Grand Jury Refuses to Charge Killer Marines on Border

Revolutionary Worker #921, Aug. 31, 1997

On August 14 a grand jury in Presidio County, Texas, refused to bring any charges against the Marines who shot dead 18-year-old high school student Esequiel Hernandez Jr. Esequiel was killed on May 20 in the small west Texas town of Redford, near the border with Mexico. The four-man Marine patrol unit was part of Joint Task Force 6. Run by the Pentagon, Joint Task Force 6 coordinates various military units that "assist" in the Border Patrol and "anti-drug" operations on the U.S.-Mexico border.

According to the Presidio County district attorney, the grand jury "believed that the Marines were following the rules of engagement" and "acting reasonably" when they shot Esequiel. Supporters of the Hernandez family pointed out that the grand jury was obviously biased. One member of the grand jury is a local Border Patrol official, and three others have ties to the federal government.

The murder of Esequiel Hernandez and the unjust grand jury decision has put a spotlight on the U.S. government's high-tech militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border. The number of Migra agents in Texas has grown by 53 percent in the last four years. There are plans to increase the size of the Migra force by 1,000 agents a year over the next five years. Billions of dollars have been spent on weapons, barricades, electronic tracking equipment, ID systems, communications and police transport. Marines and other regular military forces have been deployed to function as the "eyes and ears" of the Border Patrol as well as local and state police agencies.

All this has created a deadly, war-like situation all along the border. Four months before the Marines killed Esequiel, U.S. troops fired on another man on the border near Brownsville, Texas. Many immigrants are being forced to cross the border over harsh deserts and mountains, far away from populated areas--and many have died trying. Last year, 18 people died from exposure in the mountains east of San Diego. According to a study done at the University of Houston, up to 300 immigrants a year died on the Texas-Mexico border over the last 10 years. These deaths are the direct result of policies created and carried out by officials at the highest levels of the government.

Murderous "Rules of Engagement"

On the afternoon of May 20, Esequiel Hernandez took his family's goat herd to graze in the back hills of Redford, as he did every day after school. He carried an ancient .20 caliber rifle to scare away wild dogs. He did not know that he was being trailed by four Marines who were heavily camouflaged and carried M-16 rifles.

The Marines say that they were fired upon twice by Esequiel. And they claim that they killed Esequiel only when he raised his rifle for a third shot. The Marines told the grand jury that they were only "following orders" and that they acted according to the military "rules of engagement."

But as a neighbor of the Hernandez family said, "What are these `rules of engagement'? We had no idea we were being engaged in the first place." No one had ever warned the people of Redford that heavily armed, camouflaged soldiers were prowling in their area.

The Marine unit followed Esequiel for 20 minutes in broad daylight--plenty of time to see that he was only taking care of some goats. After shooting Esequiel, the Marines did not make any attempt to help him, even though one of them was a trained medic. The autopsy result showed that Esequiel was facing away from the Marines when he was shot. This made it clear that Esequiel was not trying to shoot at the Marines when he was killed. Most likely, he did not even know that the Marines were nearby when his life was suddenly and violently snatched away.

Despite all this evidence, the grand jury refused to indict the Marines. For this grand jury, the "rules of engagement" gave the troops a license to kill.

The Continuing War on the Border

In July a delegation from Redford went to Washington, D.C. to protest the murder of Esequiel. They presented a petition to Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) Commissioner Doris Messner, Clinton's "drug czar" Gen. Barrey McCaffrey and other officials. The petition demanded an immediate end to "all military operations involving U.S. troops in communities of the U.S.-Mexico border zone." It proposed hearings so that "border residents may express their feelings about the current military operations in border areas and the consequent denial of civil rights and property rights." And the petition called the Border Patrol a "paramilitary organization that functions as a national police force."

The officials in D.C. acted like they were sympathetic to the people from Redford. At the end of July, the Defense Department announced an indefinite suspension of "anti-drug" military patrols along the border. The authorities took these steps because of the outrage and protests that followed the murder of Esequiel Hernandez.

But the suspension of military activity on the border only applies to ground patrols like the one that killed Esequiel. There will continue to be hundreds of military personnel deployed along the border--along with thousands of Migra agents, U.S. Customs agents and police of all kinds. The overall war on the border is continuing to intensify.

At the same time that the Redford delegation was in D.C., the Senate Appropriations Committee approved funding for 1,000 more Border Patrol agents. And a week later, the INS Commissioner announced "Operation Rio Grande," aimed at intensifying the military clampdown on the easternmost end of the U.S.-Mexico border, from Brownsville to Roma, Texas. This operation will bring hundreds of additional Migra agents, additional high-tech surveillance equipment and more weapons into the area.

The people of Redford said they will continue to fight for justice for Esequiel Hernandez. The Hernandez family and others are demanding another grand jury and punishment for officials in charge of the policies that put the Marines in Redford. One Redford resident said after the grand jury decision, "This is not the end. This is the beginning."

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