REDFORD, Texas -- On the day he died, Esequiel Hernandez Jr. took his goats to the river. He let them from their makeshift pens of wire and branch, then shooed them down the dusty lane. They wandered past the ruins of the Spanish mission, through the abandoned U.S. Army post and down a stony bluff to the Rio Grande.
When he reached the crest of the bluff, Hernandez stopped. Behind him lay the mud-red adobe homes and melon-green alfalfa fields of Redford. Before him stretched the Chihuahuan desert, Texas' vast gravel backyard, speckled with squat greasewood bushes and whiplike ocotillo plants. Except for Hernandez, whose goats brought him here late each afternoon, the residents of the little oasis rarely ventured into this no-man's-land.
But on this, his final walk to the river, Hernandez spotted something in the desert. It looked small and shaggy. He'd lost a goat not long before. He suspected wild dogs. His herd was already at the river's edge, halfway to the gray-brown creature. It moved. He couldn't afford to lose another goat. He raised his ancient .22-caliber rifle and aimed.
Twenty minutes later, Hernandez's 18-year-old body lay grotesquely twisted across a stone cistern at the edge of the village. He died trying to protect his goats. He was killed by a 22-year-old soldier trying to protect America's youth from drugs.
Esequiel Hernandez Jr. became the first civilian killed by U.S. troops on U.S. soil since the student massacre at Kent State in 1970. His death led to a temporary suspension of troop patrols near the U.S.-Mexican border. And last month, the government paid his family $1.9 million to settle a wrongful death claim.
Clemente Manuel Banuelos became the first U.S. Marine to kill a fellow citizen on U.S. soil. Four investigations and three grand juries probed the May 1997 shooting. Each concluded that because Banuelos followed orders, he was innocent of criminal wrongdoing. Those who issued the orders were never tried.
Both young men became victims of the Pentagon's quixotic $1 billion-a-year war on drugs.
Hooked on drug money
Hernandez's days were numbered since 1989, the year then-President George Bush waved a bag of crack on TV. Seated in the Oval Office, Bush held up the clear plastic bag and told the nation that it was crack cocaine seized in the park located directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.
U.S. presidents have been declaring "war on drugs" ever since the Nixon administration. Bush's remedies were much the same as those proposed by his predecessors: More cops, stiffer sentences. But because few police officers and no judges report to the White House, most presidents waged this war rhetorically. Bush changed that. He ordered the Pentagon to the front lines of the drug war.
For more than a century, stationing U.S. servicemen and women in American backyards was against the law. The Posse Comitatus Act, passed by Congress in 1878, made it a felony to deputize the armed services for domestic duty. Thus, since Reconstruction, not the U.S. Army but state-run National Guard units were called on to suppress labor strikes, race riots, student protests and other acts of civil disobedience. Though it no longer exists, this separation of military and police powers is still touted in high school civics textbooks as a hallmark of U.S. society and democratic ideals.
Congress began chipping away at Posse Comitatus in 1982 -- the same year then-Vice President Bush was put in charge of the War on Drugs -- with a defense bill that allowed the military to loan equipment and facilities to civilian law enforcement agencies. A 1989 bill went further, allowing military personnel to work in the field. And a 1991 act authorized the services to conduct armed anti-drug reconnaissance missions. The definition of these missions has been expanded in every defense bill since.
Just two months after Bush waved his bag of crack, the Pentagon created Joint Task Force Six (JTF-6). Based in a former Army stockade near El Paso, JTF-6 was initially conceived as a temporary operation, with duties confined to the U.S.-Mexican border. As it approaches its 10th birthday, JTF-6 is one of the longest-running task forces in U.S. military history. More than 72,000 troops have served in JTF-6 operations scattered across 30 states.
Many JTF-6 missions do not involve combat troops. `See accompanying story.` But others, such as the mission to Redford, have indeed placed them in American backyards.
