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House Panel Subpoenas Files in Hernandez Killing; House Passes Traficant Amendment to Allow Military Anti-Drug Patrols on U.S.-Mexico Border; Amnesty International Report on Abuse at U.S.-Mexico Border


May-June 1998

On May 21, the House Judiciary Immigration and Claims Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), voted 6-0 to subpoena the Justice and Defense department files relating to the shooting of Esequiel Hernandez by an anti-drug U.S. Marine patrol last year (Steve Lash, "Subpoenas OK'd in herder's shooting by Marine," Houston Chronicle, May 22, 1998, p. 4A; Christi Harlan, "Subpoena Planned in Border Shooting," Austin American-Statesman, May 20, 1998; John C. Henry, "Still waiting for disclosure," Houston Chronicle, May 20, 1998, p. 5A).

Hernandez, 18, was tending his family's goats on May 20, 1997, near his home in Redford, Texas, along the U.S.-Mexico border, when the anti-drug patrol fatally shot him. The Marines said that Hernandez inexplicably shot at them twice, and that the teenager raised his .22 caliber rifle for a third time, when patrol leader Cpl. Clemente Banuelos shot the teenager to defend one of his fellow servicemen. Hernandez bled to death while the Marines waited for emergency assistance (Sue Anne Presley, "Year Later, Marine Killing of Goatherd Remains in Dispute," Washington Post, June 14, 1998, p. A3; "18-Year-Old Texan, Herding Goats, Killed by U.S. Marine Corps Anti-Drug Patrol," NewsBriefs, July 1997).

Hernandez reportedly carried the antique rifle to target shoot and protect his goats from coyotes and snakes. Critics of the shooting claim that Hernandez probably never saw the heavily camouflaged Marines.

Following a two-week investigation of the shooting, a Presidio County, TX grand jury declined to issue any indictments. A Federal grand jury ended its investigation in February 1998 without issuing any indictments ("No Civil Rights Charges in Hernandez Border Shooting, Says Justice Department," NewsBriefs, February 1998). Two months after the shooting, the Pentagon suspended anti-drug military patrols along the U.S.-Mexico border ("Neighbors of Texan Killed by Military Anti-Drug Patrol Petition for Demilitarization of Border; Pentagon Pulls Anti-Drug Troops From Border; State Grand Jury Decides Not to Indict Marine," NewsBriefs, August 1997).

The Marines Corps released a report on the incident on June 15 clearing Banuelos of any wrongdoing. The report maintains that anti-drug patrol leader was acting in defense of a fellow servicemen and maintains that Hernandez fired twice at the soldiers and was preparing to shoot a third time when Banuelos returned fire (Associated Press, "Marine corps report clears Corporal in shooting death of Texas teen-ager," Houston Chronicle, June 16, 1998).

Despite the conclusions of the investigations, Smith said the Clinton Administration has failed to provide Congress sufficient detail about the Hernandez killing. The Congressman said he hopes to discover who decided to post the Marines near Redford, what training the soldiers had received, and why no one has been reprimanded for the killing. "Did someone really believe that a youth with a .22 rifle had decided to conduct a frontal assault on a team of United States Marines?" asked Smith.

"The Border Patrol was supposed to brief the Marines, supervise them and respond to emergencies," said Smith. "But that didn't help Esequiel Hernandez." The Marines "didn't yell either a greeting or a warning after they encountered Hernandez," said Smith. "Instead, one of the Marines radioed their command center and said they were `taking him' if he raised his gun again. The response was, `Roger, fire back.'"

On May 21, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 288-132 to authorize the training of U.S. troops to assist in anti-drug efforts on the Mexico border. The measure, put forth by Rep. Jim Traficant (R-OH), is an amendment to the defense authorization bill (H.R. 2922). The plan to put troops on the border prompted criticism from Arizona Governor Jane Hull (R) and other officials. Soldiers patrolling border towns "creates a terrifying image that threatens our very nature as a peaceful nation," Hull wrote in a letter to Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) (Tom Raum, "House Backs Military Patrols of US Borders," Orange County Register, May 22, 1998; "Plan to Put U.S. Troops on Border Draws Fire," Orange County Register, June 15, 1998).

Earlier versions of this amendment have been rejected in conference. The Defense Department and Gen. Barry McCaffrey, the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, have objected to using the military for domestic law enforcement.

On the one-year anniversary of the Hernandez killing, Amnesty International released its first-ever report on human rights abuses by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) agents along the U.S.-Mexico border. In its 56-page report, Amnesty said it found "credible evidence" of mistreatment by U.S. law enforcement agents, including beatings, sexual abuse, and withholding food, water and medical care. Amnesty is urging the U.S. government to create civilian watchdog groups to monitor complaints about human rights abuses (Ken Ellingwood, "Civilian Panels to Monitor Border Abuses Urged," Los Angeles Times (Washington Edition), May 20, 1998, p. A8; Sam Howe Verhovek, "Border Patrol Is Criticized As Abusive," New York Times, May 21, 1998, p. A14).

U.S. Rep Lamar Smith, House Judiciary Immigration and Claims Subcommittee - B-370B RHOB, Washington, DC 20515, Tel: (202) 225-5727, Fax: (202) 225-3672.

U.S. Rep. Jim Traficant - 2446 RHOB, Washington, DC 20515, Tel: (202) 225-5261, Fax: (202) 225-3719.

Amnesty International - 304 Pennsylvania Ave., SE, Washington, DC 20003, Tel: (202) 544-0200, Fax: (202) 546-7142.