At first glance, the May 22, 1997 issue of The Big Bend Sentinel, a local newspaper in West Texas, appears unremarkable. “Good Luck, MHS Class of ‘97,” a banner reads on the front page, just above the nameplate. Five class photos of graduating seniors from Marfa High School are followed by stories announcing valedictorian, salutatorian, and “Miss MHS.”
But one class photo stands out from the rest—that of Esequiel Hernandez, Jr. He wears a white cowboy hat; he has a shy, close-lipped smile and wilting eyes. Above his portrait, the headline reads: “Marine kills Redford youth.”
Hernandez had been fatally shot two days prior in a tragic incident that not only rocked the 100-small community of Redford, where he was born and raised, but also made national headlines. “After Marine on Patrol Kills a Teen-Ager, a Texas Border Town Wonders Why” read the New York Times. “Fatal Error: The Pentagon’s War on Drugs Takes a Toll on the Innocent,” The Austin Chronicle reported.
Esequiel became an exemplar of what should never happen and cast a pall on the military’s role in borderland drug patrols. After his death, the Pentagon temporarily suspended the use of all ground troops along the border. And the young, smiling man in his white cowboy hat unwittingly became the face of arguments against further militarizing the border. A group of Redford residents banded together with the Border Rights Coalition in protest of militarization, highlighting the ways in which the longstanding narrative of the so-called “War on Drugs” could be a deadly force for those who actually reside there.
President Nixon popularized the term “War on Drugs” and Reagan ran with it, setting the stage for draconian zero tolerance drug policies that would dramatically increase the rate of incarceration in the United States. Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign would conflate the increasing demand for illicit drugs in the United States with an ambiguous and dangerous “other” that was supplying those drugs. “Our job is never easy because drug criminals are ingenious,” she said during her address to the nation. “They work every day to plot a new and better way to steal our children’s lives, just as they’ve done by developing this new drug, crack. For every door that we close, they open a new door to death.”
Over time, the border came to represent this “door to death,” though, ironically, the borderlands would be forced to confront a different kind of violence hatched by policy change used to target drug trafficking. Melvin La Follette, a former Episcopal priest and Redford resident who has since passed away, told the El Paso Herald-Post in the aftermath of Esequiel’s death: “As a community we feel violated—raped, if you like. Our private space was entered by bandidos,” an accusation that turned the narrative of a savage border on its head.
The news attention was a rarity for the far-flung border town made up of crumbling adobe homes, trailers, and now fallow farmland, whose Spanish name, El Polvo, literally translates to mean “the dust.”
Dust covers all things in these far reaches of West Texas desert. Small drifts collect in the space beneath doors and in unswept corners. The spring winds churn the wide skies and, with only squat mesquite brush and cacti to obstruct its howling path, eventually erode all things. The drawings Esequiel had painted along the walls of an abandoned house, located yards from where he would lay dying, have since fallen away, chafed by the elements. Esequiel’s grave, too, is covered in its coat. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Twenty years after the fatal shooting, the details surrounding his death remain unclear. Here’s what we do know: The group of four U.S. Marines responsible for his death, belonging to an operation known as Joint Task Force 6 (JTF-6), were part of a growing military presence on the border at the behest of the Reagan Administration. The counterdrug mission was implemented in 1989 to provide support to the U.S. Border Patrol. Small teams of Marines were to conduct surveillance of four areas of the international border between the U.S. and Mexico, where Border Patrol officials believed illegal drug smuggling occurred.
But the purpose of their mission was merely to observe, not to pursue or kill. Team 7, as the four Marines responsible for Esequiel’s death were called, was deployed on May 14. On May 20, Esequiel—known as a soft-spoken and even timid high school sophomore who kept a small group of friends, participated in the colorful folklórico dance troupe, and rode horses—returned home from school to tend to his goats. It was something he did each day, and he would tote a World War I-era .22 rifle, as petite as a BB gun, to protect his herd. This was not unusual. This is the Texas desert, after all, where javelinas and rattlesnakes abound. Around here, kids barely big enough to lift a gun know how to shoot.
