Inside a Massive Human Smuggling Ring Led by US Marines

The Marines were young, low-paid, and clean-cut, making them “ideal” recruits to smuggle migrants for cash.

Byron Law knew what he was doing was illegal. But the money was too good to pass up. On the morning of July 3, 2019, the 20-year-old and his friend headed out for another run in Law’s black BMW, eager to make some extra cash before the long holiday weekend. With any luck, they’d be finished by lunch.

Law pulled onto a dirt patch on the side of the highway about seven miles north of the U.S.–Mexico border. Somewhere in the vast expanse of sand, shrubs, and granite rock, two men and a woman emerged from their hiding spot, ran down the hill, and hopped into the backseat of Law’s car. They each carried a backpack. Their shoes were covered in grass and dirt.

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For the hundreds of migrants crossing into the U.S. without permission each day, the border itself is just the beginning: Next are a hundred miles of checkpoints on roads and highways that stretch well into the interior of Texas, Arizona, and California. To reach their destination, migrants rely on smugglers hiding them along the way, inside of dump trucks, tractor trailers, even coffins, to evade detection.

But Law and his friend weren’t just any smugglers. They were U.S. Marines, sworn to uphold the values and laws of the U.S.

Law was one of more than a dozen Marines in the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton who started smuggling migrants into the U.S. in the spring and summer of 2019—even while thousands of their fellow Marines were deployed to the border to shore up security. At their peak, according to court records, they were going on multiple runs a week, coordinating among themselves to see who was free to go, and making excuses to get out of training exercises in order to make a few hundred dollars.

With their closely trimmed hair, clean-cut look, Marine Corps stickers on their cars, and uniform caps on their dashboards, the Marines made the perfect smugglers precisely because no one would ever suspect them. They picked up migrants just north of the U.S. border and transported them 100 miles into the interior of the country in the last and arguably most precarious leg of the smuggling journey.

While U.S. officials have denounced smugglers as accomplices to ruthless cartels and created a special task force to address the problem in Mexico and Central America, the smuggling ring at Camp Pendleton underscores the widespread recruitment of military members and Border Patrol into the billion-dollar criminal industry.

Uniformed personnel, often fresh out of high school and lured by the promise of easy money, are highly-prized recruits. Camp Pendleton, the major West Coast Marine base, located in Southern California, offers a lucrative pool. 

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“Having people who work for the government going out and picking up for us was a brilliant idea, and we knew nobody would suspect anything,” Francisco Rojas Hernández, the man who recruited at least 10 Marines from the base, told me from a federal prison in California in July 2021.

“We were pulling in major money.”  

Law and his friend David Salazar-Quintero had no reason to think they’d be stopped that Wednesday morning in July. That same day, two other Camp Pendleton Marines were also picking up migrants to transport north. It was Law’s fifth run and Salazar-Quintero’s fourth. The pair had done a run the night before. They likely would have succeeded this time if not for a U.S. Border Patrol agent who happened to be canvassing the area looking for migrants trying to cross. The agent noticed Law’s BMW pull off the highway and, within a minute, pull a U-turn and start driving in the opposite direction. 

He called it in.

A mile up the road, Border Patrol agents waited for Law to pass, and then pulled him over. The jig unraveled immediately. The backseat passengers admitted to being in the country illegally. Law and Salazar-Quintero acknowledged smuggling them and turned over their cellphones.

Their arrest, at 10:17 a.m., triggered one of the biggest scandals in Marine Corps history and led to the arrest of 16 more Marines based at Camp Pendleton for smuggling. Another eight were questioned for drug offenses.

“It is equal parts shocking and disturbing to think that there were quite literally thousands of dollars of cartel money flowing through Camp Pendleton.”

Law “quite literally ran a booming criminal enterprise here at Camp Pendleton” during the spring and summer of 2019, a military prosecutor told a judge at the 20-year-old’s court martial hearing.

“Right under the nose of not just his command, but under the nose of military and federal law enforcement, he planned, coordinated, and executed the transportation of illegal aliens and the distribution of drugs for financial gain,” the prosecutor said. “It is equal parts shocking and disturbing to think that there were quite literally thousands of dollars of cartel money flowing through Camp Pendleton.”

‘Where the real money is’

The man at the center of the ring was also just 20 years old at the time. Francisco Rojas had been involved in the smuggling business for about two years when he began hiring Marines.

He’d already made more than a hundred runs picking up migrants at the border and driving them north, he said, before he became a recruiter. Now, his job was to find people to drive, just as he had.

