SAN DIEGO -- An investigation into Marines accused of helping smuggle migrants into the United States led to the arrests of 18 of their fellow Marines and one sailor at California's Camp Pendleton, just north of the U.S.-Mexico border, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service said Friday.
Authorities made the arrests Thursday as the Marines and Navy corpsman gathered in formation with their battalion.
The military personnel are accused of crimes that include migrant smuggling and drug-related offenses. None of them have been charged.
Officials could not immediately be reached for additional details.
The arrests came weeks after two Marines were arrested by a Border Patrol agent on suspicion of transporting three Mexicans on the promise of money after they crossed illegally into the United States.
The military said the investigation helped authorities identify the service members arrested at the largest Marine Corps base on the West Coast, about 55 miles from San Diego's border with Mexico.
Retired Marine Lt. Col. Gary Barthel called it a "kind of black eye for the Marine Corps" and said it was important the military show criminal behavior will not be tolerated.
"Obviously I think it looks bad whenever you have the military that is helping protect the border and then you've got military people smuggling," said Barthel, an attorney at the Military Law Center in Carlsbad, north of San Diego.
Marines and other U.S. troops were sent last year to help reinforce the border by installing razor wire on top of existing barriers, among other things. Troops are barred from arresting migrants.
Barthel said smugglers may have targeted young troops who could be vulnerable to being enticed by fast money.
Border Patrol agents over the years have routinely caught migrants entering the country illegally by walking onto Camp Pendleton or floating in skiffs off the coast nearby. Authorities said the base, cut by Interstate 5 leading to Los Angeles, sits along a well-traversed route used by migrant smugglers.
Officials from 1st Marine Division worked alongside the Naval Criminal Investigative Service in the investigation that started after the July 3 arrests of the two Marines, who were charged in federal court with migrant smuggling. Both pleaded innocent to the charges.
A U.S. Border Patrol agent stopped Lance Cpl. Byron Darnell Law II and Lance Cpl. David Javier Salazar-Quintero about 7 miles north of the border after being alerted by other agents that a vehicle similar to theirs was suspected of picking up migrants who came into the country illegally, according to the federal complaint.
Three migrants were found in the backseat of a black BMW driven by Law, investigators said. Both Marines are riflemen assigned to 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton.
Law told the agent that Salazar-Quintero asked if he was interested in earning $1,000 for picking up an "illegal alien," investigators said.
Salazar-Quintero told authorities that Law introduced him to a man who "recruited" him to help smuggle in migrants, according to court documents. Salazar-Quintero said he had gone out to pick up migrants on four separate occasions but was never paid, the documents say.
Law and Salazar-Quintero, who speaks Spanish, went to the border the night of July 2 and received instructions from a Mexican cellphone, court documents say. Law told the agent that they picked up a man and dropped him off at a McDonald's in Del Mar, a beach community north of San Diego, and then returned to the base, according to the documents.
They were not paid, the documents say.
Law said Salazar-Quintero told him that they would be paid if they picked up three migrants on July 3 near the border, according to the court documents.
The three migrants told authorities that they were from Mexico and had agreed to pay $8,000 to be smuggled into the United States, documents say.
A Section on 07/27/2019
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