25 years later, Presidio and Redford remember Esequiel Hernandez, Jr.

On May 20, 1997, a Marine on a covert anti-drug operation shot and killed Hernandez, an 18-year-old Presidio High School student, who was herding his goats near his family home in the small border community of Redford. In their own words, Esequiel’s family and friends tell us how that day changed life along the river forever, and how they remember him now.

Margarito Hernandez stands at the place where his younger brother, Esequiel, was killed by camouflaged Marines while out herding his goats in 1997. (Annie Rosenthal / Marfa Public Radio)

By Annie Rosenthal, co-produced with Carlos Morales

This story was reported in collaboration with Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News. To read more about how Esequiel’s community thinks his story should inform our approach to border security, click here.

Twenty-five years ago today, a Presidio High School student named Esequiel Hernandez Jr. was herding his goats near his family’s home in Redford when he was shot and killed by Marines on a covert anti-drug operation. The camouflaged soldiers alleged that Esequiel had shot in their direction — but his family and community believe he never even knew they were there.

The case made national headlines: it was the first time American soldiers had killed a civilian on U.S. soil since Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on a Vietnam War protest at Kent State University in 1970. And in the aftermath of Esequiel’s death, the Pentagon pulled the military from the border.

But the Marine who killed Esequiel was never indicted. And just a few years later, 9/11 would give rise to the ever-expanding border security apparatus we see today. Now, as the Texas governor again sends military to the border to head off smuggling efforts, Esequiel’s community in Redford and Presidio says his death created a wound that has yet to heal.

Over the years, this story has been told many times in newspapers and magazines. And today, as we mark the anniversary, we wanted to bring you something different. In the audio above, you’ll only hear the voices of the people who knew Esequiel — his family, friends, classmates, and teachers. They’ll tell you in their own words what happened in 1997, and what Esequiel means to them now.

Esequiel Hernandez Jr., 18, shown in this 1997 high school yearbook photo, was shot and killed by a Marine conducting a drug surveillance operation with his unit along the Texas border Tuesday, May 20, 1997. (AP Photo / Eric Gray)

DAVID MARQUEZ: It’s been years and years since somebody, that they would have come over to me and asked me about Esequiel, you know. 

I mean, it’s something you’re never gonna forget, you know? Because he was pretty much my best friend here, my buddy.

He was a good guy, he was always, you know, cheerful in all weathers.

MARGARITO HERNANDEZ: My brother? He was kind of quiet, kind of shy. But he was a good kid. I don’t think my parents had any problems with him.

ARIAN VELAZQUEZ-ORNELAS: He was really quiet, really reserved, he stayed to himself a lot. Basically a hometown boy.

TINO MARTINEZ: I still picture him with a booklet full of his drawings. And he always had that pencil in his hand, always drawing.

And he would sit right in the corner in the window. That was his desk. We could sit anywhere we wanted to, but we knew not to sit there because that’s where he loved sitting, looking at the mountain and drawing.

Retired Presidio High School teacher Christine Manriquez holds up a poster memorializing her former student, Esequiel Hernandez, Jr. (Annie Rosenthal / Marfa Public Radio)

MARGARITO HERNANDEZ: He was a young kid, you know, with all this life in front of him. Like any other kid in high school, trying to get his driver’s license, you know, doing good in school.

DAVID MARQUEZ: In high school, he was in ballet, ballet folklorico. Dancing, you know? He liked to do that a lot.

CHRISTINE MANRIQUEZ: I had him in dance class. He was a very, very shy student, and wasn’t sure he wanted to do that. But Esequiel blossomed, really in dance class. 

HILDA ESTRADA: De Esequiel yo lo recuerdo con mucho cariño porque era un muchacho respetuoso. 

JOHN FERGUSON: He just had that kind of, what do you call it, cowboy look to him. You know, he was a country boy.

David Marquez stands in front of the Rio Grande in Redford. He and Esequiel grew up riding horses and donkeys around here. (Annie Rosenthal / Marfa Public Radio)

DAVID MARQUEZ: We started riding donkeys first, maybe when we were like six or seven. And we just rode all over the place and you know, just did what kids do. Sometimes we’d go to Mexico to go eat, drink Cokes, and buy some Doritos, and hang out with the kids over there.

And then we got horses later on as we grew older and we used to go to the hills, care for his goats and go to the river.

