One Year Since Border Shooting: A Reflection

Author(s): Rachel Kamel
Date Published: July 22, 2006
Source: Political Environments #6, Fall 1998

As we go to press, we have learned that the Justice Department has agreed to pay $1.9 million to the family of Esequiel Hernandez, whose death at the hands of the U.S. Marines is described in this article. The settlement is a tacit admission of government responsibility in the shooting, since, notes a Redford activist, "innocent parties don't just pass out millions gratuitously."

Progressive forces won an important victory last year in the struggle against the militarization of the Mexico-U.S. border, when the Pentagon indefinitely suspended ground patrols by Joint Task Force 6 (JTF-6), an interagency military force headquartered at Fort Bliss near El Paso, Texas.

The victory was a bitter one, however, because it came as a direct result of the May 1997 shooting death of Texas teenager Esequiel Hernandez, Jr., who was shot by the leader of a Marine unit on patrol near the youth's home town of Redford, Texas.

Although the Border Patrol attempted to pass off the incident quickly as a regrettable accident with no policy implications, outraged members of the Redford community were persistent in bringing their side of the story to the attention of local and national media. As a result, the story made headlines across the country for weeks and prompted the first real national discussion of the costs of continuing militarization of the border, a policy which had proceeded virtually unremarked since it was launched in the early 1980s as part of the "war on drugs."

Following the shooting, coordinated protests in several cities called for a permanent end to military patrols. Last July, a group of six Redford residents, representing the Redford Citizens Committee for Justice (RCCJ), which formed as a result of the shooting, traveled to Washington, DC with assistance from the American Friends Service Committee, to present their case to top policy makers. The Pentagon's decision was announced a scant two weeks later.

As I write these words, it is a few days before the one-year anniversary of the death of Esequiel Hernandez. For the media, this story has been old news for months - with the minor exception of a brief announcement in January that the Department of Defense was backing the Pentagon's decision to terminate ground patrols indefinitely. For border communities and their supporters, however, it seems important to ask ourselves what lessons we can learn from this experience.

The Redford incident was not the first unjustified shooting by JTF-6. In January 1997, a Mexican national living in Brownsville, Texas was shot in the back by a member of a Special Forces unit participating in border surveillance activities. Meanwhile, blockade-style border control policies, in place since the early nineties, have resulted in hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths to border crossers who have drowned in the Rio Grande, succumbed to dehydration in the Arizona desert, or lost their lives in high-speed chases in the California borderlands. In mid-May, the San Diego Union Tribune reported the "first heat-related death of the year," that of an eight-year-old Mexican child found dead in the desert near Calexico.

Nor does the suspension of patrols mean that JTF-6 is out of business. Its primary function of electronic surveillance of the border continues unimpeded, and the agency will continue to train local law-enforcement agencies in military-style tactics. Overall, the interlocking web of border militarization remains in place: the doubling in the size of the Border Patrol, the growing involvement of the National Guard in border control operations, the increasing reliance on military weapons and tactics, and the deepening collaboration among local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies. The Redford incident marked an important moment in the fight against militarization, but it is important to be clear that it was a single moment in a much longer struggle.

In some ways, it is troubling that it took the shooting of a U.S. citizen to bring these issues under public scrutiny. On the other hand, the facts of this case were so stark that it was difficult or impossible for the Border Patrol or the Pentagon to exercise much spin control. Esequiel Hernandez was a soft-spoken, gentle high school sophomore. At the time he was shot, he was carrying a World War I-vintage rifle while herding his family's goats, his daily after-school chore. The marine unit stalked Hernandez for twenty minutes before the shooting, then failed to render medical assistance, even though one of them was a trained medic.

Although JTF-6 was conducting maneuvers on private land, no one in the local community was aware there were armed troops in the area - let alone that they were operating under military rules of engagement. (After the incident, it was revealed that this was one of 70 secret, armed missions conducted in border communities in recent years.) Finally, the four marines in the border surveillance unit had received no training in conducting operations in a civilian area. At their Washington press conference, members of the Redford delegation expressed their shock at being treated like the enemy by the armed forces of their own country. As one member of the delegation put it, "I always thought they were there to protect us."

