"A series of failures" by the Justice and Defense departments led to the death last year of an 18-year-old goatherd shot by a Marine Corps squad on an anti-drug patrol along the Rio Grande, according to a House report released yesterday.

The four Marines assigned to the reconnaissance mission through the isolated wastes of the Big Bend region were headquarters personnel picked not for their skills but because they needed training, according to the report by Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee's subcommittee on immigration and claims.

Nonetheless, the Border Patrol, a branch of the Justice Department that had requested the mission, did not offer the Marines any training on civilian law enforcement or a briefing on local conditions, including the fact that law-abiding local residents often were armed when they went out in the desert.

Early in its investigation, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division determined that the Marines had provided inconsistent statements, that forensic evidence contradicted their accounts and that two of the three Marines who saw the shooting "appear to have lied," according to internal department documents released with the report.

Two Texas grand juries heard testimony on the shooting but did not issue any indictments, and the Justice Department declined to bring charges after a six-month investigation. In response to local protests over the shooting, the Pentagon last year ended military patrols along the border. In August, the federal government agreed to pay the goatherd's family $1.9 million to settle claims against the Marine Corps and the department.

On the evening of May 20, 1997, the Marine patrol encountered Esequiel Hernandez Jr., a high school sophomore who was tending his family's herd of goats on land that was frequently grazed. As usual, he was carrying a .22 rifle to protect his flock from wild dogs, boars and other predators. According to transcripts of radio traffic made public by Smith, the Marines initially reported that Hernandez shot at them from across a ravine more than 200 yards away and called for local law enforcement officers to back them up, assuming that Hernandez was a smuggler. Hernandez walked away; the camouflaged Marines followed.

Five minutes later, the Marine team leader radioed his men: "As soon as he {Hernandez} readies that rifle back down range, we're taking him."

The Marines tracked the boy for another 15 minutes from a distance. Then, although the team leader reported the Marines were "pulling back," they "inexplicably" rushed toward him, the report said. Hernandez, according to the Marines, then raised his gun toward them.

"Our Marines took him out," was the message radioed to Border Patrol agents and local police who were still trying to reach the scene.

In a statement yesterday, the Justice Department said it was reviewing the report but added: "The shooting of Mr. Hernandez was a tragic event. Without sufficient evidence to show that there was an intentional violation of Hernandez's constitutional rights, however, we are unable to bring a federal criminal case."

Even as the Justice Department was deciding last February not to bring charges, investigators in the Civil Rights Division reported that "at the conclusion of this phase of the federal investigation critical questions remain unanswered."

First among those questions were autopsy results that contradicted the Marines' claim that Hernandez was facing them with his rifle at the ready when he was shot. Investigators also were troubled that one of the Marines initially said he could not see Hernandez when he was shot but then changed his account. Another Marine claimed to have seen what was happening but admitted he had looked away to make a radio call.

Smith claimed that the Justice Department impeded the Texas criminal investigation by assisting the Marine Corps in resisting subpoenas for evidence and testimony and then stalled the congressional probe by refusing to turn over documents until subpoenas were issued forcing disclosure. The Justice Department said yesterday it "disagrees with the committee's characterization of our efforts."

A Pentagon spokesman told the Associated Press that officials had not seen the report. CAPTION: Goatherd Esequiel Hernandez Jr., 18, was killed by a Marine anti-drug patrol in Texas last year. ec