Texas Town Remembers Marine Border Killing President Bush's plan to have National Guard troops patrol the U.S.-Mexico border has stirred-up bad memories in West Texas. Nine years ago this month, U.S. Marines working with the Border Patrol mistook a goat herder for a drug trafficker and killed him. Investigators later said the Marines were not adequately trained for the mission.
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Texas Town Remembers Marine Border Killing

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Texas Town Remembers Marine Border Killing

Texas Town Remembers Marine Border Killing

Texas Town Remembers Marine Border Killing

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President Bush's plan to have National Guard troops patrol the U.S.-Mexico border has stirred-up bad memories in West Texas. Nine years ago this month, U.S. Marines working with the Border Patrol mistook a goat herder for a drug trafficker and killed him. Investigators later said the Marines were not adequately trained for the mission.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

And this week on MORNING EDITION we're bringing you the stories of the border. This is the week when the U.S. Senate may vote on major changes to immigration law. We've been tracking the details of that legislation, but also tracking many of the personal stories of an intensely personal debate.

INSKEEP: Yesterday, we met four illegal migrants as they boarded a train headed north to the United States. Today, we go to west Texas, where President Bush's plan to send National Guard troops to the border brought out disturbing memories for some. Residents say military forces are not familiar with the local culture and they cite an incident along the border nearly a decade ago. U.S. Marines mistook an 18-year-old goat herder for a drug trafficker and killed him.

NPR's John Burnett reports.

JOHN BURNETT reporting:

Evening, May 20, 1997, on a rocky ridge overlooking Polvo Crossing near tiny Redford, Texas, 215 miles southeast of El Paso: four Marines have been tasked to help the border patrol watch for drug smugglers along the Rio Grande. But they have absolutely no knowledge or training about the people who live in this region.

They spot a young man with a rifle. He spots them. He's herding goats. The heavily camouflaged Marines don't look like law enforcement agents. Perhaps he thinks they're goat rustlers. He fires his .22 at them. The Marines take him out with a single shot from an M-16.

(Soundbite of a gunshot)

BURNETT: The events of that day have become a mythic tragedy in the borderlands. Ballads have been written about it, a movie, too. The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada is loosely based on the murder of Ezekiel Hernandez Jr.

(Soundbite of movie "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada")

Unidentified Man (Actor): I didn't mean to kill your friend, man. He shot at me, all right?

BURNETT: In real life, Hernandez was a quiet 18 year old who loved horses and was thinking about a career in the military or law enforcement. His killing sparked Congressional, criminal and military investigations that received national attention. In the end, investigators harshly criticized the Marines and the Border Patrol for sending troops to the border who had no training or preparation for their surveillance mission.

A state grand jury refused to indict the Marine who pulled the trigger. The government paid the Hernandez family a settlement of a million dollars. Nine years later, emotions are still raw.

Mr. ENRIQUE MADRID (Historian; Member, Redford Citizens Committee for Justice): Ezekiel was a teenager. He was herding goats. He was not a drug trafficker. He was nothing of the sort. He was an American citizen doing his work peacefully.

BURNETT: Enrique Madrid is a lifelong Redford resident and a local historian who knew Hernandez. He's been upset and angry ever since the news last week that the National Guard is coming down to back up the Border Patrol.

Mr. MADRID: They are no more better equipped to control illegal aliens or drugs or terrorists on American soil than the Marines were.

BURNETT: And it's not just locals who are worried about a large Guard deployment. Leo Samaniego is sheriff of El Paso County, with a force of 260 deputies.

Sherriff LEO SAMANIEGO (Sheriff, El Paso County, Texas): The military is trained to kill. They have a different mentality. We're peace officers. We deal with a lot of things that could turn deadly, but most of the time, you know, it's talking and knowing how to react to what you're seeing.

BURNETT: In defense of the National Guard, Border Patrol agents say these citizen soldiers have already been deployed to the border for more than a decade, albeit in smaller numbers. They've done everything from road building to night surveillance and there've been no tragedies.

Robert Gilbert is chief agent in charge of the Border Patrol's El Paso sector.

Agent ROBERT GILBERT (Chief Agent, Border Patrol, El Paso Sector): And the way they'll be used, in a support role. The only time that they would be using their weapons is in self-defense. They will not be enforcing the laws. They will not be making arrests. And through communications, they will be directing us then, if you will, on locations to secure the border.

BURNETT: But experience counts more than assurances down here. Margarito Hernandez, Ezekiel's 37-year-old brother, is a sergeant in the one-room, Presidio Police Department, just up the highway from Redford.

Sergeant MARGARITO HERNANDEZ (Sergeant, Presidio Police Department): Just remember that's the first thing they said about the Marines. You know, they were just going to be doing surveillance and watching, you know, watching -cross inspecting for - you know, and they ended up taking a life, you know? And I'd really hate to see some other family lose a loved one, you know?

BURNETT: The Border Patrol says that the Guard will be fully trained and educated to local conditions before they pick up a weapon and move into place, unlike the Marines nine years ago.

John Burnett, NPR News, Austin.

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