POV: What is The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández about?
Kieran Fitzgerald: It’s about one of the most poignant national tragedies in our recent history, and an incident that has very serious and far-reaching implication for U.S. policies along our borders. The film recounts the shooting and killing of a young American named Esequiel Hernández in 1997 by U.S. Marines patrolling the border as part of a counterdrug operation that had been ongoing since the late 1980s, and it is narrated by Tommy Lee Jones.
POV: How did you come to make this film and what drew you to the subject?
Fitzgerald: I came across the story by accident. I was working on a fictional film in west Texas called The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones. He had been deeply affected by the story of Esequiel Hernández, and Esequiel’s story was one of the many border tragedies that inspired The Three Burials. I talked about the incident with him, and once I learned more about it I realized it was an incredibly important story of national and historical consequence, but the story had vanished.
I was only seventeen at the time that Esequiel Hernández was killed, but even people older than me, people of my parents’ generation, didn’t know about his story. Nobody knew about his story, and I started wondering why it was that his story had vanished.
I wanted to recover this story that had been lost from our recent history, and so I started interviewing people along the border, and seeking out the various parties involved in the story, including the FBI, the marines, and the family of Esequiel Hernández. I wanted to get a comprehensive account of the story.
POV: Why do you feel that this story dropped from the national scene and from our collective memories?
Fitzgerald: I think part of the reason the story disappeared is that it happened in such a remote area. West Texas is beautiful, but it’s not in the limelight, and it’s not easy to get to. To the media, the people who live there are a kind of fringe population. So the story was like something that happened to people very far away. The reality is that West Texas is still our country. Whether our citizens live in West Texas or New York City, they’re our countrymen.
Many of the people involved in this story — including Esequiel Hernández — are first generation American citizens who have come from Mexico. I think that’s part of the reason the media dropped the story. Another reason is that he was from a relatively poor family, and his family did not have a lot of political leverage within the community. This was not something that had happened to someone from a wealthy, prominent family who would have been able to galvanize the media and get people angry about it. Instead, this happened to a farming family who were incredibly modest and humble, these wonderful people who had suddenly been invaded by the military, as far as they were concerned. The Hernández family didn’t know what they could get into the national spotlight, much less that being in the spotlight would help them in any way.
The proceedings of the case also dragged on for so long that by the time both the investigation by the state of Texas and the federal investigation were dropped against the marines, the national media was already gone. That meant that there was going to be no justice for Esequiel Hernández at all. Nobody was punished, there would be no recrimination, and the story became lost.
POV: One of the striking things about the film is that it included the marines’ points of views. How did you gain this kind of access to them, and how did you gain their trust?
Fitzgerald: It took quite a long period of time. I approached them and tried to explain that I wanted to tell this story, and it was in their interest as human beings to tell their side.
These guys never talked about what happened, not to their wives or their friends. They kept it bottled inside them. When I showed up it was clear they wanted to be talking about it, and talking to me was an opportunity to let go of some of their emotional baggage, and the doubts they had about whether they had taken the right course of action on that day. Those marines felt a lot of guilt and a lot of remorse that had never come out of them.
Four marines were involved in killing Esequiel Hernández. The person who actually pulled the trigger is not in the film; he was the only one of the four who didn’t want to appear.
The first marine to talk to me was Roy Torres, and it took a number of months for me to get him on camera. He is a wonderful young man, but extremely wary of the camera at first. The process of earning trust with your subjects is a very delicate one. Essentially, you try to tell the truth all the time, and you try to have them understand that this film is going to be about them also. Once I got Roy on camera, the other two agreed to be filmed too. At the time of the incident, Torres had been the most senior in terms of their rank, so even though by the time we filmed they were all out of the Marine Corps, that seniority still held, and the other two trusted Torres decision, and agreed to talk to me.
POV: Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the U.S. military on the border?
Fitzgerald: The history of having U.S. military on the border began during the Reagan administration and its war on drugs. In 1984, then Vice President George Bush Sr. was put in charge of the drug war. He realized that the U.S. had all these military resources, but that we weren’t fighting any other wars since the Cold War was coming to an end, and he decided to use the military in the war on drugs.
There’s a law against using the military in the United States. It goes back to the Civil War, and the law is called the Posse Comitatus Law. So the Regan administration had to slip through the legal loopholes to deploy military within the U.S., and they started very slowly.
Throughout the 1980s, they used the military as backup to drug enforcement. Drug enforcement started to use military helicopters, and then eventually, ground troops were deployed along the border. That policy of militarizing the border continued uninterrupted through the 1990s, right through the Clinton administration. In fact, more money and more personnel were channeled into militarizing the border in the 1990s.
Nobody in the government said that putting the military on the borders was a bad idea. But people in the military objected; they had been saying from the beginning that they didn’t want to be used in the war on drugs. So the fact that the military, in this case, ended up killing an American civilian was due to the failure of the government to see the obvious.
POV: Was this a successful policy? Did using military on the border stop the drugs from coming in the country?
Fitzgerald: No. The great irony of the policy was that not only did people in the military object to it, but when it was actually enforced, it didn’t work. Militarizing the border was completely ineffectual, especially in terms of the presence of ground troops. These young soldiers were stuck in the desert along the border. But anybody who knows anything about the drug war knows that the drugs coming across from Mexico come in through the major ports of entry. So patrolling those areas in the desert don’t make sense. The soldiers there were catching an absolutely miniscule amount of drugs.
Militarizing the border was something that lawmakers and politicians wanted. They wanted to have a show of force and tell people that by using the military, they were waging a real war on drugs. They also wanted to use the border as a training ground for the military.
POV: Are the borders still militarized today?
Fitzgerald: A few months after Esequiel Hernández was killed in May of 1997, the military decided to halt all of their armed operations on the border. Other kinds of support operations continued, but the guns were taken off the border. Then in 2006, under the administration of George W. Bush, armed National Guards were redeployed to the border. Today we have armed men and women up and down the border looking for drug dealers, much as they did in the 1990s during the drug war. So the policy has been, to some extent, reinstated.
POV: What is the film ultimately about for you?
Fitzgerald: Esequiel Hernández was shot and killed a hundred yards from his home, and for me, that’s inexcusable. It’s not something that we as a government, as a military, and as a people can live with. We should not stand for a policy that has those repercussions.
When someone dies on the border, in what is basically their backyard, it’s the same as anybody dying in their backyard in New York City or in L.A. or in Ohio or anywhere else in the country. The border is not a different place, it’s still our country. I think this film allows people to be reminded of that. Esequiel Hernández was a young American living on a border, and the young men who killed him were American soldiers, paid for by our tax dollars. I hope that this film will be a cautionary tale, one that tries to make sure something like this can never happen again.