In 2006, American troops were sent to the U.S./Mexico border for the first time since 1997, when all military operations at the border were called off following the shooting death of Esequiel Hernández, an 18 year-old American citizen who was tending his goats and mistaken for a drug runner by U.S. Marines. The incident marked the first American killing by U.S. military forces on native soil since the 1970 Kent State shootings.
The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández is the directorial debut of Kieran Fitzgerald, who learned about Hernández while working on the fictionalized version of the shooting, 2005's The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. Tommy Lee Jones, who directed and starred in that film, is the narrator of Fitzgerald's documentary. (Another bit of trivia - the incident happened in West Texas, the filming location for last year's No Country for Old Men, in which Jones also starred.)
The fateful incident occurred outside Redford, TX, on May 20, 1997. Hernández fired the first shots (he carried a rifle in order to ward off wolves preying on the goats), but nobody knows why. Either he thought he saw an animal or he deliberately fired at the four fully camouflaged Marines sitting 220 yards away. The Marines initially retreated and then followed Hernández. When one Marine claimed to see Hernández raise his rifle in the direction of another Marine, the "rules of engagement" were followed and Hernández was "neutralized."
There was little controversy over these details of what happened, but the debate raged over what both sides were thinking. The Marines claimed self-defense but the local community considered it a murder, especially since autopsy reports showed Hernández was shot in the back. Despite an initial uproar, no charges were filed and the Marine who fired the shot was even considered for a Navy Commendation Medal.
Now, 10 years later, the involved Marines admit they're not sure if Hernández actually raised his rifle in their direction. It's plausible that it may have been an accident, but the Marines have trouble reconciling their memories of what actually happened with the story they told themselves happened.
On May 15, 2006, 6,000 U.S. Marines were sent back to the border as part of the War on Terror. Bill O'Reilly, Tom Tancredo and others claim that "accidents will happen in any military deployment" and that these accidents have to be accepted as a sacrifice for upholding our national security. The film ends with some clever camera work that links George W. Bush's 2006 decision to his father's decision to send the troops to the border for the first time in 1989.
There's plenty to appreciate in The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández: the visual style, the interviews with the Marines, the archival footage, and even the title, taken from the border tradition of writing "corridos", or ballads, to tell rural stories and legends. The whole production is fairly impressive for a first film, but it's also occasionally clear that Fitzgerald is still learning his craft.
Some of the details and timing seem to get lost in the interview clips and reenactments, and an imbalance exists in which too much time is spent on the shooting and too little time is spent on its aftereffects in the ensuing years. If I understand correctly, Fitzgerald is trying to pin the U.S. government for not only promoting an aggressive mission in a peaceful area, but sending unprepared kids with itchy trigger fingers to complete that mission.
An ambitious effort that doesn't quite achieve excellence, The Ballad of Esequiel Hernández is nonetheless an important film about the consequences of the U.S. military operating on domestic soil, and the blurry gray area that appeared when one of their objectives resulted in disaster. As always, PBS impressively carries on the conversation over at the P.O.V. blog.