CHRISTINE MANRIQUEZ: He had his own little herd and he would go out and, my understanding was after school like most kids, go out and take his animals off into the mountains or the hills behind his house. And take his old rusty .22, just like any other kid.

HILDA ESTRADA: Esta fecha de su aniversario, de la tragedia, lo recuerdo con mucho amor, pero con dolor, porque sí me duele recordarlo.

ARIAN VELAZQUEZ-ORNELAS: I remember that day, actually. It was, really, like a thunderstorm coming in. And that night was just – you could see it everywhere around you. And you either felt it in the air, or it was – something was eerie about that night.

MARGARITO HERNANDEZ: And my brother had just taken off with the goats. And the way he was coming on the trail when they showed – and they marked where he was walking.

ARIAN VELAZQUEZ-ORNELAS: He came down to the river, and he was carrying his .22 because there were coyotes, and coyotes will take your goats. And so he heard a rustle,  he shot his 22, and that was probably like what clicked in the Marines’ heads as we’re under fire, we’re under attack.

And as they’re, you know, trying to see who this person is, they start to stalk him, they start to go up on the ridge, as he’s down in the gully.

That’s when they shot him.

MARGARITO HERNANDEZ: I was living in Alpine. My wife was the one that answered the phone, you know. And then when I heard her crying I was like, “What’s happening?”

CHRISTINE MANRIQUEZ: News came across the radio, there had been a shooting in Redford. And we didn’t know at the time who it was, it was later in the evening.

MARGARITO HERNANDEZ: We got ready and took off, you know, went across and it was raining. The creek was running real bad, you know, that Terneras creek?

CHRISTINE MANRIQUEZ: It was just raining, the lights went out. And we were just huddled around in my home with my kids, you know, listening to the radio to see what else we could hear. (x)

MARGARITO HERNANDEZ: The sheriff was there, there was a bunch of Border Patrols. And the sheriff helped me out. He said just don’t touch him. But he let me go and see him where he was laying down.

CHRISTINE MANRIQUEZ: The only thing that I could gather was that there was no immediate help for Esequiel. And I’m not sure how many hours you know, he was out there. And of course, it was just pouring rain. But my understanding is he died out there.

MARGARITO HERNANDEZ: He got shot six days after his birthday. He was born on the 14th, shot on the 20th. It was six days after his birthday.

Margarito Hernandez holds the gun his brother Esequiel, was carrying when he was killed in 1997. The Marine who shot Esequiel said the killing was self defense, but Margarito says Esequiel carried the World War I-era rifle to protect his goats from animals, and never would have aimed at a person. (Annie Rosenthal / Marfa Public Radio)

HILDA ESTRADA: El día de la desgracia — porque yo le llamo así, una tragedia más bien — ay, que me llega mucho todavía, lo recuerdo con mucho cariño. Ese día fue muy impactante para los muchachos.

CHRISTINE MANRIQUEZ: By the time class came about the following day, most students already knew. I mean, word just got, you know, spread so fast. It was just chaos.

TINO MARTINEZ: We didn’t know if it was the Marines, we didn’t know if it was the army. I remember there was rumors here and there. But nobody was exactly, exactly – who it was or what personne, what branch it was. We didn’t know that.

ARIAN VELAZQUEZ-ORNELAS: And when we found out a lot about the details, it was like a shock to the whole community, and especially the school. I distinctly remember being in the cafeteria, and everybody just crying.

CHRISTINE MANRIQUEZ: People were upset, obviously, because Marines are trained to kill. So they had no business on our border. And then when they were brought here, I’m sure they were drilled on how everybody that they met on the border, or the river, along the river, were bad guys.

ARIAN VELAZQUEZ-ORNELAS: And that’s kind of what they were fed in their minds – to think that, you know, this is a smuggling community when it was just the most quietest community that you have in this region.

HILDA ESTRADA: Para que venían si aquí no era un pueblo de narcotraficantes principalmente? Es sano este lugar.

ARIAN VELAZQUEZ-ORNELAS: And so when these Marines were kind of set up to come down and protect the border, they were there to observe. If they were to see any type of action that were supposed to contact Border Patrol, they were not supposed to engage.

HILDA ESTRADA: Esequiel estaba como se acostumbra, cuidando sus animalitos, como un pastor, y con su rifle .22 — que puede hacer?

DAVID MARQUEZ: If they would’ve asked me, if he would have shot them, I would’ve said no, because he’s not that kind of person. We’re not the kind of person who’ll be shooting at, you know, at other people. There’s no way.