JTF-6 cannot launch a mission on its own. The work must be requested by a civilian law enforcement agency fighting drugs within one of the nation's 21 federally designated "High-Intensity Drug-Trafficking Areas." (Central Florida is one.) But the U.S. Border Patrol is JTF-6's main client. The agencies have collaborated on an average of 157 missions a year.
The mission to Redford began with a request from the Border Patrol's sector headquarters in Marfa. Spanning 2,200 square miles of West Texas desert, Marfa is the most rural and least active of nine sectors along the U.S.-Mexican border. As a result, Marfa also has the fewest agents. So in 1996, the sector chief requested JTF-6's help. The request was approved by Operation Alliance -- JTF-6's civilian sister agency -- and the El Paso task force issued a call for military volunteers.
The 1st Marine Expeditionary Force quickly signed on. Like the Border Patrol, the California-based 1st Marines were regulars at JTF-6's desert headquarters. The 1st Marines participated in 119 missions prior to Redford, with 28 scheduled for 1997 alone. And like the Border Patrol, the 1st Marines were hooked on drug interdiction money. The division burned an extra $9.1 million worth of JTF-6 green during the four years prior to the Redford mission. Wrote the ranking general: "Unequivocally, my commanders depend on, and plan for, this annual infusion."
Late one afternoon in February 1997 -- the same month that JTF-6 and the 1st Marines began planning the Redford mission -- Border Patrol agents Johnny Urias and James DeMatteo heard gunshots while patrolling the Redford riverfront. Unsure what was happening, they climbed back into their truck and drove slowly up the dusty lane to Farm Road 170, the two-lane blacktop that winds through Redford.
Before they reached the village, a beat-up truck approached from behind. It flashed its headlights. The agents stopped. So did the white pickup. A boy hopped out and ran up to the Border Patrol vehicle.
"I'm sorry that I was shooting," the agents recalled the boy telling them. "I thought someone was doing something to my goats. I didn't know you were back there."
The tall, lanky teen-ager was Esequiel Hernandez Jr.
Known as "Skeetch" or "Zeke" to his friends -- and simply as "Junior" to the adults in the village -- Esequiel was the sixth of eight children of Maria de la Luz and Esequiel Hernandez Sr. Esequiel Sr. farms a small tract in the oldest part of Redford, called El Polvo and named after a Catholic mission established here in 1684. The Franciscans called it San Jose Del Polvo, or St. Joseph of the Dust. The name fits. High mountains let few raindrops pass into this part of the desert. But where the river floods there are small strips of muddy soil. The adobe-and-cinder-block village of Redford stands in the desert above the precious red soil, every inch of which is planted in alfalfa, melons, pumpkins or other crops.
Esequiel Jr. was a popular kid at Presidio High. His only brushes with the law were a result of his habit of driving without a license -- a common West Texas transgression.
He wasn't college-bound. The only visible indication of personal ambition was a large Marine Corps recruiting poster mounted on the wall above his bed. For the time being, he played cowboy. He rode horses in parades wearing an embroidered shirt and large white hat. When he wasn't on horseback, he helped his father tend the family's 43 goats. It was his chore to walk them to the river each afternoon. And he usually took with him a World War I-era .22-caliber rifle his grandfather had given him. The old gun was mechanically unreliable, but straight-shooting. This, too, he hung on the wall above his bed.
Urias and DeMatteo studied the boy who had followed them down the lane. No harm intended, they figured. No harm done.
Urias left the boy with a friendly warning. "Use more discretion when shooting your weapon," he recalled telling Esequiel. "Especially at night."
Cpl. Banuelos first set foot in the Redford desert three months later. On the morning of May 13, 1997, he scouted the stony bluff just downstream from El Polvo with his commanding officer, Capt. Lance McDaniel. Banuelos noticed an empty cardboard bullet box that had contained .22 caliber rounds. Unaware of the Hernandez's habits, they speculated that the box had been left by drug smugglers.
