Death as a Way of Life

Esequiel Hernández Jr. was only 18-years-old when Clemente Manuel Banuelos, a U.S. Marine corporal, shot and killed him in Redford, Texas in May 1998. Hernández, a high school student, was the first civilian killed by U.S. troops within national territory since the Kent State massacre of May 1970.

Hernández’s and Banuelos’s paths crossed in the context of the “War on Drugs.” Banuelos was a member of four-person surveillance unit, part of the first armed U.S. military mission to the Mexican border region since 1914. The mission took place under the auspices of Joint Task Force Six (JTF-6), the inter-branch command unit that provided operational, training, and intelligence support from the Pentagon to federal, regional, state, and local law enforcement counter-drug efforts within the United States.(1)

Banuelos and his fellow Marines had been deployed to Redford, Hernández’s tiny hometown (with a population at the time of a little more than 100 people) to monitor individuals smuggling drugs from Mexico across the Rio Grande. No one in Redford, apart from Border Patrol agents in the area, knew that the Marines were there.

On May 19, 1997, Hernández, whose post-high-school plan was to join the Marines, took out his goats near his family home, which lay about 200 yards north of the U.S.-Mexico divide. He carried a .22 caliber rifle to ward off wild dogs. According to the soldiers, Hernández fired at them twice. Twenty minutes later, the young man was dead, Banuelos having fired a single shot.

The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández(2), a compelling documentary which aired throughout the United States on July 8 on PBS’ Point of View (POV), sheds important light on the tragedy. Employing interviews with members of the Hernández family, the three other marines who were members of the JTF-6 unit (Banuelos declined to be interviewed), law enforcement officials, lawyers involved in the case, and members of the Redford community, the film provides a comprehensive view of the murder.

It also makes a clear statement that Esequiel Hernández was the victim of a soldier who acted inappropriately and—most likely—criminally. Hernández, it seems, never threatened the Marine unit as Banuelos claimed. Because the soldiers were camouflaged and hiding amidst vegetation at a distance of more than 200 yards from where Hernández allegedly fired his rifle, it would have been impossible for him to see them, no less to know that they were Marines. More importantly, Banuelos and the unit he led pursued Hernández after the high school student fired his rifle, closing the gap between them and their alleged assailant to about 100 yards. If Hernández were a threat as Banuelos alleged, why pursue him—especially given that he was walking away from them and the soldiers’ rules of engagement limited pursuit to when necessary for self-defense? Moreover, while Banuelos fired upon Hernández, he said, because the 18-year-old was about to shoot Lance Corporal James Blood, one of the other members of the unit, Blood rejects the claim in the film. As Jane Kelly (among others), an FBI agent interviewed in the film points out, Banuelos’s bullet penetrated Hernández’s right side under his arm, a point of entry inconsistent for someone supposedly positioned to shoot at Blood; indeed, it appears that Hernández was facing away from the Marine unit when he was shot.(3)

While such matters were central to Hernández’s untimely demise, so, too was the effective criminalization of the impoverished farming town’s population. Redford, so went the intelligence JTF-6 and the Border Patrol provided to the Marines, was a center of drug traffickers: 70-75 percent of the population was allegedly involved in the illicit trade. As the notes of the staff sergeant who briefed the soldiers before they were deployed to the town read, “Redford is not a friendly town.” Through such cartoon-like depictions, Redford became an enemy locale—as have so many other places across the country and throughout the world in the ever-expanding and never-ending “war on drugs.” Given the information they received, Banuelos and his unit were fully expecting some “action,” but they did not observe any drug-trafficking-related activity, leading Ronald Wieler, one of the unit members, to conclude that “In a way, it was like we were there for nothing.”

The fact that the Marines were in Redford, and that the federal government had sent them there says a lot about how important segments of the ruling class perceive the border region and its residents. As Enrique Madrid, a local historian in Redford, asserts in the film, “Presidio County is one of the poorest in the State of Texas, one of the poorest in the nation, and South County is the poorest part of that poor county. And yet they send us Marines instead of educators. They send us Border Patrolmen instead of doctors.” Seen from Washington, the border region—Redford included—is first and foremost an area of existential threats to the larger national body, an area that needs to be secured—whether it’s against “illegal” migrants crossing the boundary to “steal” jobs, or against would-be terrorists.(4)

The shooting death in Redford is also just one of many tragic illustrations of the ludicrous lengths to which the drug war and the border war have been taken and how they continue independent of their effectiveness in combating the “threats” from without they purport to eliminate. In the case of the war on drugs, for example, the federal government has spent many hundreds of billions of dollars over the last three decades. Nonetheless, the street price of drugs has steadily declined during that period—an indication of just how little impact Washington’s “war” has had on transboundary smuggling.

