The Killers of Joint Task Force 6

How the Marines Murdered Esequiel Hernandez

Revolutionary Worker #917, July 27, 1997

For Esequiel Hernandez Jr., the afternoon of May 20 began with the usual after-school routine. After classes let out at Presidio High, Esequiel walked back to his family's cinderblock house in Redford, a small West Texas town on the border with Mexico. He ate a snack and did a little studying. Then Juni, as his family called him, went outside again, to take the family's herd of 40 goats to forage in the nearby hills overlooking the Rio Grande.

As always Esequiel carried his .22 caliber rifle--handed down to him from his grandfather--to protect the herd from coyotes and other wild animals. What Esequiel did not know was that he himself was being stalked--not by wild animals, but by four Marines from the U.S. military's Joint Task Force Six.

The Marines were camouflaged to blend into the desert bushes, had their faces covered with black paint, and were armed with high-powered M-16 rifles. After first spotting Esequiel, the Marines followed him for 20 minutes. Then, from 200 yards away, one of the soldiers raised an M-16 to his shoulder, squeezed the trigger and shot Esequiel dead with a single bullet. It was just six days after Esequiel had turned 18.

What were these heavily armed Marines doing in the hills of Redford, practically in the backyards of the local people? What possible justification could the U.S. military have for shooting dead a Chicano high school student who was just tending to his family's livestock?

The Joint Task Force Six (JTF-6) is part of the U.S. government's increasing militarization of the border with Mexico. Regular military troops are being deployed along the 2,000-mile border as part of the government's "war on immigrants" and "war on drugs."

Esequiel Hernandez Jr. was not the first person to be shot by U.S. troops on the border. Four months earlier, on January 24, Cesareo Vásquez was shot from behind by Green Berets while he was crossing the Rio Grande near Brownsville, Texas. A native of Matamoros, Mexico, Vásquez and a friend were on their way to a job in Houston tinting automobile windows.

The Border Patrol first claimed that Vásquez was a "bandit" who robbed several other immigrants, and that he was shot after firing at the soldiers with a .38 caliber revolver. But officials admitted later that Vásquez was not involved in any robbery. Vásquez said he carried a gun because he had been robbed during a previous crossing. It was a foggy night, and the camouflaged soldiers were hidden in the heavy underbrush. Vásquez explained, "I couldn't see anything. But I heard people in front of us so I fired a warning shot into the ground." The Green Berets responded by firing 11 rounds from their M-16.

There are also many immigrants who have died because the militarization of the border has forced them to cross at dangerous and remote areas in the mountains and deserts.

The official explanation for the deployment of the armed forces on the border is that the troops are "assisting" the INS Border Patrol--the Migra. The soldiers are officially restricted to surveillance and reporting to the Border Patrol, and are not supposed to intervene directly.

But there is one major exception under the "rules of engagement" for these troops. They can fire--without any warning--if they are "defending" themselves.

U.S. military officials shamelessly resorted to their "rules of engagement" as justification. Defending the Marines who shot Esequiel, a Pentagon spokesman said, "Our standard rules of engagement allow the use of deadly force in self-defense."

A neighbor of the Hernandez family, who lives just down the hill from where Esequiel was killed, said, "What are these `rules of engagement?' We had no idea we were being engaged in the first place." No one had ever told the people of Redford that the armed forces were on patrol in their area.

The JTF-6 and the Marines claim that Esequiel had fired two shots from his .22 rifle and then aimed for a third shot. Only then, the story goes, did one of the troops fire his M-16. According to the perverse logic of the U.S. military, the four Marines--armed with automatic weapons, expertly camouflaged and hidden from view--were in fear for their lives from a goat herder carrying an ancient .22 rifle.

Many things about this story are suspicious. The Marine unit followed Esequiel for 20 minutes--plenty of time to observe that he was doing nothing but looking after a few dozen goats. After they shot Esequiel, the Marines waited 22 minutes to radio for medical assistance, even though one of them was a trained medic. When a deputy sheriff first arrived on the scene, he was told that Esequiel had injured himself by falling into a well. The autopsy result was inconsistent with the version of events told by the Marines. The bullet's point of entry and path inside the body showed that Esequiel was facing away from the Marines when he was shot. And the people living nearby heard only one shot fired--the one that killed Esequiel.

What exactly happened is not yet clear. But the various pieces of evidence point to a strong possibility that Esequiel was murdered in cold blood.

Local officials have said that they might bring charges against the Marines who shot Esequiel. But the four soldiers were quickly whisked away to Camp Pendleton in California. A spokeswoman at the base told the New York Times that the four Marines had "returned to business as usual."

At the same time, top U.S. government officials are hypocritically portraying themselves as being sympathetic to the victim and his family. After a recent talk with Esequiel's sister and others from Redford, Clinton's "drug czar" General Barry McCaffrey called the shooting a tragedy and promised an investigation.

But these high-level officials can not wash their hands of responsibility for the killing of Esequiel. What happened in the hills of Redford is the result of the cruel anti-immigrant policies and the program of militarization of the southern border regions, directed from the top levels of the government.

Clinton brags that under his administration there has been a huge mobilization along the U.S.-Mexico border and that record numbers of immigrants have been arrested. The federal plan for the southern border region, scheduled to be unveiled in a few months, reportedly calls for a huge increase in the Border Patrol--from about 6,000 agents today to 20,000 over the next 10 years. Billions of dollars have been spent on weapons, barricades, electronic tracking equipment, ID systems, communications and police transport--creating a warlike situation all along the border. Many anti-immigrant laws are being passed on the federal and state levels. Federal welfare cuts have especially targeted immigrants.

It's in this climate of hate and persecution that the four Marines were secretly helicoptered into the hills of Redford--with their M-16s, night-vision goggles and other high-tech equipment. As they went about their mission, they spotted a young Latino--with a gun. For these Marines--with their training and their indoctrination--any brown-skinned person in this remote land, near a shallow crossing of the Rio Grande, was a potential enemy--an "illegal" or a "drug runner." They followed him, through the mesquite and creosote bushes, like a hunter chasing prey. And then they shot him dead.

The killing of Esequiel Hernandez Jr. was not just an "accident" or a "mistake" by four individual soldiers. It was the result of the criminal policies formulated at the highest levels of this country's ruling class.

Shortly after the shooting in Redford, La Resistencia issued a statement of condemnation which said in part: "The blood of Esequiel Hernandez is on the hands of the U.S. government. His death must compel people everywhere to resist and defeat the militarization of the border and the whole U.S. War on Immigrants."

Esequiel Hernandez Sr. was gathering firewood along the banks of the Rio Grande when he heard the loud gunshot. He knew it wasn't from his son's .22. And it came from the direction of the hill where his son was tending the family's goats. He raced up the hill, past the neighbors' trailer homes. He came upon the sheriff's deputies, who asked him to identify the lifeless body on the ground.

"I don't understand it," Esequiel Hernandez Sr. said about the shooting and the military's cold-hearted response. "I want there to be justice."

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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