Esequiel, like the rest of his community, had no idea the Marines were hiding out in the brush overlooking Polvo Crossing, a strip of the Rio Grande that offered access to both sides of the border, where Border Patrol officials believed illegal trafficking occurred. Nobody notified the town. Nobody told them the Marines would be decked out in ghillie suits—camouflage at its most absurd, where hanging strips of fabric meant to blend in with the landscape render its wearer a Bigfoot lookalike.
“In such a small town of Redford, if anyone would have known about the Marines being here, everyone would have known,” wrote his father, Esequiel Hernandez Sr., in a voluntary statement to the Texas Department of Public Safety in the wake of his son’s death. “If I had known about the Marines being around here, I would not have let Esequiel take the goats out.”
At this point, the details begin to blur. An investigation published by the U.S. Marine Corps in the aftermath of the incident claimed that Esequiel fired twice in the direction of the Marines, although two of the Marines interviewed stated they’d only heard one shot. Meanwhile, Esequiel’s father, who was in the area collecting wood at the time of his son’s death, stated he’d only heard one—the fatal shot—before he hurried in his son’s direction to see if something was wrong.
In any case, the Marines construed Esequiel as an armed threat, not a mild-mannered 18-year-old who was looking after his goats. Perhaps Esequiel had seen some movement in the brush; perhaps he had fired in their direction. Either way, he didn’t know there were Marines there, and it would have been virtually impossible to tell with their ghillie suits on.
The Marines had been instructed not to pursue anyone except to “retrieve military personnel” or to chase a person without the use of deadly force who posed a threat. According to their teaching materials at the time: “[I]f situation changes and during chase faced with threat or serious bodily harm then deadly force justified.”
Nevertheless, the four Marines pursued Esequiel and, in their statements, claimed they did so to protect their right flank. Cpl. Clemente Banuelos, the 22-year-old Marine who fired at Esequiel, maintained that in that critical moment, Hernandez had drawn his rifle in the direction of the Marines. The autopsy report showed that had Esequiel—a right-handed shooter—drawn his gun as Banuelos claimed, the gunshot wound he incurred could not have hit him where it did.
Esequiel did not die immediately; he bled to death. He’d fallen into a well from the impact of the shot. According to the Marine Corps report, one of the Marines, Cpl. Blood, “initially believed Mr. Hernandez was faking injuries but as he observed him he realized he was dying. Cpl. Blood thought that he had a broken neck from the way he was lying in the well.” As such, they did not attempt to administer first aid. Hours later, and just six days after his 18th birthday, Esequiel was pronounced dead.
But Banuelos and the three other Marines were not indicted for any crime. “[T]he four Marines in the team that killed Hernandez suffered no adverse consequences despite significant and disturbing evidence that they may have been guilty of serious wrongdoing,” a congressional oversight investigation reported. “In addition, no JTF-6 personnel were held accountable for errors relating to the Hernandez killing.”
The Hernandez family was awarded $1.9 million in a civil rights lawsuit, and sent a letter from C.C. Krulak, the general of the U.S. Marine Corps: “I want you to know you are not alone,” he wrote them. “I, and the entire Corps, share in your grieving.”
In 1999, two years after Esequiel’s death, the military devised a new policy on the deployment of ground troops—one that required “specific permission of the secretary of defense or his deputy,” a move intended to ensure increased oversight. But that was before the events of 9/11 would alter the landscape of the border permanently and incite an influx of border patrol agents, doubling their numbers by 2008. Border crossings that once provided families on both sides access were shut down; the boatman who used to shuttle people at the Polvo Crossing was no longer. But Esequiel would not live to see this change.
Nor would he see the cantaloupe and onion fields he’d grown up around languish, the agricultural community suddenly stripped of its livelihood and deeply entrenched in poverty. “The adobe-and-cinder block village of Redford stands in the desert above one such stretch of previous red soil, every inch of which is planted in alfalfa, melons, pumpkins, or other crops,” wrote The Austin Chronicle in an article from 1998, a far cry from the stark landscape today.
The times may have changed, but some things, like the myth of a dangerous and threatening border, persist. Twenty years after Esequiel’s death, our attorney general has reignited the “War on Drugs,” while our president has characterized the border as one comprising “bad hombres,” and has conflated an entire nationality with “rapists” and “killers.” His supporters will claim he doesn’t really mean it or he’s just being theatrical, but careless words are enough to inspire wars, to build walls. They were enough to kill Esequiel.