In addition to the huge demand within the United States that fuels the drug trade, the sheer volume of pedestrian and vehicular traffic crossing the divide make drug interdiction efforts largely futile—at least as they relate to the U.S.-Mexico boundary. As a Reuters journalist recently wrote while observing the scene at the San Ysidro (southern San Diego) port of entry through which an average of 150,000 people enter the United States on a daily basis, “Looking south out of a window at the busiest border crossing in the world, the phrase looking for needles in a haystack comes to mind, along with the realization that America’s war on drugs cannot be won. Unless the laws of supply and demand are miraculously suspended.”(5) But such dispassionate analysis gets lost in the overheated rhetoric of the “law-and-order” crowd or dismissed by those with vested interests in furthering the enforcement regime given the institutional and political pay-offs.

This is especially true in regards to immigration and boundary policing. Despite massive growth in enforcement resources and personnel—especially since developments initiated in the mid-1990s under the Clinton administration—unauthorized migrants continue to enter the United States via its southern boundary. Research undertaken in 2005 found that, while it is now much more difficult to cross the U.S.-Mexico divide than in the early 1990s (about one-third get caught on any given trip) and that, as a result some in Mexico stay at home rather than even try, it also established that 92 to 97 percent of Mexican migrants continue to try to cross until they succeed, and that there has been no significant impact on the propensity of would-be migrants to attempt the journey. This does not mean that further intensification of enforcement could not have a significant impact on the number of unauthorized entrants.(6) (Plans are afoot to double the number of Border Patrol agents over the next decade and to build hundreds of miles of additional walls, fences, and vehicle barriers.) Indeed, in some (largely urbanized) locales where enforcement personnel and infrastructure are concentrated, there has been a marked decline in unsanctioned crossings. However, given the depth and scale of the transboundary ties, the power of the forces driving migration, and the resolve and resourcefulness of migrants, it is pure fantasy to think that U.S. authorities can fully “secure” and regulate the boundary. But from the perspective of the border/immigration enforcement complex, “failure” only serves as justification for more of the same.

As such, like the drug war, the border war and the war on unauthorized immigrants rely increasingly on various forms of violence, terror, and simple meanness. In San Diego, for instance, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers have been setting up occasional checkpoints of late about 100 yards north of the boundary—pulling people out of Mexico-bound vans and buses and detaining “illegals” as they leave the United States.(7)

In Nashville, Tennessee and neighboring Davidson County, local authorities (like so many locales throughout the United States) are increasingly cooperating with the federal government in the policing of immigrants. In early July, police in a Nashville suburb arrested Juana Villegas after stopping her for a routine traffic violation for driving without a license—normally a misdemeanor for which citations are issued. (Since 2006, Tennessee bars unauthorized migrants from obtaining drivers licenses.) Nine-months-pregnant at the time, Villegas was forced to go through labor while a police officer guarded over her hospital bed to which one her feet was cuffed for most of the time. After her release from the hospital, officials kept her from her new-born son for two days, preventing her from nursing him and from even taking a breast pump into the jail.(8)

The ties that the “illegal” has to the community and loved ones (including U.S. citizens) in such cases are largely irrelevant from the perspective of federal authorities. For example, individuals married to U.S. citizens, but who have committed the “crime” of entering the United States without authorization after a previous removal are barred from having the legal ability to renter the country for ten years—even if they have U.S. citizen children.(9) So much for “family values.”

These present-day developments—like the JTF-6 effort to police Redford in 1997—are part and parcel of a larger project of nationalizing the U.S. portion of the borderlands, an ever-expanding space given the growing ties between places and peoples within and from the United States, and those within and from Mexico and beyond. Inside the United States, this involves a disciplining those of us who don’t think and act sufficiently in national terms.

As The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández makes clear, Redford was, in many  ways, just as Mexican as American with townspeople crossing the Rio Grande regularly—and without government inspection—to visit family and friends on the other side of the river, or to engage in commercial transactions. According to Jake Brisbin, a Presidio County judge interviewed in the film, “On a map, the river is an international boundary. In reality, it is something you walk across to get something you need one way or another.”

And it is this reality that the border-immigration war seeks to change. In this regard, one cannot divorce Hernández’s killing—or the indignities suffered by Juana Villegas—from the larger history of conquest and pacification involved in the construction of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands (a point that the film does not touch upon).

