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Justice Accused Of Impeding Inquiry Congressman Implores Reno To Answer Border Death Queries

Thu., Aug. 14, 1997

A congressman Wednesday accused the Justice Department of obstructing his efforts to investigate the Border Patrol’s involvement in the shooting death of a young Texas man near the U.S.-Mexico border in May.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House panel overseeing immigration issues, sent a five-page letter to Attorney General Janet Reno complaining of lack of cooperation from her department.

“For two months, my congressional oversight has been obstructed by a never-ending series of useless referrals, unreturned phone calls and broken promises,” Smith said.

Justice Department spokeswoman Carole Florman responded, “We will read Congressman Smith’s letter and work with him to provide the best information we can.”

The case involves the killing of 18-year-old Esequiel Hernandez by a Marine who was part of an anti-drug operation patrolling the border near the western Texas town of Redford.

Cpl. Clemente Banuelos of Camp Pendleton, Calif., claimed he acted in self-defense after Hernandez, who was watching over his herd of goats, fired a rifle toward the soldiers.

Hernandez’s family contends the young man, who sometimes used his rifle for target practice, may not have known he was firing in the direction of the Marines, who were in full camouflage.

In the wake of the shooting, the Defense Department announced it was suspending its role in the patrols pending a review of the rules of operation.

Smith issued his letter a day before a grand jury is to convene for a second time in Marfa, Texas, to consider whether Banuelos should face criminal charges.

The Justice Department also is looking into whether Hernandez’s civil rights were violated.

Smith, who expects to hold a hearing in September on the issue, has been trying to find out whether the Border Patrol should have warned the Marines about potential problems in the area and provided better backup after the shooting occurred. The Border Patrol comes under Justice Department jurisdiction.

In his letter, Smith charged that, despite two briefings with Border Patrol officials, he had not been provided the answers to key questions.

He contrasted his treatment by the Border Patrol with the response from the Defense Department, which provided a “responsible and detailed briefing,” according to Smith’s letter.

Among the specific questions Smith said he wanted answered were:

Why the Marines on patrol had not been informed of a February incident in which Hernandez apparently fired at agents because he believed they were threatening his goats.

“The Border Patrol, as the law enforcement agency which ordered the mission and which was most familiar with the border area and the nearby communities, had a clear duty to brief the Marines thoroughly,” Smith wrote.

Why it took the Border Patrol 38 minutes to arrive at the scene after Marines reported by radio that Hernandez was shooting at them. Smith said agents were required to respond within 15 minutes.

Why the agents, once they reached the scene, failed to take charge and defuse the potential for violence.

Why it took so long to get medical help for Hernandez. The Texas Rangers, who are investigating the incident, said no one called for aid until 22 minutes after the shooting.

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