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June 4, 2006 - Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)

Plan For Troops On Border Stirs Memories Of Death In Redford

By Jay Root, Star-Telegram Staff Writer

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REDFORD -- As thousands of U.S. soldiers prepare to join the fight against illegal immigration and drug smuggling, tiny Redford finds itself haunted by a tragedy from the last major intersection of U.S. military might and border security.

It was amid a few humble shacks alongside the Rio Grande that 18-year-old goat herder Esequiel Hernandez, an American citizen, was shot and killed by a U.S. Marine on May 20, 1997.

After the shooting, then Texas Gov. George W. Bush sent his condolences to the Hernandez family and the government abruptly ended the kind of armed military patrols that led to the teenager's death.

Now president, Bush has ordered 6,000 National Guard troops to beef up border security. Authorities say the soldiers will merely provide support to the U.S. Border Patrol and free up agents to do more field work. It's a role that hundreds of Texas Guard troops have performed since 1989 and still do today, officials said.

"We are not going to be militarizing the border," said Col. Bill Meehan, public affairs officer for the Texas National Guard. "We are absolutely in support of civilian law enforcement."

Among the tasks the Guard is expected to perform: detection and monitoring, medical assistance, engineering support, vehicle maintenance, barrier construction and road building.

But in this desolate, poverty-stricken slice of border, memories from the Hernandez shooting remain fresh, and the specter of any military presence sparks fear and distrust.

A small wrought-iron monument marks the spot where Hernandez collapsed and died, and the faint outlines of his name can be seen on the facade of a crumbling adobe building that was part of an Army encampment used in the days of Pancho Villa.

"In this poor place with this poor history is where Marines come and kill an American citizen. It's where they want to militarize the border. It's where they want to put walls in," said Enrique Madrid, 58, a local businessman. "It's being made into a war zone."

Exactly what happened in this dusty town southeast of Presidio nine years ago has been the subject of continuing controversy and mystery.

It also provided inspiration for the recent Tommy Lee Jones film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.

The Marines said Hernandez shot first, firing his .22-caliber rifle at four heavily camouflaged servicemen, who were participating in a covert anti-drug operation. A Marine corporal returned fire with a single shot from an M-16, they said.

A highly critical congressional report compiled in 1998 by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, uncovered "serious doubts" about the Marines' version.

But the report concluded that stonewalling from uncooperative federal agencies probably permanently obscured the truth and created the "disquieting impression that justice has not been done in this case, and may never be done."

The Hernandez family was given $1.9 million to settle a lawsuit, but the government did not acknowledge wrongdoing.

Smith's findings noted that Marines were warned of rampant drug smuggling here but never knew "innocent civilians in this remote and sometimes dangerous part of the country carry weapons and are wary of intruders for entirely sensible reasons."

Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, who heads a military oversight committee in the Texas Senate, said there's always the fear that another tragedy could occur. But she noted that more than 200 Guard troops already provide logistical support to federal authorities on the porous Texas border.

"This is not soldiers on the border carrying guns," she said. "This is Guard members trained to do support functions only."

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