McDaniel picked Banuelos to lead a four-man team that would surveil the Redford crossing. The 22-year-old corporal's team -- called Team 7 -- was to watch the crossing at night, and radio reports of any illegal activity to the Border Patrol. During the day, Banuelos and his men were to retreat to a "hide site" in an arroyo just down river. There the men were to conceal themselves from the villagers.
The assignment was a coup for Banuelos, who was not much older than Hernandez when he joined the Marine Corps. The boy from San Francisco had matured noticeably during his three years in service, earning an achievement medal rarely awarded such a junior enlisted man. And now, while still a corporal, he had been selected to lead an observation team at Redford. All the other team leaders were sergeants. If the mission went smoothly, Banuelos would soon be a sergeant, too.
But mission No. JT414-97A -- as the men called it -- was not going smoothly. For while McDaniel's senior officers at 1st Division HQ were hot to take JTF-6's money, their support for the captain's efforts to prepare for the mission was tepid at best.
McDaniel was hamstrung at every turn by bureaucracy, paperwork, and the fact that 1st Division's command viewed the mission as little more than a free training exercise. That's the conclusion of an exhaustive report authored by retired Maj. Gen. John T. Coyne, from which many of the operational details described in this article were drawn. The Coyne report highlights how different police work is from military action and harshly rebukes the 1st Division for failing to adequately prepare its men for this mission.
In one striking example, McDaniel's men were pulled off a training exercise in order to participate in a dress uniform review. The officers' club mentality was visible in a statement from the man who ordered McDaniel's men to participate in the formality. Maj. Steven Hogg said he was comfortable with the order because he "was satisfied that Capt. McDaniel was hitting all the wickets."
As a result of this type of bureaucratic interference, Capt. McDaniel was able to conduct only three days of training before his teams departed Camp Pendleton for Texas. And because mission assignments weren't settled until the last minute, Team 7 never trained as a unit.
Cpl. Roy Torrez Jr., Banuelos' second in command, hadn't received any field instruction since his basic Marine Combat Training after boot camp. Torrez, whose main job in the Marine Corps was driving a tow truck, was also Team 7 medic. He had completed a first-aid course in order to meet a quota at the garage where he worked.
Like Torrez, Lance Cpl. Ronald Wieler had received no field training since basic. Wieler was a radio operator. Most of his preparation consisted of cutting rags and sewing his own camouflage "ghillie suit," a shaggy cover of burlap strips.
Lance Cpl. James Blood, the team's junior man, did attend the three days of training. But Blood was assigned to another team during that time. He didn't even meet his teammates until the day before McDaniel and Banuelos found the empty bullet box by the river.
Upon returning from that walk, McDaniel briefed his men at a Marfa base camp. The two-hour talk addressed safety issues, communication protocols and the "rules of engagement" (ROE). The men were handed ROE cards that listed specifically what they could and could not do. They were told what to do if they encountered drug smugglers. But they neither discussed nor rehearsed what to do if they came across a civilian.
Staff Sgt. Daren Dewbre concluded the briefing. Dewbre warned the men that drug gangs posed an "organized, sophisticated and dangerous enemy." He told them that other teams had taken fire on previous missions. He told them that "the enemy" would employ armed lookouts and that some villagers were in cahoots with the smugglers.
His briefing notes read: "Redford is not a friendly town."
Men with guns
Eight hours west of San Antonio and five hours east of El Paso, Redford is one of the most remote towns in the United States. It's also among the most-often visited by armed forces.
First came the Apache. Then the Spanish. In 1747, Captain Joseph de Ydoiaga led an expedition that led to the construction of a Spanish fortress, near present-day Presidio. Next came the Mexicans, who in 1821 won independence from Spain. And in 1836 the Texans separated from Mexico.
The Mexican-American War brought the U.S. Army in 1846. The United States won a bloody victory over a Mexico torn apart by civil unrest. The Treaty of Guadalupe de Hildago cut Mexico in half. The United States took everything from the Rio Grande to California.
