Page 7


FEATURE Looking for the Border BY BARBARA FERRY PHOTOGRAPHS BY AMELIE L. GOODWIN Redford From the graveyard on the hill in Redford where Ezequiel Hernandez Jr is buried you can see the cinderblock house where he lived with his family, the abandoned well he fell onto when a marine shot him, and the Baptist church where his body was laid ou4 one week after his eighteenth birthday. Across the river from Redford in a scattering of houses called Valle Nuevq the retelling of Hemandees short life and violent death has taken on the spare elegiac quality of a corrido. ra un buen muchacho, muy serio, un estudiante. Estaba cuidando sus chivas lo confudieron con un narcotraficante Con un solo tiro a la espalda los soldados lo mataron. [He was a good boy, a serious student caring for his goats They thought he was a drug trafficker And with one shot in the back the soldiers killed him.] Ezequiel Hernandez Jr. shouldn’t have been corrido material; such verses are usually written about heroes or outlaws. Hernandez was neither. Called “Junior” by everyone in Redford, he was known for his love of horsesand for saying “good morning” to the school bus driver, and for being the only boy at Presidio High School to sign up for folkdancing lessons. The only mistake in the popular accounting of his death is that Hernandez was not shot in the back, but in his right side. Except for that detail, what the townfolk say matches the forensic evidence the Texas Rangers have gathered in their investigation of the killing. Thus far their findings are these: On May 20, in the late afternoon, four marines on a surveillance mission spotted Hernandez near the river’s edge. He was grazing his goats, as he always did after getting home from school. As usual, he carried a World-War-I-vintage, .22-caliber rifle given to him by his grandfather. The gun was for keeping wild animals away from the herdand for shooting an occasional jackrabbit. Like everyone else in Redford, Hernandez was unaware the marines had arrived three days earlier. They were part of a fifty-sixmember platoon from California’s Camp Pendleton, brought in at the request of the Border Patrol sector chief in Marfa. They were to stay for two weeks in West Texas, spread out in the Big Bend area, and watch for drug runners; if they saw any, they were to report them to the Border Patrol. They had been briefed about the Texas terrain by Border Patrol tary drug-fighting unit based in El Paso. JTF-6 spokeswoman Maureen Bossch says the soldiers were warned about the heat, told to look out for snakes, and were advised that about ten years ago, a Border Patrol agent had been shot and wounded at the Redford crossing. The marines’ orientation session was called “Intelligence Preparation for the Battlefield.” It’s unclear what the marines were told about the one hundred or so people who live in this townthe laborers who pick onions, grow alfalfa, or like Hernandez’s father, work to sell goat cheese through a cooperative dreamed up by an Episcopalian priest with a Ph.D. from Yale. The priest believed that selling goat cheese to rich people would provide an alternative to transporting marijuana across the Rio Grande. To the Border Patrol, that distinction may have been unclear. Residents of Redford say that agents, believing that drug smugglers crossing the river were disguising themselves as goat herders, were suspicious of anyone herding goats. \(Coincidentally, “chiva,” The soldiers camped in an arroyo near Hernandez’s house, where they watched the river and radioed reports to the nearest Border Patrol headquarters, seventy-five miles away in Marfa. They dressed in camouflage outfits called IT’S NOT CLEAR, HOWEVER, “Ghillie suits” \(covered with HOW THE SOLDIERS leaves and twigs designed to CAN DETERMINE CITIZENSHIP, make them blend in with the WHEN THEY ARE TOLD NOT TO MAKE THEIR PRESENCE KNOWN painted their faces with TO THE PEOPLE THEY WATCH. streaks of brown and green paint. Equipped with nightvision goggles and armed with M-16s, they slept in holes dug in the ground and ate “mre” ready-to-eat field rations. At 6:07 p.m. on Tuesday, May 20, one of the marines reported over the radio that the unit had received fire. In subsequent sworn statements to the Texas Rangers, the marines would say that Hernandez had taken up his rifle, aimed at the soldiers, and shot twice. For the next twenty minutes, the soldiers say, they followed Hernandez as he walked uphill away from the river, across a gravel road, and towards an abandoned house next to the Baptist church. JTF-6 spokeswoman Bossch says the marines didn’t follow Hernandez, they “paralleled” him; they would later say they were “protecting their right flank.” They also said that Hernandez again took up his rifle and aimed at one of the members of the patrol. That’s the marines’ story. What is uncontested is that Clemente Banuelos, the twenty-one-year-old corporal leading the team, fired at Hernandez. In his home a few hundred feet away, Hernandez’s father heard the shot. At 6:27, one of the soldiers radioed that there was a “man down.” They approached Hernandez, who was slumped over an abandoned well. They did not try to help him, saying later that they thought the 8 THE TEXAS OBSERVER JULY 18, 1997