The timeline of events was perfectly Trumpian. Last weekend, Easter weekend, the president of the United States was at his resort in Mar-a-Lago, hanging out with his right-wing friends, watching cable news, and getting mad about immigrants. Multiple Fox News hosts and Stephen Miller, the White House adviser behind many of the administration’s aggressive efforts to deplete the nation’s immigrant population, were in attendance. The crew had at least two pieces of bad news for the president: One, Ann Coulter was calling him out for not being tough enough on immigrants; and two, a caravan of said immigrants were marching north toward the border.
In a move that any sentient observer of the administration would expect, the commander in chief responded to the news by tweeting a series of deeply misleading statements to his 45 million followers and the rest of the world over multiple days. Along the way, he made a series of eye-opening vows. By the time the dust settled three days later, President Donald Trump and the departments of Justice and Homeland Security had all put out statements telling the country that the National Guard was being deployed to secure the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
On Wednesday afternoon, while news of the purported deployment was still developing, I was on the phone with a retired border lawman, chatting about another story. Before we hung up, I asked him what he thought of the president’s comments. He told me about a case from years back, in which the National Guard shot and killed an American teen — a high school student, in fact — while he was out hunting. The details were fuzzy, but clearly the case had stuck with him; it was an example, he said, of what, predictably, happens when the military is sent to do the work of law enforcement. “That was the first thing I thought of,” he told me.
As soon as we got off the phone, I started Googling the facts he had described. He had gotten some of the details wrong. The shooter in the case was actually a U.S. Marine, not a member of the National Guard. And the boy who died was not hunting, he was walking his family’s goats. But the broad strokes of the case were right. The boy had just turned 18, but he was still in high school, and he was killed during one of the country’s traditional bouts of demands to bring the border under control by military means. His name was Esequiel Hernández, and, as Trump pushes for another round of border militarization, the story of his tragic killing, and the politics that led to it, are worth revisiting.
At the time, the killing of Esequiel Hernández, in West Texas, in 1997, was a major national news story. In the years that followed, it would become the focus of multiple congressional and law enforcement investigations, including three grand juries, and the subject of scores of news articles and magazine stories. In 2007, director Kieran Fitzgerald released a documentary about the case, “The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández,” to critical acclaim. A decade later, as Trump came into power, the story garnered renewed focus, and with good reason — it is a devastating example of how demands for militarization born in Washington manifest in border communities, and how lessons that should have been internalized years ago are routinely discarded.
Rather than announcing their presence and blowing their mission, the Marines stayed hidden, tracking Hernández as he made his way back to his house.
The people of Redford, Texas, then a town with a population of 107, had no idea that the Marines were in their community. Neither did the local law enforcement, or anyone, for that matter, with the capacity to explain to the military that kids in rural West Texas carry guns when they go out, and that Esequiel Hernández, a teenager with a Marine Corps poster tacked to his bedroom wall, was one of those kids. The four Marines on the ground that day were only a few years older than Hernández. They had no clue that in the afternoon, when he got home from school, Hernández would walk his goats, and that, recently, some wild dogs had been harassing his animals, so he was taking his 70-year-old, .22-caliber rifle to run them off.
Dressed in ghillie suits, the shrub-like outfits snipers wear to conceal their location, the Marines were officially there to offer support for a Border Patrol unit that was attempting to run down a tip about a smuggler coming into the U.S. through an informal crossing point known as “El Polvo” — Spanish for “the dust.” The deeper story behind their presence is rooted in the drug war and Washington’s never-ending quest to bring order to the border through overwhelming force. The Marines were part of an outfit known as Joint Task Force 6, or JTF-6, stood up by then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney in 1989 and championed by then-Joint Chiefs of Staff chair Colin Powell. Their mission was counternarcotics, and their closest partner was the U.S. Border Patrol.
The rhetoric behind JTF-6’s operations was much like the rhetoric today. In a stated effort combat to crime and disorder, President Ronald Reagan declared drugs a threat to national security and opened a flow of military equipment and training from the Pentagon to any federal law enforcement involved in drugs, customs, or immigration enforcement. Reagan’s efforts pushed the limits of the Posse Comitatus Act, the 1878 law limiting the federal government’s power to use the military in domestic law enforcement. When former CIA Director George H.W. Bush came to the presidential office at the end of the decade, he embraced the ethos of the drug war with equal vigor, putting counternarcotics at the top of his agenda and, with the support of lawmakers in both parties, beefed up the military’s presence on the border.