The treaty also divided the village of El Polvo, placing the fields on the south side of the river in Mexico, and brought Anglo settlers who changed the name of the dusty village. The Army built a fort at Redford called Camp Polvo during the Mexican Revolution, which spilled across the Rio Grande after 1910; for years, whichever side was losing would surrender to the U.S. Army rather than their enemy. When the revolution ended, the Army left several buildings behind -- including an adobe officers' house and a small stone cistern.
Three days in the desert
Banuelos and his team were dropped off along Farm Road 170 late Saturday night, May 17. The men leaped out of the Chevy Suburban wearing camouflage face paint and ghillie suits. They carried two five-gallon water cans, two radios and assorted gear. Each carried his M-16A2 rifle.
Team 7 walked half a mile to the observation post. The team they were replacing was dehydrated and nauseous after its three-day tour. The departing team commander told Banuelos: "Watch out for the goats."
Banuelos, Torrez, Wieler and Blood settled into the stony bluff above the river. They saw two vehicles cross the river that night, and radioed the Border Patrol both times. As dawn came Sunday, Banuelos moved his men to the arroyo. The day passed slowly, punctuated by fitful naps.
The goats came in the afternoon -- dozens of them, scrabbling through the hide site, foraging among the greasewood bushes. Some came so close that one soldier feared they would gnaw on his leaf-like ghillie suit.
Team 7 moved up to the observation post early that evening, sometime between 7 and 8 p.m. This was a departure from mission JT414-97A's plan, which instructed them not to move until after dark. The men reported more vehicle crossings that night -- pickups, Suburbans and Blazers rolling back and forth across the river. But the Border Patrol only stopped one or two.
On Monday the desert began to be very hot. At midday, the surface temperature of the Chihuahuan desert can reach 180 degrees. Snakes stay in their burrows to avoid being cooked. The men had no burrows. They lay on hot stones, wrapped in their burlap suits. Each man had only three quarts of water per day. All they had to eat were fibrous goo bars called Meals Ready to Eat, like Slim-Fast shakes without the liquid.
The goats returned in the afternoon. They stuffed their mouths with desert weeds. They gurgled as they drank deeply from the river. By that evening, Team 7 had begun to realize that El Polvo was a well-worn crossing, and that most of what was smuggled across wasn't drugs. Vehicles of every description arrived laden with tires, cement, furniture, produce and other contraband. Torrez and Blood griped about how rarely the Border Patrol responded to their calls. "If they don't care," Blood recalled asking, "why do we need to be out here?"
Wrong place, wrong time
They didn't need to be there -- at least not in May. A decade's worth of federal statistics prove it: More than 85 percent of all illegal drugs entering the United States arrive via official ports of entry monitored by the Customs Service. Most comes concealed within legitimate cargo. Nearly 100 percent of all heroin shipped to the United States last year flowed through official ports, according to federal estimates. Ninety-nine percent of the methamphetamine tumbled through those ports. Ninety-seven percent of the cocaine blew in this way.
Marijuana is the lone exception. Half the weed consumed in this country is grown here. Much of the rest comes across at places like El Polvo. Last fall, the Border Patrol caught a motor home stuffed with 2,700 pounds of marijuana. Its driver said he crossed at El Polvo. Large busts like this happen every fall. That's because marijuana is a crop. Most of it gets harvested and shipped across the border in the fall and winter. Only tourists and amateurs bother smuggling in May.
If Congress were serious about employing the armed forces to stop the northward flow of drugs, it would post search teams at each of the 39 customs checkpoints along the 2,000-mile border. Three and a half million trucks rolled through in 1996. Customs was able to inspect but a quarter of them.
