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. In 1997, U.S. Marines patrolling the Texas-Mexican border as part of the U.S. war on drugs shot and killed Esequiel Hernández Jr. Mistaken for a drug runner, the 18 year old was, in fact, a U.S. citizen tending his family’s goats. The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, a 90-minute documentary, explores this tragedy and its aftermath from multiple points of view, including Esequiel’s parents, siblings, and friends, the Marines on patrol and FBI investigators.
As the story unfolds the film raises as many questions as it answers.
TV personality Bill O’Reilly dismisses the incident saying “accidents will happen in any military deployment,” and challenges viewers asking, “What is the harm in giving us more protection by using the military the way they should be used? If you read the Constitution, the military’s primary mandate is to protect the borders of the United States!”
Congressman Tom Tancredo says of the shooting that such accidents have to be balanced against the need for national security. In what ways does drug interdiction contribute to national security? Is there a difference between “national interest” and “national security”?
FBI Case Agent Jane Kelly says “If [the Marines] had been any domestic law enforcement personnel, sheriff’s deputy, Texas Rangers, FBI, they would have gone to jail.” What are the differences between law enforcement and the military? Which is better suited to patrol the border and why?
The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández raises critical public policy issues related to the militarization of the border, the human cost of the war on drugs, the blurring of lines between the military and law enforcement and finding justice for an American family who has lost a son. What lessons does the death of Esequiel Hernández offer regarding the current deployment of National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border?