In this heated election year, the U.S.-Mexico Border is a magnet for debate as Americans grapple with the complex issues of illegal immigration, national security and the War on Terror. In recent years many have called for a military solution that would include the deployment of armed troops to the border. But as eloquently demonstrated in the new documentary The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, the southern border is not simply a line in the sand, nor is it a war zone. Places like the Rio Grande in Texas are home to hard-working communities and families that straddle both sides of the river, and many Americans there grow up with ties to both countries. As Presidio County Judge Jake Brisbin illustrates: “On a map it’s an international border, but in reality it’s something you walk across in everyday life.”
In 1997, no one in the small town of Redford, Texas (pop. 100) knew that U.S. Marine teams, fully camouflaged and armed with M16 rifles, had been secretly deployed to their section of the border. No one knew that their town had been designated a major drug corridor, and that a team of four Marines had taken up a position near the local river crossing to watch for smugglers. Farmers like the Hernández family, who lived by the river, went on working their fields and tending to their livestock. On the evening of May 20, 18 year-old Esequiel Hernández Jr. left the house to graze his family’s goats, taking with him as usual a .22 rifle to keep away wild dogs. It was the last evening of his life.
Narrated by Tommy Lee Jones (a native of west Texas whose film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was inspired by the Hernández shooting), The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández features a full array of remarkably candid accounts from three of the four Marines on the fatal mission; Esequiel’s family, friends and teachers; Marine Corps investigators; FBI and defense attorneys.
The film also makes use of military investigative video and audio recordings of radio communication between the Marine team and their commanders before Hernández was shot.
Marine team in guillie suits, Credit: Roy Torrez
Investigators call into question the Marines’ decision to follow Hernández when, after firing two shots from over 200 yards away in their direction, he started slowly back toward his home. They found it unlikely that Esequiel had knowingly fired at the team or that he could have been “flanking” them as they claimed.
The Marines and their commanders maintained that Corporal Clemente Banuelos, the team captain, had fired in defense of his men. However, investigators believed that Esequiel was not aiming his rifle at the Marines when he was shot. Although attempts were made to indict Corporal Banuelos for murder in the state of Texas, he was never charged with a crime. As local Redford historian Enrique Madrid explains: “The United States could not allow a legal precedent of that sort to be set in which American soldiers were subject to state laws in the conduct of their military operations.”
Esequiel Hernández’s nephews at the well where he died. Courtesy of Heyoka Pictures
The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández tells a frightening and cautionary tale about the dangers of using military as domestic law enforcement — a role that the military, under the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, had been prohibited from taking. That changed when in 1989, the George H.W. Bush administration declared drug-trafficking a “threat to national security” and authorized the deployment of thousands of troops to the US-Mexico border. In 1997, during the Clinton administration, Esequiel Hernández became the first American killed by U.S. military forces on native soil since the 1970 Kent State shootings. Shortly afterward, the administration suspended all military operations along the border. Nearly ten years later, the military returned to the border, this time as part of the War on Terror and the George W. Bush administration’s effort to stem illegal immigration.
“Esequiel’s killing had been so quickly passed over, despite the big issues involved,” says director Kieran Fitzgerald, “that our nation has not had a chance to work through its important and urgent implications. My hope is that this film will be our chance.”