The main reason these trucks go uninspected is because truckers -- and the corporations who hire them -- complain the wait at customs is too long. These corporations, which finance political life in America, complain to Congress that more searches would slow progress of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Washington wants it both ways. It wants to stop the flow of drugs and immigrants, while increasing the flow of goods and services. Putting Marines in places such as Redford is a compromise. It allows Congress to appear tough on drugs, while not hindering trade.
Congress has strained to expand the military's role along the border ever since JTF-6 was created. Both the House and Senate versions of the 1989 bill would have given the military the power to arrest civilians. These provisions were killed as a result of strong opposition from the Pentagon, which trains its troops to kill their enemies -- not arrest them. Many, many military scholars warn that training the armed services to do police work will render them unprepared for actual combat.
Timothy Dunn chronicles America's longstanding efforts to station troops along the Rio Grande in his book, "The Militarization of the U.S.-Mexico Border." The El Paso-based professor explains how "complex international issues such as undocumented immigration and illegal drug trafficking are reduced to one-sided, domestic border-control problems and framed as threats to national security, which in turn require strong law enforcement, or even military responses."
Even as Banuelos was struggling to prepare his team for mission JT414-97A, U.S. Rep. James Traficant, D-Ohio, was pushing a 1997 bill that would have put 10,000 troops on the U.S.-Mexican border. Traficant reintroduced the troop plan this year, and tore a page from Dunn's book when he said on the House floor: "The border is a national security issue, and, by God, the Congress of the United States better start securing our borders."
The House passed the Ohio congressman's amendment in June, along with proposals for bigger fences, fancier technology and more agents along the border. The Senate nixed the Traficant plan, but moved to swell the ranks of the Border Patrol from 6,200 to more than 20,000 agents. "It's an easy, simple and politically safe target," says Kevin Zeese, who heads the nonprofit group Common Sense for Drug Policy. "Shout ‘drug war' as loud as you can and you sound like you are protecting America's youth."
Esequiel Jr. got home from school about 4 p.m. on the day he died. He thanked the driver of the big yellow bus and walked down the lane to his family's little rancheria. He studied his driver's handbook, then he helped his father unload some hay. After that it was time to walk the goats.
Banuelos led his men out of the hide site even earlier that afternoon. It was three full hours before nightfall. They hadn't even seen the goats yet. They were hot, tired, hungry, dehydrated and still dressed like shrubs. They looked forward to being relieved shortly after dark.
As Team 7 crept toward the observation post, Banuelos spotted a man on a horse on the Mexican side. The corporal put his team in a halt. Just then, Esequiel and his goats crested the small bluff. The Marines -- who had been warned to expect armed lookouts and "unfriendly villagers" -- saw a young man of Latino descent carrying a .22 rifle.
Banuelos whispered into the radio: "We have an armed individual, about 200 meters from us." A time-stamped recording of the radio traffic showed it was 6:05 p.m. "He's in front of the old fort. He's headed toward us. He's armed with a rifle. He appears to be in, uh, herding goats or something."
Hernandez saw something move in the brush at the bottom of the far ravine. He had warned friends and family members of what he would do if he ever found the wild dog he believed had taken his goat.
The goatherd may have fired once, as Banuelos and Blood claimed. (One spent shell was later found in the rifle.) Or he may have fired twice, as Torrez and Wieler recalled. Or he may not have fired at all, as the lack of gunpowder residue on his hands later suggested.
What is certain is that the four tired men believed they had been fired at by a drug smuggler. None was hit.
Banuelos ordered the men prone. Face down in the hot gravel, he told them to "lock and load."
Hernandez stood on his toes. He peered across the desert. Torrez recalled he was "bobbing and weaving ... like when you look at something in the distance, you stand on your tippy-toes and try to move your head around to see."
"We're taking fire," Banuelos radioed at 6:07 p.m.
Capt. McDaniel was working out in a gym at the Marfa compound when he heard the news. He sprinted to the nearby operations center. He and his fellow officers immediately began debating what actions were authorized under the JTF-6 rules of engagement.
