Rules of Engagement
We only used the military for observation and reporting their observation. They weren’t there to do any kind of interdiction.
—David Castañeda, U.S. Border Patrol Chief
“These soldiers,” says Esequiel Hernández, “were dressed with loose thread, with all these materials hanging, like a woman with hair over her face. You couldn’t even see their faces.” He’s describing the men who shot and killed his 18-year-old son, Esequiel Jr. “They looked like animals,” he continues. “You couldn’t even see their figures. No one has ever seen that before.”
As he speaks, Hernández works hard to maintain his composure before a television reporter who has thrust a microphone near his face. His child’s murder has surely unnerved him, an effect exacerbated by the fact that he was called to the crime scene in teeny Redford, Texas (pop. 100) and so came face to face with the strange and monstrous killers. They were Marines, patrolling the U.S.-Mexican border in 1997 during the war on drugs. As documented in Kieran Fitzgerald’s The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández, airing as part of POV on 8 July, the Marines were wearing ghillie suits in order to scrunch down unseen on brushy hillsides. Photos reveal that the men did look weird and scary when standing upright, not only confirming the elder Hernández’s description, but also inviting you to re-see the world at that most terrible moment from his perspective.
This perspective helps to shape the rest of the film, which examines the events that led to and followed young Esequiel’s death. The first American killed by U.S. military forces on native soil since the 1970 Kent State shootings, he is remembered here by friends and family, as the case is considered by historians, investigators, and three members of the four-man squad who spotted him on 20 May 1997, Ballad exposes systemic bungling and covering up within the U.S. military and the government that deploys it. The saga begins as Esequiel, a high school student and aspiring capitalist and Marine, was herding his family’s goats on 20 May 1997. Unable to see the camouflaged troops, he reportedly fired “in their direction” with his .22 rifle, then meandered off, with goats, not looking back and not apparently worried that he had missed a target.
According to Lance Cpl. Ronald Wieler, “He was shooting in our area. When you’re taking fire, you can’t judge other people.” This by way of explaining the troops’ reversion to training, namely, to protect one another by targeting apparent enemies. As Col. John McGee of Joint Task Force Six—the military organization tasked by George H.W. Bush’s administration to “operate on American soil.” This is technically illegal, points out narrator Tommy Lee Jones, because, “Since the Civil War, the Posse Comitatus law has prohibited the military from acting as a police force within the United States.” Aided in legal matters by drug policy makers during the early 1990s, TF6 patrolled the southern border—with guns. Their training, if not exactly well considered, was energetic. As McGee puts it, “We detect someone coming across the border, we can’t tell if it’s an immigrant, a drug smuggler or a terrorist, and it doesn’t really matter.”
No matter the rhetoric, the training or the legal smoothing over, the target on this day did matter. Another of the Marines involved in the shooting, Lance Cpl. James Blood, speaks with Fitzgerald (who was a production assistant on Tommy Lee Jones’ The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), while leaning back in a chair, his blue eyes piercing and pained. “We weren’t all honest with each other about our emotions about it, you know?” he says. “We’re hardheaded, it’s our job. We’re fucking marines. Well, we’re not that way anymore.” The film suggests that the lingering effects of the shooting on the Marines have been devastating. Unit leader Cpl. Clemente Bañuelos, who followed Esequiel and then, 20 minutes after the boy fired toward the Marines’ “area,” shot him from behind and claimed self-defense, “refused to be interviewed” for the film. Ballad follows the Grand Jury proceeding (with reporters’ footage outside the courthouse) that cleared Bañuelos.
This conclusion was foregone, of course and regrettably. Local historian Enrique Madrid observes, “The United States could not allow a legal precedent of that sort to be set, in which American soldiers were subject to state laws in the conduct of their military operations.” (Ongoing fallout from this non-precedent pervades thinking about deployments of force today, perhaps most expansively in the special status afforded U.S. military and “corporate warriors” internationally.)
The tragedies in Esequiel Hernández’s story are many. The Marines who do speak with Fitzgerald are plainly troubled to this day. Wieler admits to having nightmares, Blood is upfront about the pain he’s endured (a recovering crystal meth addict, he sighs, “I used to be on the border busting people for turning people into what I am”), and Cpl. Roy Torrez, Jr. returns again and again to a memo pad on which he jotted notes about the “incident.” Esequiel’s mother and father express their frustration with the government that is supposed to represent them (the fact that their son was killed during the Clinton Administration is not underscored by the film, which takes repeated aim at Bush Elder and Junior). His brother Margarito makes clear the long-term effects, not only on those close to Esequiel, but also, as he puts it, children coming up in the aftermath of the murder. “We’re adults,” he says, the camera close on his face, “We understand what happened. But the kids, they don’t understand. That’s gonna be in their minds you know, when they grow up.” Again, the U.S. is producing enemies—here within its borders—by treating civilians without regard and with prejudice.
Much like the corrido that opens it, the film means to remember Esequiel. But even as it acknowledges the personal heartbreak for his family and community, Ballad focuses intensely on the cultural and political ramifications, how the murder ruined lives and reshaped policy (the military was removed from the border until 2006), and what the case reveals about U.S. official priorities, then and now.