Shooting War

The death of Ezequiel Hernandez, an 18-year-old high school student from the small Texas border town of Redford, is a dispatch from a dark front in the war on drugs. In late May, Hernandez was shot as he tended his family's herd of goats in the hills outside his home. The gunman was not a drug smuggler, however: He was a camouflaged U.S. Marine, the leader of a four-man squad on the lookout for drug traffic near the Rio Grande.

Since 1989, the U.S. Border Patrol has used military personnel along the Mexican border. Soldiers usually perform surveillance duties since, by law, they cannot confront suspects. They are, however, allowed to return fire, and the Marines claim Hernandez, who carried a .22-caliber rifle to scare off coyotes and other wild animals, fired at them first.

Local residents have challenged that version of events, and the Texas Rangers captain in charge of the state's investigation has said the Marines' account of the shooting doesn't "exactly jibe" with the physical evidence. Pending an ongoing investigation, the Border Patrol has suspended its use of military personnel. In mid-August, a Texas grand jury refused to bring a criminal indictment against the Marine shooter.

Even though the shooter was apparently judged to be "in strict compliance with the rules of engagement" (as a Marine spokesman asserted), it raises difficult questions about federal drug interdiction policies. Chief among them: Why does the government spend massive amounts of money--more than $1 billion a year--on interdiction when its own General Accounting Office report found that such policies "have not...reduced" the "flow of drugs into the United States"? Will the government persist in a policy that does little more than put in harm's way the very people it is meant to protect?

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