Banuelos and his teammates still were carrying the ROE flash cards they were given a week earlier. The first of six points listed was: "Force may be used to defend yourself and others present." The second and third points were: "Do not use force if other defensive measures could be effective" and "Use only minimum force necessary."
But Banuelos didn't have time to reread his card. Nor was he aware that McDaniel and the other officers were in the midst of an intense debate about what he could and could not do. At 6:11 p.m., he radioed the operations center: "As soon as he readies that rifle back down range, we are taking him."
Lance Cpl. James Steen was manning the radio in Marfa. He replied: "Roger, fire back."
McDaniel exploded. He and the other officers in the operations center believed Steen's authorization to "fire back" was wrong, according to written statements. Steen was pulled off the radio. Sgt. Dewbre took the chair. But the order to "fire back" was neither corrected nor withdrawn.
Dewbre radioed at 6:14 p.m.: "Just give us an update."
To keep the boy within his line of sight, Banuelos led his team down another stony arroyo and up the opposite bank. From the top of the next plateau, the Marines could see in all directions. Banuelos told Dewbre: "We have a visual."
Dewbre replied: "You're to follow the ROE."
Banuelos did not acknowledged Dewbre's order. Nearly four minutes had passed since the incorrect order to "fire back" was issued. McDaniel and the other officers discussed whether or not Banuelos had heard Dewbre. But they did not retransmit the instruction.
Worse than drugs
The war that Esequiel Hernandez wandered into is not confined to the U.S.-Mexican border. The Pentagon spends about $1 billion a year fighting drugs. JTF-6 has conducted missions in 30 states and the Caribbean territories. An estimated 4,000 National Guard troops are involved in 1,300 counter-drug operations nationwide. And 89 percent of police departments now have paramilitary SWAT teams, which primarily serve drug warrants `see "Commando Cops," May 7`.
Yet the drugs are winning. The availability and potency of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine has skyrocketed over the past decade. At the same time, street prices have fallen. The United Nations estimates the annual revenue generated by the illegal drug industry at $400 billion. That's 8 percent of the total international trade, or about the same size as the global automobile industry.
The war has not proved either as easy, simple or politically safe as its proponents had hoped. Days after he waved the plastic bag of crack on TV, Bush was embarrassed by revelations that it was not "seized" but in fact had been purchased for $2,400 by an undercover agent who had lured a drug dealer there to the park across from the White House. The seller was baffled by the agent's request. On a DEA tape of the phone call, the 18-year-old dealer asked, "Where the fuck is the White House?"
"We can't even keep drugs out of prison," says Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy. "To think we could keep them out at the borders is absurd." Common Sense for Drug Policy argues that drug abuse is a social problem that requires a combination of social -- not military -- solutions. The evidence bears them out. Where drug use has fallen, experts attribute the difference to lifestyle changes, not law enforcement.
Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State George Shultz, right-wing economist Milton Friedman and broadcaster Walter Cronkite all make the same case. They are among the hundreds of signers of a June 1998 letter urging the United Nations to abandon the War on Drugs. The signatories hailed from 40 nations, and included federal judges and Nobel laureates from across the political spectrum. Published in The New York Times and elsewhere, the letter was blunt: "We believe that the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself. This industry has empowered organized criminals, corrupted governments at all levels, eroded internal security, stimulated violence, and distorted both economic markets and moral values. These are the consequences not of drug use per se, but of decades of failed and futile drug war policies."
Death in the desert
Border Patrol agent Johnny Urias was picking up undocumented immigrants 15 miles away when he heard the 6:07 p.m. radio call: "They're taking fire from a man with a rifle at position three ... Please assist position three."
Urias and partner Rodolfo Martinez sped back to the Presidio station. They dropped off their suspects. They picked up M-16 rifles and protective vests. Two other agents arrived, and did the same. Within minutes, the four agents were speeding toward Redford, lights and sirens blaring.