Enrique Madrid, a longtime Redford resident and local historian, still keeps a box of yellowed newspapers detailing the events of Esequiel’s death, and hands me a dust mask when I ask to borrow it. His house is cluttered with books on every surface that range from An Indigenous People’s History of the United States to From Hegel to Nietzsche.
Perhaps he gets this penchant for hoarding books from his mother, Lucia Madrid, who started her own library in Redford to help young students on both sides of the border. She was awarded two presidential medals for her work by President George Bush, Sr., ironically the same president who began to dismantle the Posse Comitatus Act, which made it a felony to employ the armed services like the U.S. Marines as a form of local law enforcement. Madrid shows me a black-and-white photo of his mother sitting in her library with two of the students she’d tutor at her library—Esequiel and his sister.
“When Esequiel was killed by the Marines, we never told her,” Madrid says, adding that his mother, who was living in a nursing home at the time, did not hear the news. “It would have destroyed her.”
For Madrid, a historian in the truest sense, everything is connected. He reads me a 1991 Denver Post article entitled “An Oasis in Drug Capital,” written about his mother’s library:
The marijuana harvest has begun in Mexico but the dark splash of human mules carrying dope across the Rio Grande can’t be heard at Lucia Madrid’s. The sound of turning pages drowns it out. Her famous library looks west on the river, just a few hundred yards from the tamarisk masked banks that separate West Texas from Mexico. Beyond, through the lechuguilla of the Chihuahuan Desert, tons of drugs soon will arrive, lawmen say. Redford is the smuggling capital of the southwest…
Madrid stops there. “This was before he was shot. By ‘91, they’re already targeting this area as a drug capital,” he says. “This is already beginning to kill Esequiel. This is how you create wars; this is how you make enemies.”
Calling Redford “the smuggling capital of the southwest” is baffling. The town, which is surrounded by mountainous desert terrain—a treacherous journey for even the most seasoned backpacker—is hardly an artery for the drug trade; most drugs slip through legal ports of entry. Sure, Redford is no stranger to drug trafficking, but in most cases this consists of small loads toted by hapless pawns trying to forge their way across the border.
The congressional investigation into Esequiel’s death gave a slightly more apt, though austere, description of the region: “The area is very sparsely populated, and it is vulnerable to frequent small-scale drug smuggling and illegal immigration, with their attendant violence and corruption.” But that’s still not accurate. Redford is a town made up of a small network of families who live their lives in quiet obedience of a line that’s been drawn in the sand.
It was this same wrongful characterization of Redford that would ultimately lead to Esequiel’s death. In some ways, it’s plain to see how the Marines could have mistaken Esequiel for a criminal, given “the fragmentary and sometimes inaccurate picture of local conditions,” as the congressional investigation stated.
JTF-6 was equipped with a cursory understanding of the area gleaned from notes written by their sergeant, recounted in the Marine Corp report, which stated: “Redford is not a friendly town,” and “Connections between town residents and drug traffickers were assumed to be the norm.”
They were not informed that families lived just a stone’s throw from where they were hiding, and that among them were Hernandez and his brothers and sisters, his mother and father, who resided in a small cluster of humble homes below the hill where he was shot. They were not told that Esequiel would herd his goats daily in the very region they were monitoring. They didn’t even know that the Polvo Crossing was a “Class B” entry—a legal route for pedestrian traffic to cross the river—until two days into their mission.
Nor were they told about a previous incident in late February of the year he died, when Esequiel had been out with his goats again and fired his rifle while Border Patrol agents were in the same area. Realizing this, Esequiel got in his truck and followed the agents until they stopped. He said, according to the Marine Corp report: “I’m sorry that I was shooting. I thought someone was doing something to my goats. I didn’t know you were back there.”
Instead, JTF-6’s portrayal of Redford was framed by militarized language that portrayed a skewed reality. The Deputy Commander of JTF-6 referred to the “threat” of “an organized, sophisticated, and dangerous enemy,” and suggested that they would be in the company of gangs that were “extremely dangerous.” “Your unit should come to the border region trained accordingly,” he wrote.