Through the early 1990s, as immigration became an increasingly heated political issue, stopping the flow of bodies coming across the border bled into the effort to combat drug trafficking, with bipartisan support. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for example, proposed a “$1 border toll to pay for more border control agents,” the New York Times reported in 1994, while former Sen. Barbara Boxer, also a Democrat, made her own call to send the National Guard to the border that same year. Two years later, more than 4,000 Marines and Green Berets would rotate through San Diego in support of California National Guard operations, with an emphasis on immigration enforcement.
By 1996, with the drug war torch passed from Bush to President Bill Clinton, JTF-6 was “one of the longest running task forces in U.S. military history,” according to a 1998 article in the Austin Chronicle. Professor Timothy Dunn, a sociologist at Salisbury University in Maryland and author of a book on U.S. border militarization, was working on his dissertation in El Paso, Texas, during the heyday of JTF-6 and would devote years into studying the task force and, ultimately, the Hernández killing. JTF-6 was responsible for coordinating operations and overseeing units ranging from the National Guard to more elite, highly trained military units, Dunn explained. The task force was responsible for 19 types of missions, he said, in three categories: operational, engineering, and general support. A majority of the task force’s missions were operational.
“That included the deployment of ground troops for surveillance,” Dunn told me. “They were doing something on the order of 300 to 500 missions a year.”
Dunn pointed out that the vast majority of drugs were coming through major ports of entry — which remains true today — not impoverished communities like Redford, where Hernández and his family lived. Sure, he said, there was illicit trafficking there, of all sorts of goods, but nothing of serious scale. But cracking down on ports is complicated, because doing so invites interruptions in millions of dollars in legal, daily trade. And so, remote areas become grounds for operations. Dunn recalls JTF-6, for years, being a fairly secretive outfit. “They had a PR arm,” he said, but “they kept a pretty low profile.” In the late 1990s, that began to change. The task force seemed to be in the early stages of a public relations campaign, inviting the media to join them on operations to illustrate how the troops were helping the Border Patrol interdict drugs and people.
“That was in that spring, that same April-May time period,” Dunn said. “And by the end of May — May 20 — that young man was killed. And that stopped everything cold.”
It was late in the afternoon when Hernández and the Marines crossed paths. They had been tracking the teenager along the Rio Grande after, they claimed, he fired two shots in their direction. Rather than announcing their presence and blowing their mission, the Marines stayed hidden, tracking Hernández as he made his way back to his house — this, investigators would later say, was a violation of the rules the men had been given. Hernández was nearly home when he was killed. The Marines claimed Hernández had again raised his weapon in their direction and, consistent with their interpretations of the rules of engagement and orders they received at the time, Cpl. Clemente Banuelos let loose a single shot.
Hernández fell into a well, where he bled to death in the dirt. His death would soon become the most high-profile military killing of an American on U.S. soil since the Kent State massacre in 1970, when members of the Ohio National Guard opened fire on unarmed college students, leaving four dead. (Though, it should be noted, the National Guard had also used lethal force during the 1992 Los Angeles riots and other moments of racial unrest throughout history.)
The Marines’s description of events came under intense scrutiny in the years that followed. For one, Hernández was right-handed and the bullet that killed him entered his right side, suggesting he could not have been pointing his gun at them. The Marines Corps’s official investigation, which found multiple faults in the JTF-6 mission, would later determine that the team, dressed in their camouflage, was laying down when the fatal shot was fired. “Esequiel Hernández never knew there was anyone out there,” Terry Kincaid, an FBI supervisory agent said in the documentary film about his killing. Maj. Gen. Mike Coyne, a Marine Corps investigator, added, “Clearly he didn’t think he was shooting at humans, certainly not Marines.”