One result was that media coverage of the incident and its aftermath was extensive and sympathetic - one of those rare instances when the media was telling "our side of the story." Many of the media accounts raised questions about the wisdom of the policy of militarization. Even so, neither a local grand jury nor a federal civil rights investigation resulted in any charges against the federal agencies involved or the marine corporal who shot Hernandez - Clemente Banuelos, who was only 22 years old himself. Hernandez's family continues to pursue a wrongful death suit against the government.

What are the strategic lessons of this experience? Some are fairly obvious: that progressive initiatives are most powerful when they happen in close partnership with the affected community, linking action at the community-based and policy levels. Neither AFSC nor RCCJ, acting alone, would have been able to turn Pentagon policy around.

This experience also helped us to see more clearly some of the cracks in the facade of official policy. It has been evident, both from private comments and from remarks published in media accounts, that many U.S. military officials do not support the involvement of the military in law-enforcement activities. By the same token, some of the most destructive aspects of the 1997 immigration law "reforms," which dramatically accelerate the militarization of the border and the criminalization of undocumented immigrants, were adopted over the protests of the Border Patrol, which understands that their agents will also be exposed to greater risks. Careful analysis of such divisions can help advocates and social movements sharpen our demands-and strengthen our hand.

Likewise, we need to pay closer and more nuanced attention to the hostility of many sectors of the population to the federal government. A week after the shooting of Esequiel Hernandez, the community of Redford sent out a general call for assistance to elected officials and a range of Texas organizations. Apart from AFSC and allied border rights organizations, the only other response to this call came from an apparent representative of a militia group. I am not arguing for overlooking the white supremacist, proto-fascist politics of the militia movement. In many cases, however, they are responding to legitimate community concerns regarding the role of federal agencies - concerns that progressive organizations have often ignored. I certainly do not want to oversimplify this issue - just to say it is one we need to pick apart.

The militarization of the border also needs to be placed in the larger context of current state strategies for assuring social control. Like the expansion of the prison system, it has been justified since its inception as part of the "war on drugs." In practice, both could be more accurately described as a war on communities of color. Both also involve an undermining of constitutional protections that will ultimately affect all sectors of the population, regardless of who are "first in line" for the loss of their democratic rights. I believe that with all of these issues, we need to constantly make the links between the resurgence of racism, the criminalization of poverty, the criminalization of communities of color, and the anti- democratic character of such trends. We need to document and publicize the human impact of such policies on those who are most deeply and directly affected - while continuing to remind the broader community of the shared danger to all of us from the erosion of democratic freedoms and constitutional protections.

The Mexico-U.S. border is a flashpoint because of its unique character as the only site in the world where the Third World and the advanced industrial world meet, in the most literal and physical of ways. The militarization imposed by the United States on that border has its parallel in the growing militarization of Mexico, not only at its borders but also in many areas of the interior. Such repression is the chosen response of the world's elites to the pain and dislocation caused by global economic restructuring. In Mexico the hand of repression falls most heavily on the indigenous population, not only in Chiapas but throughout the country. This is another face of the larger picture that we need to understand and connect - through our analysis and also by supporting the development of practical links among and between immigrants of all nationalities, native-born communities of color, and Mexican social movements.

The challenges are many and large. How can we revitalize our understanding of the links between economic globalization and the spread of militarization and state repression? How can we stand up to drug war hype in a way that also speaks to the experience of poor communities faced with the scourge of addiction? How can we deepen our feminist understanding of women's experience of the militarization of the border and other forms of repression? How can we frame concrete demands and build concrete alliances on these issues?

I never knew Esequiel Hernandez, but I mourn the loss of his youth and his life. I have met his sister and some of his neighbors and they are all caring, thoughtful, and angry people. Every death is a tear in the fabric of life - and everyone who stands up when someone has died like this helps to knit the strands back together.

Rachael Kamel works with the American Friends Service Committee, and was coordinator of their Mexico-U.S. Border Program from 1995 to 1997. She is editor of AFSC's forthcoming anthology, "The Maquiladora Reader: Cross-Border Organizing Since NAFTA."