The making of the U.S.-Mexico divide and the associated recasting of social relations has always involved violence. It was through conquest—and large-scale brutality—that the United States gained the territory that now comprises the borderlands and squelched large-scale resistance to its colonization project over the subsequent decades. Nonetheless, resistance continues through today—largely in the form of unauthorized migrants, individuals who refuse to see their livelihoods circumscribed by national boundaries, ones predicated on profound socio-economic injustices.

Esequial Hernández’s killing is just one of countless thousands of untimely and unjust fatalities related to the ongoing struggles in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands. It is conservatively estimated that over 5,000 migrants have lost their lives trying to traverse the U.S.-Mexico divide without authorization since 1995 alone. Given that this figure is based on actually recovered bodies, the true death is undoubtedly much higher.

The U.S.-Mexico boundary involves killing of people from both sides of the line (and it always has)— most especially low-income people of color given the inextricable ties between the making of the United States, and the production of a whole host of deeply unequal social relations along axes of race, class, nation, and gender within the United States and across the globe.

May we remember Esequial Hernández Jr. as one example of this territorially embodied injustice, and draw upon that memory to fuel a struggle against the divide, the violence it reflects and reproduces, and the associated practices and ideologies that underlie it.

JOSEPH NEVINS is an associate professor of geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, and the author of the just-released Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights Books, 2008).


(1) In 2004, JTF-6 was reorganized and renamed. Now called JTF North, the command is, according to its website, “tasked to support our nation’s federal law enforcement agencies in the identification and interdiction of suspected transnational threats within and along the approaches to the continental United States.” Transnational threats are “those activities conducted by individuals or groups that involve international terrorism, narcotrafficking, alien smuggling, weapons of mass destruction, and includes the delivery systems for such weapons that threaten the national security of the United States.” Seehttp://www.jtfn.northcom.mil/default.htm

(2) See http://www.pbs.org/pov/pov2008/ballad/index.html

(3) See Monte Paulsen, “Fatal Error: The Pentagon’s War on Drugs Takes a Toll on the Innocent,” Austin Chronicle (Texas), December 25, 1998; available online at http://www.dpft.org/hernandez/paulsen.htm

(4) On the official website of U.S Customs and Border Protection, it states that the Border Patrol’s “priority mission” is to prevent “terrorists and terrorists’ weapons, including weapons of mass destruction, from entering the United States.” See http://www.customs.gov/xp/cgov/border_security/border_patrol/

(5) Bernd Debusmann, “America’s Unwinnable War on Drugs,” San Diego Union-Tribune, July 3, 2008; available online at http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/mexico/tijuana/20080703-0700-column-usa-drugs.html

(6) See Wayne Cornelius, “Introduction: Does Border Enforcement Deter Unauthorized Immigration?” In Impacts of Border Enforcement on Mexican Migration: The View from Sending Communities, edited by Wayne A. Cornelius and Jessa M. Lewis, 1–15. La Jolla, Calif.: Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, University of California, San Diego, 2007; and Fuentes, Jezmin, Henry L’Esperance, Raúl Pérez, and Caitlin White. “Impacts of U.S. Immigration Policies on Migration Behavior.” In Impacts of Border Enforcement on Mexican Migration: The View from Sending Communities, edited by Wayne A. Cornelius and Jessa M. Lewis, 53–73. La Jolla, California: Center for Comparative Immigration Studies, University of California, San Diego, 2007.

For those trying to get to the United States from elsewhere, but via Mexico, it is certainly far tougher to reach their destination given the difficulties non-Mexican national have in entering and traversing Mexican territory. No doubt, the percentage of such migrants who eventually succeed in reaching the United States is lower than that of Mexican migrants.  See N.C. Aizenman, “Meeting Danger Well South of the Border.” The Washington Post, July 8, 2006: A1; and Michael  Flynn, “Dondé está la frontera?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 58, no. 4, (July/August 2002): 24-35.

(7) Richard Marosi, “Border Busts Coming and Going,” Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2008; available online at http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/front/la-me-checkpoint7-2008may07,0,3517339.story

(8) Julia Preston, “Immigrant, Pregnant, Is Jailed under Pact,” The New York Times, Jul 20, 2008; available online at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/20/us/

(9) Anna Gorman, “Immigration Law Means a Borderline Existence for U.S. Wife of Mexican,” Los Angeles Times, July 22, 2008; available online at http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-greencard22-2008jul22,0,7458475.story






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