Hernández’s killing rocked the tiny community of Redford like nothing before. “I’m telling you, the only way they could have botched this up more was if they shot Mother Teresa,” Enrique R. Madrid, an archeologist who knew Hernández from birth, told the New York Times. “If there was one truly innocent man on the border, it was this young man. And he’s the one who got killed.” The local district attorney at the time, Albert Valadez, believed Banuelos could be successfully prosecuted for murder. Texas Rangers investigating the case agreed, but the grand juries declined to indict, and the DOJ eventually dropped the case. As part of his defense, Banuelos pointed to the national security threats present in his mission, which were reflected in the political discourse of the time.
In the documentary about the case, the Marines involved in the shooting maintained that they had done what they were trained to do: kill the threat they had identified. The Marine Corps’s investigation took the JTF-6 mission to task on multiple fronts, but stopped short of helping a civilian court convict one of its men. The view seemed to be that the mission was bad, and it was tragedy, but tragedies happen in wars, and on a battlefield, you sometimes shoot people that shouldn’t have been shot — you don’t lock up your troops for it.
In a withering examination of the events that day, published in Texas Monthly’s August 1997 issue, journalist Robert Draper wrote about the inevitability of a moment like the one that ended Hernández’s life. “Senseless though the tragedy was, the greater outrage is this: Ezequiel Hernandez’s killing was eminently predictable,” he wrote. “We could expect no less, really, from the quiet but growing movement to militarize an area populated by civilians.” According to Dunn, the sociologist, the intelligence the Marines were operating with in that particular area was abysmal. “The Border Patrol gave JTF-6 terrible information,” he said. “They said this whole community, like 80 percent of the community, was involved in drug trafficking. It was a little village of, like, 100 people. It was absolutely false.”
The fallout from the Hernández killing was swift, but it ultimately didn’t last. One by one, each Border Patrol sector pulled out joint operations with Pentagon ground forces. New policies were established requiring the secretary of defense, or the secretary’s deputy, to explicitly approve deployments of ground troops in border operations. In the mid-2000s, JTF-6 got a new name, Joint Task Force North, and new mission set, combatting terrorism and “transnational criminal organizations.” Soon after that, in an effort to look tough on immigration, President George W. Bush, like his father before him, sent a fresh round of troops to the border in the form of the National Guard while comprehensive immigration negotiations were happening in Washington — negotiations that would ultimately fail. President Barack Obama repeated the process a few years later.
This cycle, Dunn said, has been the story of the border for generations. Politicians use the region as a political football, and people living there deal with the consequences. Lawmakers propose solutions to the broken immigration system that, without fail, include calls for ramped-up border security. The border security elements always succeed, and the rest never does. Along the way, inconvenient facts are ignored.
The fact that illegal border crossings have been steadily falling for more than decade is one example, Dunn noted, with 2017 seeing the lowest number of border apprehensions since the 1970s. “This is historic lows,” Dunn said. “You cannot massage the data and say, ‘Oh, we got us a crisis.’” The fact that research shows those drops are tied not to the country’s bloated immigration security apparatus, but to economic conditions such as the U.S. labor market, is another example, Dunn added. The discourse also does not acknowledge that walling off the country actually serves to keep undocumented immigrants in the U.S., Dunn went on to say — the ramped-up security having interrupted the circular nature of immigration from Mexico that defined prior eras.
Last year, DHS reported that the “southwest land border is more difficult to illegally cross today than ever before.” The department also noted that the buildup in security has been a boon for smuggling organizations that owe their continued existence to hyper-violent criminal groups. This, too, gets lost in the conversation, Dunn said, as does the fact that the U.S. government’s efforts to drive migrant flows away from populated areas, and into the country’s deadliest terrain, has fueled a humanitarian crisis. Like the killing of Esequiel Hernández, this dynamic was entirely foreseeable — or at least it should have been — from the vantage point of the government, Dunn argued. “They saw the bodies piling up, but they were like, ‘Nope, we’re not changing our strategy,” he said. “Now, we have almost 8,000 human remains that have been recovered in the last 20 years — that we know about.”
What, exactly, Trump’s impact on the border will be remains to be seen, but if the president gets the military buildup he seems so desperate for, and the troops he sends ever find themselves rolling along the spectacular Texas roadway connecting Presidio with Terlingua, they would be well-advised to take note of the memorial highway’s namesake — Esequiel Hernández — and familiarize themselves with his story.