ARIAN VELAZQUEZ-ORNELAS: It put a big stain on this community because, you know, we respected the military, he wanted to be a Marine. He had a poster of the Marines in his room.

TINO MARTINEZ: Being a high school kid, a teenager, you think about military being safe. Protecting? That’s what we get told. And that’s what they preach. 

Yeah, we’re angry. Yeah, we’re mad. Because it could be anybody. You know, I mean, why? Everybody asked the question, why him? That was the question, why him?

Now that I’m a father, it could be my kids. Or it could be somebody else’s kids. We know it’s a small town where everybody knows everybody. So we really don’t need no military to take over our borders. 

Tino Martinez was a classmate of Esequiel Hernandez at Presidio High School. He remembers Esequiel as a passionate artist who especially loved horses and Western landscapes. (Annie Rosenthal / Marfa Public Radio)

CHRISTINE MANRIQUEZ: It certainly changed our thinking. Because the river was a safe place when I was growing up…But then as things started progressing, and I guess this particular event really changed people’s minds…It’s just not not a place that we want to be anymore.

DAVID MARQUEZ: When that happened months later, you have to be just wary about where would you go and you didn’t want to make anything foolish or something and you know, have have the same thing happened to Eseuqiel. Or just getting in trouble you know, because you didn’t know what was out there in thickets and in the brush by the river no more.

MARGARITO HERNANDEZ: It’s kind of a scary feeling, you know? Because after that, and after my brother died, you know, it was hard for my nephews because they wanted to go hunt, or they want to go target shooting or something, you know, and my sisters went like, No, you ain’t going on a walk with your gun, you ain’t going nowhere.

Hilda Estrada taught Esequiel Hernandez in dance class at Presidio High School. She refers to Esequiel as a martyr. (Annie Rosenthal / Marfa Public Radio)

ARIAN VELAZQUEZ-ORNELAS: I remember the school loaded everybody up in the bus that wanted to go to the funeral. And we came down here and in the church and up on the, on the hill with them and his family was just so distraught…

TINO MARTINEZ: A lot of us went to the funeral. A lot of us. We like to support each other in this town. But I do remember going to his funeral. There was a lot of people, a lot of people.

CHRISTINE MANRIQUEZ: From everywhere. A lot of people from everywhere. It was very, very solemn. And very humble. 

Yes, and then I went later, to the anniversaries. Every year, we would go to that when possible to the little church and listen to mass.

ARIAN VELAZQUEZ-ORNELAS: We graduated in ‘99. We did a little memorial for him. We put his chair out there with his gown and his cap and his portrait.

TINO MARTINEZ: There’s a tree I believe planted in front of the high school in memory of Esequiel.

A tree memorializing Esequiel Hernandez stands tall outside of Presidio High School. (Annie Rosenthal / Marfa Public Radio)

TINO MARTINEZ: Mostly when we talk about him is when there’s about eight or 10 of us from the classmates from ‘99.

It could be 25 years later, it could be 30 years later, it could be 50 years later. Esequiel’s still gonna be in our hearts and Esequiel is very part of this town.

MARGARITO HERNANDEZ: That same year, when my brother was killed, he was killed in May. And I had a son, he said he was killed on the 20th of May. And I had a son on the 20th of September, that same year, and I named him Esequiel, so he’s Esequiel Hernandez. He really enjoys art. He’s going to be an art teacher.

JOHN FERGUSON: You know I think if Esequiel were still alive today, he would probably still be ranching here, in the Bend Bend, you know, probably in the Redford area.

ARIAN VELAZQUEZ-ORNELAS: I think he’d have a bunch of kids. He loves big families. He had a big family. He probably would have stayed, you know, to take care of his parents. 

CHRISTINE MANRIQUEZ: He would have been a successful person in that he would have been happy doing what he liked the most.

DAVID MARQUEZ: I still kept doing whatever him and I used to do. Sometimes I think about what our lives would’ve been if he would have still be alive, and our families, you know.

If he was here, I would tell him that I’ve missed him a long — you know, forever. And let’s go back to do the things we used to do.

Margarito Hernandez holds up a photo of his brother, Esequiel Hernandez, Jr. (Annie Rosenthal / Marfa Public Radio)

About Annie Rosenthal

Annie Rosenthal is Marfa Public Radio's border reporter and a Report for America corps member.
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