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Yesterday, the U.S. Marine Corps announced that 13 Marines were formally charged in connection with human smuggling. Earlier this summer, they were arrested during their morning formation at Camp Pendleton. Steve Walsh with member station KPBS in San Diego brings us the story.
STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: The Marines are accused of being part of a ring that transported migrants from the border to locations in central and northern San Diego County. They were all low-ranking Marines. None of them made more than $23,000 a year. And their alleged criminal activity was all at the very bottom rung of the human smuggling operation. They're all from the same battalion.
Pentagon video shows the unit training at Camp Pendleton in September. One Marine is charged with smuggling a migrant from the border as early as May 19. Charges for other Marines are for incidents as recent as July 10. They've all been waiting in the brig. The charges stem from an investigation prompted by the July 3 arrest of two Marines. Border Patrol agents had spotted three migrants climbing into a civilian car on the side of a highway close to the border. Theron Francisco, Border Patrol spokesman, says smugglers often enlist young drivers who aren't from San Diego.
THERON FRANCISCO: They're not familiar with the Border Patrol or how the border region works, and that - this plays in the hands of the smugglers. They don't give them a lot of information. They keep it very vague. I've seen you pick up some people at this known location. Bring them back here.
WALSH: In exchange for driving migrants north from the Mexico border to a safe house, the two Marines who were originally charged say smugglers promised to pay them a thousand dollars.
FRANCISCO: These smugglers may think it's a benefit on their behalf to have a Marine or somebody in law enforcement to be a potential load driver.
WALSH: Last year, a California National Guardsman was arrested for a similar attempt. Smugglers have worked with Marines at Camp Pendleton as early as 1979. That's when a group of Marines and their wives were discovered to have moved several thousand undocumented migrants through Camp Pendleton as a way to avoid a Border Patrol checkpoint. The lure of what some people see as easy money enjoys widespread appeal. Pedro Rios with the American Friends Service Committee, which works with migrants, says plenty of people without ties to the military get caught up in smuggling.
PEDRO RIOS: The fact that there's a border wall doesn't stop this type of activity from taking place on either side. There's always been an attempt to infiltrate some of the agencies such as the Border Patrol and exploit some of the loopholes that they have.
WALSH: Rios has worked with immigration issues since the 1990s. He says these networks have become more elaborate as measures to maintain the border have become more restrictive.
RIOS: If the Marines were infiltrated in this way, might there be other agencies in law enforcement world that have been infiltrated as well?
WALSH: He's right. The highest-profile smuggling case in San Diego County involves not the Marines but two brothers who worked as agents for the Border Patrol. Fidel and Raul Villarreal (ph) were convicted in 2013 of taking bribes to move migrants across the border in San Diego. In 2018, Raul's attorney argued that his 30-plus year sentence should be lowered before a panel that included Federal Appellate Court Judge Susan Graber.
SUSAN GRABER: These folks violated their trust and did exactly the opposite of what they were hired by the people to do.
WALSH: In the most recent case involving the Marines, the ring isn't described as being nearly as sophisticated as the one involving the two convicted Border Patrol agents. Federal officials have dropped the case against the two original Marines charged with human smuggling. Instead, all 13 Marines now face potential courts martial. Interesting fact - the smuggler never paid the two Marines originally charged back in July. The Border Patrol says it's a sign of just how hard-nosed human traffickers can be with the people they recruit.
For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in San Diego.
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