SAN DIEGO — On the surface, it seemed like a simple task: Drive to a spot a few miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border, pick up people and then drop them off at a McDonald’s or other spot past the city of San Diego, and make anywhere from $500 to $1,000. No need to cross into Mexico.
Two Marines whose arrests earlier this month for migrant smuggling led to the stunning arrests of fellow Marines at Camp Pendleton described in federal court documents such an offer being made to them. The Naval Criminal Investigative Service on Friday said a total of 19 service members have been arrested at the base, including 18 Marines and a Navy corpsman, who all serve in the same unit.
The military personnel are accused of various crimes from migrant smuggling to drug-related offenses, but officials have not said exactly how they were involved.
U.S. Border Patrol officials say smuggling rings have been luring U.S. troops, police officers, Border Patrol agents and others to work for them as drivers — a crucial component of moving migrants further into the United States once smugglers get them over the border from Mexico.
Border Patrol agents over the years have routinely caught migrants walking onto Camp Pendleton or floating in skiffs off the coast nearby. The camp, dissected by Interstate 5 leading to Los Angeles, sits along a well-traversed route used by smugglers.
Transporting migrants with American drivers can be more effective in avoiding detection. Customs and Border Protection has broad authority to question and search within 100 miles of the border.
If the driver is in the armed forces, with a military haircut and credentials, that's a bonus for smugglers because they believe they are more likely to get waved through a checkpoint.
“This is the kind of official corruption that smuggling networks of all kinds, whether it involves people or drugs, really look for,” said David Shirk, an associate political science professor at the University of San Diego.
It's ideal, he added, for criminal networks to use corrupt officials or military personnel, including "young, gullible and greedy" troops, to help them in their illegal activities.
The arrests follow the July 3 detention of two Marine grunts near the U.S.-Mexico border by Border Patrol.
So-called recruiters for smugglers have chatted up people at casinos and bars, passing out their cellphone numbers and saying if they ever want to make money as a driver to give them a call, U.S. Border Patrol spokesman Theron Francisco said. They have also placed ads online.
"They've advertised on Craigslist before to get people looking for work by saying drivers needed or people with cars and licenses," Francisco said. "Then they might call or text them and say they can get quick money by going south to an area close to the border and pick up people."
The rings often don't pay but keep promising to pay or bump up the money if more trips are done. A driver is not going to go to police to report being stiffed, Francisco said. If a driver gets arrested, smugglers simply move on to find a replacement.
The 19 arrested at Camp Pendleton have not been charged yet.
They are junior enlisted Marines whose monthly salary can run between $2,000 and $3,000 a month. None was part of the Trump administration's efforts that sent troops last year to help reinforce border security.
Marine Lance Cpl. David Javier Salazar-Quintero told authorities that he was recruited by a man he met in a swanky beach community who offered him a way to make extra cash by simply picking up people on the U.S. side of the border and dropping them off north of San Diego.
Salazar said a fellow Marine, Lance Cpl. Byron Darnell Law II, introduced him to the man, according to federal court documents, and that he had made such trips for him four times but had not been paid.
One trip was a bust because no one showed up at the pickup spot. He was promised if he did another job he would be paid then and earn even more.
Law told the agent that Salazar asked if he was interested in earning $1,000 picking up an "illegal alien."
A U.S. Border Patrol agent stopped Law and Salazar about 7 miles (11 kilometers) north of the border on July 3 and found three Mexican migrants who came into the country illegally sitting in the back seat of the black BMW driven by Law, according to the federal complaint.
The three migrants told authorities they agreed to pay $8,000 to be smuggled into the United States and were headed to Los Angeles and New Jersey, according to court documents.
Both Marines are riflemen at Camp Pendleton. They have pleaded not guilty to smuggling charges in federal court.
Marine Corps officials said information from that case helped them identify the others arrested.
In a dramatic move aimed at sending a message, authorities made the arrests as the Marines and Navy corpsman gathered in a battalion formation Thursday at the largest Marine Corps’ base on the West Coast, about 55 miles (90 kilometers) from San Diego’s border with Mexico.