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Two active-duty Marines arrested after allegedly smuggling undocumented Mexican immigrants

A U.S. Customs and Border Control Protection agent patrols the U.S. side of the border near Nogales, Ariz. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

Two Marines have been arrested after allegedly trying to smuggle three undocumented Mexican immigrants through California after picking them up on the side of the interstate just north of the border.

Lance Cpls. Byron Darnell Law II and David Javier Salazar-Quintero, based in Camp Pendleton, Calif., were arraigned Monday in federal court on charges of transporting undocumented immigrants “for financial gain,” accused of taking jobs from “recruiters” and following instructions from unknown people in Mexico to make extra cash on the side.

They are among several active-duty U.S. troops charged or convicted in recent years of helping immigrants cross the border in exchange for money, highlighting how smugglers have sought to offer the shield of a uniform or credentials to assist desperate immigrants on the journey north. Each previous case has largely followed the same rubric: A small group of immigrants is shepherded into the back seat of the car; the troops are caught during a traffic stop or at a routine checkpoint.

In this case, the Marines fell under suspicion on July 3 after a Border Patrol agent saw a black vehicle momentarily park in the dirt median of Interstate 8 near Jacumba Hot Springs, Calif. Then, he spotted footprints in the dirt seeming to lead toward the car, according to a federal complaint. He thought the footprints might belong to migrants.

The agent radioed his colleagues to look out for the black BMW, and in a matter of minutes the Marines were pulled over and asked for papers. The three men in the back seat, each from Mexico, admitted they were in the country illegally, according to the complaint.

In interviews with authorities, the Marines appeared to blame each other for how they ended up in trouble.

Law said it was Salazar-Quintero who offered him the job of picking up undocumented immigrants. Salazar-Quintero told agents that Law was the one who introduced him to the world of smuggling jobs, saying he met the “recruiter” through Law.

Sometimes he met the recruiter at a bedding store called Between The Sheets, Salazar-Quintero said, according to the complaint. Sometimes they met at the recruiter’s apartment. On four occasions, Salazar-Quintero said, the recruiter sent him to Jacumba Hot Springs, Calif., to pick up immigrants, with the first trip being a bust.

On July 2, Law said Salazar-Quintero called to ask if he’d like to make $1,000 to pick up an undocumented immigrant along Interstate 8 and drop him off at a McDonald’s parking lot in Del Mar, Calif. Law said he agreed. To find the immigrant, Salazar-Quintero took directions from a man in Mexico, since he spoke Spanish, and located him on the shoulder, the complaint says. They finished the job, but didn’t get paid for it.

So they set out for another job the next day, Law said, and this time Salazar-Quintero said his contact promised they would be paid.

Instead, they got arrested.

The three immigrants that Law and Salazar-Quintero allegedly tried to assist told authorities they expected to pay $8,000 to be smuggled into the United States, though it’s unclear whom they were paying.

Attorneys for the Marines did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

A spokesman for the 1st Marine Division confirmed to the Marine Corps Times that both men are active-duty riflemen based in Camp Pendleton.

“We are aware of the charges facing Lance Cpl. Law and Lance Cpl. Salazar-Quintero, and we continue to cooperate fully with the investigative efforts into this matter,” Marine spokesman 1st Lt. Cameron Edinburgh told the Marine Corps Times.

Service members have sometimes attempted more brazen plans to assist immigrants on the journey north, with some even wearing their uniforms.

In 2014, Army Pvt. Eric Alexander Rodriguez tried to slink through a Border Patrol checkpoint in uniform with two undocumented immigrants tucked under a bedsheet and his military jacket in the back seat of his Chevy pickup truck. Rodriguez and three other soldiers from Fort Hood were ultimately sentenced to between five years probation and 20 months in prison for their roles in a conspiracy to transport and harbor undocumented immigrants through a Border Patrol checkpoint and further north into the United States.

Last November, as President Trump was still deploying the National Guard to the border, one National Guardsman who had gone AWOL turned up during a traffic stop near San Diego, while allegedly trying to smuggle three Mexican immigrants over the border for $400. They were found hiding beneath a blanket in the back seat.

In 2017, a soldier from Fort Bliss in El Paso was sentenced to 15 months in prison for trying to smuggle two undocumented immigrants in the back seat while crossing a Border Patrol checkpoint near Falfurrias, Tex., about 80 miles north of the border. A man offered Joseph Edmond Cleveland and another soldier $1,500 to pick up the immigrants and drive them from a trailer home in South Texas through the checkpoint and up to Houston, according to authorities.

Cleveland attempted to use his credentials to avoid detection at the checkpoint, authorities said.