Soldiers of Misfortune

For as long as the U.S. military has patrolled the border in search of drug smugglers, there has been the possibility that an innocent civilian would be killed. The government insists the chance is worth taking. Tell that to the family of EzequielHernandez, Jr.

ON MOST AFTERNOONS AT THE EDGE OF EL POLVO, the low-water crossing that connects Redford, Texas, with Mexico, a visitor who survives the mind-wilting border heat may hunker beside the Rio Grande and be rewarded with a tableau as pastoral as any in Texas. The vision is preceded by an ethereal tinkling, the barest fingerprint of a sound. Then, spilling down from the northern plain, the goats come into view. There are perhaps forty of them, accompanied by a dog of obscure pedigree. Two of the goats wear bells around their necks. Quietly gnashing at the weeds, they make their unhurried way to the water.

Behind the animals a man and a boy materialize on horseback. Ezequiel Hernandez, Sr., is a solidly built, middle-aged native of Palomas, a pueblo almost visible from here. He wears a cap and a solemn but profoundly weary expression. In silence he surveys the mangy splendor of his world. His ten-year-old son, Noel, sits atop his pony with the slack posture that suggests an easy familiarity with goat herding. In this communion even the boy appears ancient. Meanwhile, the river glints like a shivering sheet of tinfoil. Across the water a lone man stands beside a dusty pickup—staring vaguely at America, waiting.

Simplicity shaded with ambiguity. That is El Polvo (literally, the Dust) and the border as a whole. Its beauty is not the innocent kind. Even the boy knows that. His older brother, 18-year-old Ezequiel Junior, who owned this very flock of goats, was shot to death here on May 20 by U.S. Marines. Likely the inscrutable figure on the other side of the river knows about the killing, and in any case, he is no innocent, as the visitor will later see for himself. But there are crimes and there are outrages. Hernandez’s death at the hands of a 22-year-old California-reared Marine named Clemente Bañuelos was at least the latter, no matter what a jury decides about the former. Newspaper readers all over America now know what tiny Redford (population: 107) always knew—that the soft-spoken, hard-working high school sophomore was as law-abiding and unthreatening as anyone drawing breath could possibly be.

Quite properly, the Texas Rangers are preoccupied with what took place the day Hernandez—carrying his grandfather’s old .22 rifle to fend off a pack of wild dogs that had been ravaging his herd—allegedly fired on four low-to-the-ground shaggy figures that turned out to be heavily armed and camouflaged Marines. The investigators have already voiced their skepticism as they square the soldiers’ statements against the autopsy report, the shooting distance, the position of Hernandez’s body, the time discrepancies, and the evidence gathered at the scene of the incident. District attorney Albert Valadez has intimated his desire to try Corporal Bañuelos for murder, and Hernandez’s parents have hired an attorney to pursue a wrongful death lawsuit against the U.S. military. While his family awaits justice, the rest of the world awaits the truth.

Senseless though the tragedy was, the greater outrage is this: Ezequiel Hernandez’s killing was eminently predictable. We could expect no less, really, from the quiet but growing movement to militarize an area populated by civilians. Just what was the Marines’ mission at El Polvo? Was it, as we have been led to believe, an honorable episode in America’s much-ballyhooed War on Drugs? The evidence plainly suggests otherwise. From inception, the Marines’ mission in Redford was trivial, politically and bureaucratically freighted, and doomed to fail—a blundering bullet, in effect, with Ezequiel Hernandez’s name on it.

FROM WHERE I SAT THE DAY I OBSERVED THE HERNANDEZES and their goats, El Polvo didn’t look like a battlefield. Later, however, as I walked through the scrubby trails paralleling the river, I found abundant evidence of the Marines’ presence there a month before: more than a dozen empty packages of military rations, plastic military utensils, camouflaging burlap and the duct tape used to secure it to the soldiers’ uniforms.

Then, after discovering a piece of wire poking out of the dirt road at the river’s edge, I dug. What I uncovered, about a foot below the surface, was a heavy plastic box, similar to a car battery, with ten-foot wires dangling from each side. “ U.S. Government” read the inscription on the box, which turned out to be a sensor used to monitor movements at trafficking areas. A Redford resident I talked to had seen a U.S. Border Patrol vehicle parked at this spot late one night, about a week before Hernandez was shot. I reported this to a senior Border Patrol official. He denied the sensor was theirs and suggested that I ask the military agency that had coordinated the mission at El Polvo. I did, but a spokesperson said the sensor wasn’t the military’s either.

Abandoned there in the dirt, the devious instrument seemed a forlorn and impotent creature—a fitting symbol for the wayward mission it was intended to serve, and maybe for the War on Drugs as a whole. What was a U.S. government sensor doing out here in the middle of nowhere? El Polvo, just south of Redford, is one of dozens of nearby informal crossings, a relatively shallow stretch of the Rio Grande that can be easily waded across by small-time dealers. The real drug action goes on in ports of entry like Presidio-Ojinaga, sixteen miles away, where notorious smugglers like Pablo Acosta Villareal and Amado Carrillo Fuentes have made millions sneaking drugs into the U.S. The fact is that the War on Drugs, if it is to be won by interdiction, will be won at the ports of entry and not by collaring flunkies who ford the Rio Grande with bundles of pot held over their heads. But like all wars, this one must be fought on all fronts. So while U.S. Customs makes the big busts at the ports, the woefully undermanned Border Patrol must monitor the vast riverbanks, where the odd nickel-and-dimer might pop up.

This is where the story of Ezequiel Hernandez’s tragic demise begins: with the best of intentions. In the early summer

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