Urias radioed Banuelos, who told him that Hernandez was at the old fort. "He's armed with a rifle, a .22," the corporal said. Banuelos and his team were atop a plateau about two football fields away from Hernandez. They knew the Border Patrol was only minutes away. But Banuelos wanted to be closer. He handed the radio to Torrez, then waved for Wieler and Blood to follow him into the next ravine. From that moment on, Banuelos was out of radio contact with both McDaniel and the Border Patrol.
The next arroyo was steeper than the last. Wieler stumbled several times. He scraped his hands on the sharp, loose gravel. He didn't understand what Banuelos was doing. He said later that he "would have stayed and let the Border Patrol handle the situation." But he followed orders.
Once atop the next plateau, the Marines moved toward the abandoned fort. Soon they were within 130 yards of Hernandez. They scurried forward one by one, in short rushes. They crouched low among the waist-high greasewood bushes. Banuelos watched Hernandez through the scope on his M-16 as his men moved.
At 6:27 p.m., Banuelos believed he saw the boy raise his old .22 and aim toward Blood. (Neither Torrez nor Blood were watching Hernandez. Wieler initially stated he didn't see Hernandez move, then later testified he did.)
The corporal, an expert marksman, squeezed the trigger.
The bullet entered Esequiel Hernandez Jr. beneath his right arm. It fragmented and cut two trails through his chest, destroying every organ in its path.
Torrez looked up in time to see the boy's feet fly in the air.
Cpl. Banuelos was standing over Hernandez's body when the Border Patrol arrived. Agent Urias recognized the boy he had warned only three months before.
Hernandez had dragged himself 10 yards through hot gravel after he was shot. From atop the old Army watering hole, Hernandez could have seen see the adobe home where he was born, the lush green oasis that fed his family, the cinderblock schoolhouse where he had dreamed of becoming a soldier, and the village graveyard, where he soon would be buried.
A desert thunderstorm approached. More cops arrived. Texas Rangers. A justice of the peace. The district attorney. FBI. Marines. They trampled through the evidence for hours. Then the storm rumbled through. Hard rain washed over the body, the gun, the scene.
Team 7 was driven back to Marfa, put in a motel room, given a six-pack of beer, and told to write statements. The story that emerged was that Banuelos was not "pursuing" Hernandez -- as prohibited by the rules of engagement -- but was "paralleling" the goatherd out of fear that the boy was running a "flanking maneuver."
Banuelos was frank and forthright about what he had done. He reportedly concluded one interview by stating: "I capped the fucker."
The Texas Rangers investigated the shooting. The Justice Department investigated the shooting. JTF-6 investigated the shooting. And the 1st Marine Division investigated the shooting. All concluded that Banuelos followed orders. All concluded that he committed no crime.
A county grand jury refused to indict Banuelos on criminal charges. A federal grand jury refused to indict Banuelos. And a second county grand jury, given substantially more evidence than the first, also refused to indict Banuelos. All concluded that Banuelos followed orders. All concluded that he committed no crime.
Banuelos was under investigation for more than a year. But the orders that sent him to El Polvo in May, the orders that put him in the field with an under-prepared team, and the incredible order to "fire back" -- these were never put on trial. And by agreeing to pay the Hernandez family $1.9 million, the Navy and the Justice Department effectively closed the most viable legal route through which the family or the village could have put those orders on trial.
Human rights activists fear the settlement will clear a political path for JTF-6 to resume armed border patrols in the near future. And if they take such missions, future Marines will follow orders just as Banuelos did. In a response to the scathing Coyne report, Gen. C.W. Fulford Jr. noted that even the best-trained Marines would likely behave much as Team 7 did. "Indeed," Fulford wrote, "it is probable that a superbly trained team of infantrymen would have immediately returned fire."
Banuelos is no longer a member of the Marine Corps. His promising military career died the same day Hernandez did. The 23-year-old
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