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May 18, 2006 - San Antonio Express-News (TX)

More Politics Than Policy

By Rebeca Chapa

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Nine years ago Saturday, an 18-year-old was shot and killed in the dusty West Texas hamlet of Redford by U.S. Marine Cpl. Clemente Banuelos.

Banuelos and his team of three men were conducting a federal anti-drug patrol while Esequiel Hernandez herded goats at a spot not far from his home.

According to Marine testimony, Hernandez shot at the camouflaged troops first, although Redford residents say rifles are usually used only to keep wild animals away from their herds.

We'll never know what Hernandez was thinking, but we do know Banuelos returned fire and killed Hernandez with a single shot from an M-16.

Exit the drug war and enter the war on illegal immigration.

The Bush administration and some members of Congress would have us believe that illegal immigration is so intense, so out of control, that we need to immediately deploy up to 6,000 National Guard troops to the nation's southern border.

The stopgap measure, as it is characterized, will be in place until 6,000 new Border Patrol agents can be hired by the end of 2008.

That's pretty ambitious.

Agents get paid less than local law enforcement officials and academies are not capable of training such large numbers, U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, said recently on National Public Radio.

"Even if Congress were to say, 'We're funding 10,000 new agents, we're giving the Border Patrol the green light and we want you to hire them next year,' it can't be done," said Reyes, a former Border Patrol chief.

Add to that low morale, which T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, says is lower than it's ever been in his 28 years on the force.

So unless something changes on the recruitment side, it's unlikely that the National Guard measure will be short term.

It makes more sense to focus on ways to attract and retain more Border Patrol agents, who are trained in the specific tasks of tracking and apprehending immigrants.

Hernandez's death marked a watershed moment in border politics. A congressional investigation into the incident found that there were systemic problems with the deployment, not the least of which was the type of training that the military receives.

"Basic Marine Corps combat training instills an aggressive spirit," wrote retired Maj. Gen. John Coyne, whose team reviewed thousands of pages of interviews and evidence.

That training is "far removed from the reality of manning an observation post on private property, adjacent to a small community, on United States soil," he added.

In addition, the Marines were given faulty information, including that 75 percent of Redford's approximately 100 residents were involved in armed drug smuggling.

Marines were not told that their staging area included several homes and that local residents sometimes arm themselves against intruders.

The clash, some say, was bound to happen given the nature of desolate border life and the combat-style training of the military.

Border residents live the immigration debate in a way others only read about.

"It affects us directly," said Enrique Madrid, a Redford historian who is a frequent spokesman for the region. "The soldiers will be walking our streets, and the guns they have will be pointed at us."

Madrid said it's misleading for federal officials to claim that the presence of the National Guard doesn't translate into militarization.

"Wherever the military goes, it militarizes, by definition," he said.

Madrid argues that the whole premise of troops on the border is flawed.

"Immigrant workers come here to work," he said. "It's an economic problem and you solve it with economic solutions, not military ones."

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