“That’s where the real money is,” Rojas told me.

Rojas spoke to me once by phone from federal prison. He was unexpectedly open and earnest, given that he’d orchestrated an elaborate smuggling scheme that earned him tens, or perhaps hundreds, of thousands of dollars. After that, we exchanged half a dozen emails. He described himself as humble and charismatic, someone who gets along with others under any circumstance.

Camp Pendleton, the major West Coast Marine base, located in Southern California, offers a lucrative pool for transnational criminal organizations looking to recruit smugglers. (Photo: Tod Seelie/VICE News)

Born and raised in San Diego by parents who came from Mexico, Rojas said he didn’t set out to work with the Marines. But he had a “lightbulb” moment when a woman he’d recruited asked Rojas if he wanted to meet a friend of hers looking to make extra money. The friend was a “young, 20-year-old, Caucasian male” and a Marine at Camp Pendleton.

The Marine introduced Rojas to another Marine, who introduced him to yet another, and another. Within a couple months, Rojas said he was working with “at least 10” Marines based at Camp Pendleton.

“I was communicating with them whenever I could,” Rojas said, mostly over Snapchat, a social media platform whose principal feature is that messages disappear after a short time. 

The job was straightforward.

As the Marines drove to the border, they would receive a call from someone on a Mexican number who told them where to pull over. At the pick-up spot, two or three migrants would emerge from a hiding spot—often behind bushes or a rock—and jump into the car. Thirty minutes later, the Marines would arrive at an immigration checkpoint along the highway, with the migrants in the backseat or crammed in the car trunk. Generally, they were waved through. The Marines would continue making their way up the coast and drop their passengers off about two hours later outside a Whole Foods or McDonald’s in Del Mar, a beach town outside San Diego. The migrants then got into someone else’s car to continue their journey.

“They would nod their heads every time I would give them directions, and they would always listen carefully and not say much.”

“They would nod their heads every time I would give them directions, and they would always listen carefully and not say much,” Rojas said of the Marines. “They were quiet and serious, but at the same time you could tell they were nervous when coming to meet up,” he said. He described them as “obedient.”

Most of the Marines he hired were in their early 20s—Black, white, Latino—and motivated by money. Rojas paid them $500 for each migrant they transported. The Marines mostly worked in pairs—a driver and a Spanish-speaker who could communicate with the Mexican side of the smuggling network. If the pair transported three migrants, they earned $750 each. Afterward, they met Rojas in person to get paid.

“We made an excuse to leave work. We still in cammies,” one Marine texted a friend while picking up his pay following a smuggling run, referring to the standard-issue Marine Corps combat wear. 

Rojas’ attorney, Crystal Erlandson, said it’s not uncommon to see isolated cases of uniformed personnel engaging in smuggling. But “this was certainly an effort to target these guys in particular,” she said. “Being a young Marine at the bottom of the heap—they don’t get paid well, they are action-seeking, and here is an opportunity to get the adrenaline going and make a little money.”

Rojas was “a sweet kid, very charismatic,” she added. “He took it very maturely when it came to taking responsibility.” 

Navy prosecutors fingered Rojas as the linchpin to the smuggling ring at Camp Pendleton. But Rojas insisted that the smuggling extended beyond him, a claim backed up by court martial records.

One Marine got involved one week after Law’s arrest, when he saw a story from a stranger on Snapchat offering up to $2,000 for three hours of driving, he testified at his sentencing hearing. After expressing interest, the Marine was instructed to drive to Golden Acorn Casino, an isolated building in the middle of the desert about an hour east of San Diego, where two undocumented men were hiding nearby waiting for the pick-up. 

Rojas said he, too, had gotten involved in smuggling through Snapchat, after he replied to a man who posted a story advertising an easy way to make money quickly. 

“Social media is the new way into recruiting people of doing these type of jobs,” he told me.

A spokesperson for Snapchat said the company has “zero tolerance for using Snapchat for any illegal purposes, including this type of activity,” adding that the app “is designed to make it hard for unfamiliar people to find and contact Snapchatters."

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The spokesperson said the company blocks specific sets of terms relating to illegal activity on the platform, requires users to be “bidirectional friends” in order to exchange messages, and prohibits kids under 18 from having public profiles.

$11,000 per migrant

The U.S. has tried to crack down on illegal immigration into the U.S. by making the journey ever harder, from expanding the border wall to pressuring Mexico to deport migrants crossing the country. The idea is to make the journey so difficult, and the chances of entering so slim, that people will stop trying.

