DER Documentary

The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández

by Kieran Fitzgerald
color, 86 min, 2007



In 1997, no one in the small town (pop. 100) of Redford, Texas knew that U.S. Marine teams, fully camouflaged and armed with M16 rifles, had been secretly deployed to their section of the border. Farmers like the Hernández family, who lived by the river, went on working their fields and tending to their livestock. On the evening of May 20, 18-year-old Esequiel Hernández Jr. left the house to tend to his family's goats, taking with him, as usual, a .22 rifle to keep away wild dogs. It was the last evening of his life.

The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández tells a frightening and cautionary tale about the dangers of using military as domestic law enforcement. When Esequiel Hernández was shot in 1997 he became the first American killed by U.S. military forces on native soil since the 1970 Kent State shootings. Shortly afterward, the administration suspended all military operations along the border. Nearly 10 years later, the military returned to the border, this time as part of the war on terror and the George W. Bush administration's effort to stem illegal immigration.

Narrated by Tommy Lee Jones (a native of West Texas whose film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada was inspired by the Hernández shooting), The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández features a full array of remarkably candid accounts from three of the four Marines on the fatal mission; Esequiel's family, friends and teachers; Marine Corps investigators; FBI investigators and defense attorneys. The film also makes use of military investigative video and audio recordings of radio communication between the Marine team and their commanders before Hernández was shot.

Investigators call into question the Marines' decision to follow Hernández when, after firing two shots from more than 200 yards away in their direction, he started slowly back toward his home. They found it unlikely that Esequiel had knowingly fired at the team or that he could have been "flanking" them as they claimed.

The Marines and their commanders maintained that Corporal Clemente Banuelos, the team captain, had fired in defense of his men. However, investigators believed that Esequiel was not aiming his rifle at the Marines when he was shot. Although attempts were made to indict Corporal Banuelos for murder in the state of Texas, he was never charged with a crime. As local Redford historian Enrique Madrid explains: "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."

"Esequiel's killing had been so quickly passed over, despite the big issues involved," says director Kieran Fitzgerald, "that our nation has not had a chance to work through its important and urgent implications. My hope is that this film will be our chance."

"Audiences who see this engrossing report will wonder why such an important event has been allowed to drift into obscurity..." — Robert Koehler, Variety
"...sure to create a stir on both sides of the border..." — Scott Foundas, LA Weekly

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Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
POV broadcast, 2008
Best Film, Human Rights Category, Mexico City International Film Festival, 2007
Official Selection, Tribeca Film Festival, 2007
Emmy Award nomination for News & Documentary in OUTSTANDING INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM, 2009
Cine Las Americas Film Festival, Austin, TX, 2009

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Supported By Massachusetts Cultural Council National Endowment for the Humanities National Endowment for the Arts