Border Patrol

A dispatch from a dark front in the War on Drugs


A dispatch from a dark front in the War on Drugs: The U.S. Department of Justice has recently closed the books on the 1997 shooting death of Ezequiel Hernandez, an 18-year-old high school student from the small Texas border town of Redford. But although Justice has ruled that the matter is over, the case lingers on in memory, a ghost haunting the machinery of what has become America's longest-running war.

Last May, Hernandez was killed as he tended his family's herd of goats in the rugged, wind-swept hills outside his home. In a time when drug-related murders are scarcely news anymore, the death of Hernandez stood out for a couple of reasons: He had nothing to do with drugs–and he was cut down by a single shot from a heavily camouflaged U.S. Marine, the leader of a four-man squad tracking drug smuggling near the Rio Grande.

Since 1989, the U.S. Border Patrol has used military personnel in the drug war. Soldiers are usually assigned surveillance duties since, by law, they cannot confront suspects. But they are allowed to return fire, and the Marine responsible for the fatal shot claimed that Hernandez, who carried a .22-caliber rifle to scare off coyotes and other wild animals, had fired at him and his fellow soldiers. Although state investigators challenged that version of events–a Texas Ranger captain said the Marine's account of the shooting didn't "exactly jibe" with the autopsy and physical evidence–a grand jury declined to indict anyone in the shooting. And now, the Justice Department has ruled there is "insufficient evidence" to pursue the matter further, that the Marine properly followed military "rules of engagement."

Whether that is true–or perhaps even more so if it is true–the death of Ezequiel Hernandez throws a harsh light on federal drug interdiction strategies. Border Patrol officials say they called in the Marines because, in the words of one spokesman, "We were getting beaten badly" by drug traffickers. That much is indisputable: Virtually every serious analysis of the subject, including the government's own, has concluded that interdiction–stopping drugs at the border–has been an abject failure. As the U.S. General Accounting Office reported last year, "The flow of cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs into the United States continues, and the availability of drugs . . . [has] not been reduced."

Which is something to consider long after the wind has swept away the sand and brush in which Ezequiel Hernandez died a year ago. It is foolish to hope that anything good can come of a tragic death, but perhaps this one can at least occasion a hard look at a drug policy that seemingly accomplishes little more than putting in harm's way the very people it was meant to protect.

This commentary aired on NPR's All Things Considered April 14, 1998.