But people keep coming in record numbers, fueled by extreme violence and poverty from places with historically high rates of migration, like Guatemala and Mexico, but also more recently from Nicaragua, Ecuador, and Brazil. Highly restrictive immigration laws means would-be immigrants to the U.S. generally have no legal way to come, leading many to try to enter illegally. U.S. authorities encountered 1.7 million migrants at the southern border in 2021, the highest ever recorded.

As it’s gotten harder to enter the U.S., migrants have become more dependent than ever on smugglers, who grease the journey by paying off corrupt cops and immigration agents and negotiating with cartels to pass through territory they control.

Today, adults coming from Central America pay smugglers between $11,000 and $14,000, roughly twice as much as just five years ago, and a fortune compared to the $2,000 fee in the early 2000s.

Rojas said the man he reported to negotiated with the smuggling network in Mexico. That man earned around $5,000 for every migrant who successfully crossed into the U.S. Rojas made $2,500. He, in turn, paid the Marines $500.

The hierarchy even extended to the Marines themselves: Law made $120 for trips he helped arrange but didn’t go on.

On July 25, 2019, Navy Command arrested 16 Marines suspected of smuggling migrants in front of their battalion. The mass arrest backfired and resulted in charges being dropped against most of the Marines. (Credit: US Marine Corps Public Affairs)

In total, Rojas estimates he was working with Camp Pendleton Marines for three to four months, but it wasn’t until the last month—in June 2019—that things really took off.

“They were going constantly,” Rojas said. “In one week alone, they generated me more than $20,000.” 

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The U.S. Marine Corps gave an extensive statement to VICE World News:

“1st Marine Division is committed to upholding justice and the rule of law. Personnel found to be associated with illegal activities are handled in accordance with due process. In the referenced case, the parties involved were held accountable, and are no longer in the Marine Corps.

“Leaders engage daily with their Marines and Sailors; modeling excellence and reinforcing our institutional values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment. These interactions coupled with a range of formal, annual training requirements are designed to equip our personnel with the tools to succeed as warfighters and as responsible members of the community. Despite these efforts, some still choose to engage in criminal behavior and we will continue to hold them accountable.”

An ‘ideal’ recruit

Law wasn’t just an ideal recruit for smuggling networks; he was also an ideal recruit for the Marines.

As a high school junior, Law met a Marine recruiter at a mall in South Texas. The recruiter, impressed by Law, made a point of keeping in touch with him over the next year, until Law enlisted.

“I still am very proud that I put him into the Marine Corps, because he was very ideal for me,” the recruiter testified at Law’s court-martial hearing. “If you’re a United States Marine, somebody who can do 20 pull-ups, run like a champ, plays football, and is a great kid and passing, that’s exactly what I’m looking for.”

For Law, the Marines offered a path to continue his education for free. And joining was a safe choice in what had been a difficult life. Law’s father had been in and out of prison since he was born, Law would later testify. His mom died when he was 3. His aunt, who raised him, died when he was 15. After bouncing between homes, he moved in with his best friend’s family for his final year and a half of high school.

A natural leader, Law seemed to thrive in the Marine Corps. He was often appointed as a guide during training exercises and frequently showed up to recruiting events. But a year and a half after Law enlisted in the Marines, another lance corporal told him he had made $1,000 in one night by driving migrants. Law wanted in.

Today, 71 percent of people convicted of smuggling in federal courts are U.S. citizens, according to data from the U.S. Sentencing Commission, up from 60 percent in 2015, underscoring how transnational the industry has become. The commission doesn’t break down what percentage are uniformed personnel.

The role of U.S. citizens has grown as tougher enforcement has pushed migrants to try to cross in ever more remote areas. Hundreds of migrants die annually hiking through desert and ranchland in an effort to circumvent the Border Patrol’s 35 permanent checkpoints across Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and California, in addition to temporary checkpoints.

The alternative is for migrants to be driven in cars and tractor-trailers through the Border Patrol’s checkpoints and hope to avoid detection. That’s where Law and the other Marines came in. Even more than regular U.S. citizens, their military credentials means they’re likely to be waved through without arousing suspicion. 

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When Law pulled up to the Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 8, headed west toward San Diego, he said he would tell the migrants in the backseat “just to have their seatbelts on and follow our rules in America of just driving in a car.” Law also tried to act normal, but it’s “kind of impossible to do this because you’re shaking so much,” he testified. 

