covert operation along the Rio Grande in the border town of Redford, Texas. They were watching for drug traffickers coming across from Mexico. After coming upon a young man herding goats and carrying a rifle, the Marines, in heavily camouflaged “Ghillie suits” which make them look like vegetation-shrouded swamp creatures almost impossible to spot even at close range.
The government had placed Marine teams at various locations along the Rio Grande as part of a covert operation to watch for drug traffickers coming across from Mexico. The Clinton administration had escalated a policy begun in the late '80s that sent American troops to the border in hopes of choking off the flow of cocaine into the U.S., deploying ground troops to the U.S./Mexico border for the first time since 1914. But according to David Castaneda of the Border Patrol, the Marines were just there to keep an eye on things. “We only used the military for observation,” says Castaneda. “They weren’t there to do any pursuit.”
But that doesn’t mean the troops didn’t expect action. The Marines were told that around 75 percent of the residents of the town of Redford were actively involved in illegal drug trafficking, a plainly preposterous claim. One of the team, James Blood, jokes that he hoped to find a goat loaded with cocaine, perhaps for his own profit.
“It would have been nice to catch someone in the act,” says Lance Corp. Ronald Wieler, one of the four young men on the mission, “but that never happened.” What did happen is that a high school student, who had no idea that heavily camouflaged Marines were in the area, fired two shots into the scrub in the direction of the Marines, probably aiming at what he thought was a rabbit or a coyote. In the context, Hernandez’s behavior wasn’t alarming. As Jack Brisbin, a county judge, points out, “In Redford, everybody’s got a rifle!” After the shots, Hernandez didn’t act like a man engaged in a gun battle with armed troops. He slowly made his way to a dilapidated concrete structure. The Marines followed Hernandez for 20 minutes and shot him. The Marines claimed Hernandez had raised his gun to fire at them again, though the autopsy made that sound unlikely because where Hernandez was hit and how he fell were inconsistent with a man aiming a rifle.
And very quickly the Marines’ claim of self defense was drawn into question. “Four Marines armed with M-16s sitting on the high ground are not vulnerable to one individual with a .22 rifle,” says Major General Mike Coyne, who was involved with the case.
The case attracted national attention. “Once the military is involved in the death of a civilian, there has to be some accountability,” says Albert Valadez, the district attorney of Presidio County, which includes Redford.
It emerged that Corp. Clemente Banuelos, the team leader, and the Marine who shot Hernandez had said he “capped the motherfucker,” which only added to the outrage of the local community. But when it came time the grand jury hearing for Banuelos (the only one of the four Marines who refused to be interviewed for this film), the other three team members showed up in full uniform. According to FBI investigator Jane Kelly, upon questioning after the incident, Banuelos had been unusually calm and cool, for someone who’d just killed another man.
But, with a media-savvy lawyer and the climate of hostility toward Mexicans and Mexican Americans, somehow the public seemed to lose sympathy for the death of Esequiel Hernendez, and for his family, and instead, the Marines were portrayed as heros. The grand jury did not indict, and Banuelos was never charged with the murder.
“If they had been any domestic law enforcement personnel—sheriff’s deputy, Texas Rangers, FBI—they would have gone to jail for that. Undoubtedly,” says FBI agent Kelly. Instead, Banuelos was even considered for a medal of honor because of the incident, a commendation that was denied him after Maj. Gen. Coyne went to the highers-up in protest.
The killing of Esequiel Hernandez is troubling enough on its own, but with the current climate of Minutemen volunteering to patrol the border, the increased hostility to Mexicans who cross the border illegally, the renewed interest in fortifying the border with fences, walls and more troops, the likelihood of Hernandez’s killing remaining an isolated accident appears open to question. In the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, the crossing of Rio Grande at Redford was blockaded. In May 2006, George W. Bush announced the deployment of 6,000 National Guard troops to the U.S./Mexico border as part of the War on Terror and the government’s push to control illegal immigration. It was the first deployment of armed military to the border since the 1997 death of Esequiel Hernandez Jr.