Interview with Kieran Fitzgerald, writer and director of ‘The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez’ 

The grave of Esequiel Hernández Jr. at the cemetery in Redford, just down the road from where he was killed by U.S. Marines in 1997. Photo by Sam Karas

HOLLYWOOD, CA — In 2007, 10 years after the killing of 18-year-old Esequiel Hernandez in Redford by U.S. Marine Corporal Clemente Bañuelos, screenwriter and producer Kieren Fitzgerald wrote and directed The Ballad of Esequiel Hernandez. The documentary explores the tragic events in Redford from parallel viewpoints: interviews with the Hernandez family and Presidio County locals, and the three Marines who accompanied Bañuelos on their patrol of Polvo Crossing. The Big Bend Sentinel caught up with Fitzgerald 15 years after the release of his film. 

BBS: I’m curious to know how you encountered the story of Esequiel and decided to make the film. 

KF: It actually happened through a friend of the family, Tommy Lee Jones, who narrates the movie. Tommy used to have a ranch in West Texas out by Van Horn. He was well aware of what happened with Esequiel in 1997. My brother and I received a copy of the congressional investigation and it read like a thriller — beyond all of the incredibly important political themes and the tragedy of what happened to Esequiel and his family. 

We also felt that, if we pushed hard enough, we’d be able to get a hold of some of the raw evidence from that intense period of time before he was killed, including the Border Patrol communications, which we eventually ended up procuring and including in the film. It took many, many years to achieve. 

In the end, for all of the failings of the United States government, it is a blessing to have the Freedom of Information Act. Not every country in the world has that. It’s a small ray of hope. If you push hard enough and long enough, you can get access to most things. 

There is also footage labeled in the doc that was taken a day or two after by the Army of what the choreography on the ground looked like, according to them. We used that as well, in an effort to to put the viewer in the moment as much as possible and to understand how all of these huge political forces and terrible misunderstandings came to a head in a couple of minutes in the minds of very young Marines. 

I think the oldest was 21. They were really young. I think in that way, it really watches like a parable, because all the ills of our policies are evident in their moment-to-moment decision-making.

BBS: For those who haven’t seen the film, can you summarize some of the unusual aspects of the investigation and prosecution of this case? 

KF: It was the first time that an American soldier in the course of active duty had killed an American on American soil. In the United States, the last time anything remotely like that happened was at Kent State in 1970 — very different circumstances. And that was by the National Guard, which plays by different rules. It’s technically never supposed to happen, because of the Posse Comitatus law which prohibits our military from active service within our borders for very good reasons. 

This case was unique because the FBI, and the Texas Rangers were up against the Marine Corps. Those agencies that never been really very strongly pitted against each other in this way. Ultimately, the Justice Department made it go away by citing something called the “supremacy clause,” which is really like a get-out-of-jail-free card.

The government threw a lot of money at the situation. They hired the biggest, most expensive defense attorney at the time, this guy Jack Zimmerman — a very colorful character in the movie. He was David Koresh’s attorney. 

BBS: I’m interested in the pro-military culture that gets mentioned in the film and is used by a lot of outside observers to defend Bañuelos’ actions. Is that way of looking at the military still prevalent today? 

KF: I would make a distinction between the defense of the military made by policy makers and people who are not actually in the military. Our feeling was these guys made mistakes, but they were victims in their own way of very f — ed up policies.

It’s probably been one of the worst periods of American history for the military. I just happened to work with a lot of ex-military on a script in Hollywood. It’s been devastating what’s happened after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — the military has the highest rates of suicide they’ve ever seen. So I’m always very reticent to sort of point the finger at military culture. 

That’s the other side of the coin in West Texas — everyone’s in law enforcement. Border Patrol is one of the biggest employers out there. There’s a lot of misunderstanding about the border culture. I think that’s part of why this story hits so close to home out there, because there was pain on both sides.

BBS: Do you think that something like this could happen again today? 

We’re shooting each other at higher numbers every day. The military just keeps pouring money into the militarization of law enforcement — bigger and bigger toys, stuff that cops don’t need. I would like to think the Black Lives Matter movement put the brakes on that, but I fear it did not. We’ll continue to have cops that look more and more like soldiers going forward, and potentially soldiers being used as cops.

That was what we saw on January 6. Watching January 6 was sort of stunning, because suddenly newscasters were talking about the Posse Comitatus Act again. 

You can’t create a police force that looks like, works like, and is equipped like military. It bodes very badly when a culture and a civilization start doing that. That’s exactly why we made this movie.