For every question I pose, Madrid heaves himself from his armchair to find another book, another reference, to share. This is no easy feat for him since he lost one of his legs, now replaced by a metal rod that occasionally peeks from the hem of his pant leg, to diabetes. This is the reality of Redford: poverty and chronic illness.
It is the “war” in the “War on Drugs” that justified the Marines’ presence in Redford and Esequiel’s killing, and that now welcomes expended military equipment from our wars in the Middle East for use on the border. It has reduced residents of the borderlands to the intermittent criminal activity that flows through there, and has legitimized its militarization. It has changed the way they live; people who once relied on the Rio Grande as a lifesource—a place to fish and swim and socialize—now shirk from its banks, for fear of tripping up sensors.
Margarito Hernandez stands before the white cross that demarcates the spot where his brother was gunned down. “Esequiel Hernandez” is written across its axis, which is decorated by chintzy fake flowers, the only kind that survive the Chihuahuan desert blaze.
Margarito is a hulking but soft police officer in the town of Presidio, a 15-minute drive from Redford. Nowadays he rarely roams the terrain of his childhood. “We used to fish around that area when my brother was killed,” he says. “We used to set up traps and catch foxes and ringtails, and we don’t do that anymore. We don’t feel comfortable to be around the river. You never know who’s going to come by.”
“The way I see it, my brother’s death was like an abuse,” he says. “Because the military was close to our houses. When they shot him, they shot toward the houses. It’s kind of like somebody coming to your backyard with a gun and trying to play cowboys, trying to shoot. That’s the way we felt. That’s where we used to go shooting for rabbits.”
Margarito has four of his own children now—one of whom he named Esequiel in honor of his brother—and three grandchildren. With so much more at stake, he says he worries about the future of the border.
”Something else is going to happen,” he says. “Somebody else is going to get hurt. Some other family is going to go through pain like my family went through.”
Margarito tells me what it was like to see his brother after getting the call from his family that Esequiel had been gunned down, to make the harrowing 100-mile drive from Alpine, the town in which he was residing at the time. “There was a big thunderstorm; it was raining, it was pouring, the wind was blowing,” Hernandez says. “I had to go across the creeks going toward Redford but I just wanted to get there.”
When he arrived at the scene, Esequiel’s body had been laid out on the ground and covered with a tarp, small pools of rainwater collecting on the surface.
These details are not included in the Marine Corps and congressional investigations, nor are the personal and painful details that emerge between the lines of Esequiel, Sr.’s police statement:
Once we got there, we approached the body and it was my son, Esequiel, and he was dead. I identified him as being my son and touched his face. After I had identified him, they moved me away from the body. I asked one of the border patrolman who had killed my son and he told me that the Marines had killed him. I saw some guys who I couldn’t see any faces. They had some sort of hair or rags over their head and over their whole body. One of the border patrolmen brought me back to my house and dropped me off. After they dropped me off, I could not stand it so I had to go back.
Missing, too, is the trauma the Hernandez family has felt since his death. Margarito says his mother, who passed away just months ago, never came out of shock. “When they told her it was her son, she completely shut down. She never realized that her son was dead,” he says.
As a law enforcement officer who lives and works along the border, Margarito recognizes the critical difference between policing the borderlands and inviting military to the area. “As a police officer, you’re trained to deal with people, talk to people, identify yourself,” he says. “The thing is, military is trained to fight. They’re trained to kill a person.”
The troops may have been taken out, but the military presence remains pervasive, though still indiscernible. To drive the yawning stretch of road that runs along the Rio Grande and traverses through the town of Redford, it’s virtually impossible to see the small unmanned surveillance drones and aerostat systems that survey the area for traffickers. Once in awhile, though, there is a reminder.
As I leave Madrid’s dimly lit adobe home and step out into the brazen West Texas afternoon light, an unmarked black military helicopter flies overhead—a thunderous pulse that is alien to the desert hush. We both look up, squinting. “See, they’re watching us now,” Madrid remarks with the same suspicion that fills some in these borderlands with consternation. “The moment you employ the rhetoric of war, it becomes a battle zone,” he says. “And this is what they did in Redford. They made war on the United States here by killing Esequiel.”
This feature is part of Fusion’s project to recruit local, embedded reporters, essayists, and photographers across the country. Read more here.