New top cop in Presidio says family tragedy informs his style of policing

After Hernandez’s younger brother was killed by U.S. Marines in 1997, Presidio PD Chief Margarito Hernandez was undeterred in his lifelong dream to become a cop. “People say police are bad,” Hernandez said — but as he saw it, the only person responsible in wrongful police killings is “the person who makes the decision to take somebody’s life.” Photo courtesy of Margarito Hernandez

PRESIDIO — The city of Presidio has a new police chief. At a city meeting last month, council voted to appoint Margarito Hernandez, an officer with around 20 years experience in law enforcement.

The role was previously filled by Jose “Cabby” Cabezuela — but after 15 years serving in the Presidio police department, Cabezuela stepped down at the end of January to spend more time with his father at the family’s ranch near Candelaria, as The Big Bend Sentinel previously reported.

After hearing news of Cabezuela’s resignation, John Ferguson, the mayor of Presidio, appointed Hernandez as an interim chief. In an interview at the time, Ferguson thanked Cabezuela for service to Presidio and said residents were sad to see him go.

“I feel like he was a good face for the police department, an experienced lawman and a good people person,” Ferguson added. “I want to wish him well and thank him for his service to Presidio.”

That interim appointment became official around two weeks later, when Presidio City Council voted to make Hernandez’s new position permanent. In a statement of his own, Cabezuela congratulated the new police chief.

“[I] just want to wish him good luck and to congratulate him for being given the opportunity to serve as chief of police,” Cabezuela said. “I know it’s a great honor to be able to serve your community as a high-ranking police officer. Best of luck, Margarito.”

Prior to Cabezuela’s retirement, Hernandez had served as Cabezuela’s second in command, as a sergeant with the Presidio PD. But his background in law enforcement goes back far before that, to the 1990s.

After several years doing agricultural and oil-field jobs, Hernandez took his first law-enforcement job in around 1997, at the age of 28. He started as a jailer with the Presidio County Sheriff’s Office. Around a year later, in 1998, he was promoted to deputy.

In those days, Hernandez recalled, it felt like there was less of a law enforcement presence in the region. As a deputy, he was tasked with responding to calls across the vast and rugged terrain of Presidio County.

“I rarely saw [the Department of Public Safety], Border Patrol, game wardens and all that stuff,” he said. “And the county’s pretty big.” He covered an area all along the borderlands of Presidio County, from Lajitas to Candelaria.

That job continued until around 2003, when a position opened up at the newly formed Presidio Police Department. Hernandez decided to apply. He grew up in Redford, he explained, and went to Presidio High School. The idea of working as a cop in his hometown appealed to him.

“I’ve always liked to help people,” he added — as for the residents of Presidio, “you can get along easy with them. There aren’t any big problems.”

Growing up, Hernandez always wanted to be a police officer. “When I was young, that was one of my dreams,” he said, “to become law enforcement.”

But in 1997 — right around when Hernandez was starting off in law enforcement — his family experienced a tragedy that might have caused others to question those dreams.

His younger brother Esequiel, then just 18, was herding goats near the border when he came across U.S. Marines who were conducting an operation to prevent drug smugglers. One of the Marines shot and killed Esequiel, who they accused of allegedly pointing a gun at them. It was the first shooting of a American civilian by the U.S. military since the Kent State shootings of 1970, and it prompted national headlines.

A local prosecutor opened a murder investigation, and Congress also investigated the matter. But Clemente Bañuelos, the Marine who shot Esequiel, was never charged.

The incident caused decades of pain for the Hernandez family, Margarito recalled in an interview with the San Antonio Express-News in 2017.

“There was no justice,” Hernandez told the paper. “My mom never came out of shock. … She never recovered.”

Asked in an interview with The Big Bend Sentinel whether the tragedy caused him to doubt his career dreams, Margarito said no. Instead, he said, it made him want to do better.

Some family members questioned his decisions — but Margarito says he told them, “Sometimes, people are blamed for other people.”

“People say police are bad,” Margarito said, recalling those discussions. But as he saw it, the only bad person in wrongful police shootings is “the person who makes the decision to take somebody’s life.”

It’s perhaps no coincidence, then, that Margarito says he’s a big fan of community-oriented policing. A philosophy that’s grown in popularity in recent years, community policing focuses on building relationships with communities and keeping people safe over action-movie portrayals of law enforcement.

“I’ve always liked to help people,” Margarito said. “I’m always conscious that the community pays my salary. I work for Presidio.” He says he tries to carry that philosophy into his day-to-day police work. Good policing, he said, should follow the Golden Rule. “Put yourself in another person’s shoes,” Margarito explained, “and treat that person how you’d like to be treated.”