By June 2019, word had spread among the lance corporals at Camp Pendleton about a quick way to supplement their $26,000 annual salary, which is less than the California minimum wage. They were coordinating among themselves while practicing air assaults and rappelling from a 10-foot tall tower.

“I asked him if he wanted to make extra money, just because I know as lance corporals we don’t get paid much.”

“I asked him if he wanted to make extra money, just because I know as lance corporals we don’t get paid much,” Law testified, explaining how he introduced the scheme to another Marine while they were talking in the barracks room. The Marine, who wanted $2,000 to pay for his car’s registration, signed on. 

The Marines are hardly the first or last uniformed military personnel to be recruited into smuggling migrants. In recent years, criminal charges have been brought against soldiers stationed at Fort Bliss and Fort Hood, National Guard soldiers, and Border Patrol agents. Nearly all have pleaded guilty.

“If you look at the smuggling continuum from the U.S.–Mexico border to a small town in Guatemala, every institution on that pipeline has been corrupted. And so why wouldn't unscrupulous U.S. law enforcement officials be subjected to that?” said Ron Vitiello, acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from 2018-2019. “As a society, as a culture, as law enforcement institutions, we're all vulnerable unless we are vigilant.”

It’s impossible to know the full scale of corruption among uniformed personnel along the border, in part because U.S. officials would rather keep it quiet. Navy personnel and Marines almost never face charges in federal court. Instead, they are quietly prosecuted under the Navy justice system.

In a statement to VICE World News, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service said that based on 2020 figures, it has “investigated fewer than 30 cases of human smuggling involving the U.S. Department of the Navy during the previous five years.”

“NCIS works in partnership with Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) and other federal, state and local law enforcement partners to proactively combat trafficking operations and briefs thousands of sailors each year on the significant consequences of participating in such activities," said NCIS Assistant Director for Criminal Investigations and Operations Daniel W. Simpson.

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Soldiers and Border Patrol agents suspected of smuggling are often discharged before they face charges.

The cases that go to court offer a glimpse into U.S. vulnerabilities. In August, two Army soldiers stationed at Fort Hood in Texas—one 18 and the other, 21—pleaded guilty to smuggling two migrants into the U.S. in their car trunk. The man who hired the soldiers told them to wear their uniforms to avoid questioning, according to prosecutors.

In October, a grand jury indicted a veteran Border Patrol agent for receiving more than $1 million in bribes in exchange for using his Border Patrol uniform and patrol vehicle to smuggle people and drugs into the U.S. He was arrested with 21 kilos of cocaine, one kilo of heroin, and 350,000 fentanyl pills.

“There has always been a smuggling problem at the border,” said James Tomsheck, internal affairs chief for U.S. Customs and Border Protection from 2006-2014. “Much of it is an undetected problem.”

Arrested in formation

Law and Salazar-Quintero’s arrest caught the Marines by surprise. Even more shocking was the extent of the scandal.

The more investigators dug, the more misconduct they found. It was a cancer the commanding officers had no idea had metastasized. In addition to smuggling migrants, Law had been selling small amounts of cocaine and LSD.

Based on cellphone messages and records, investigators were able to identify who Law and Salazar-Quintero worked for, as well as messages they had exchanged with other Marines. An internal report from NCIS identified 17 Marines they “had recruited to partake in human smuggling,” “possession and/or sale of unregistered firearms, and/or the use, possession, distribution, importation, and/or trafficking of controlled substances.”

Despite the growing concerns, Lt. Col. Eric M. Olson, the battalion commanding officer, “didn’t want this to affect their deployment” to Okinawa, Japan, a Navy investigator testified at Law’s court martial hearing.

Olson and others decided the best strategy would be to publicly shame the Marines suspected of smuggling and drug use, and thereby dissuade others from following their example.

On July 25, 2019, the command called a battalion formation of some 800 Marines. One by one, a sergeant major called out the names of 24 Marines to come forward. Once they had lined up in front of the battalion, NCIS officers swooped in and arrested the 16 who were suspected of migrant smuggling. Marine Corps leadership escorted out an additional eight Marines suspected of drug offenses.

During the public arrest, Olson told the apprehended Marines they were “eroding our readiness,” “jeopardizing our success in battle,” “endangering all of our lives,” “a distraction to leadership and readiness,” and that their behavior was “contrary to our core values.”

It soon became clear the plan had spectacularly backfired.

A defense attorney for one of the arrested Marines argued that the Navy Command was more concerned about its image in the press than actual justice. Citing internal documents, the attorney said the command feared that the “media is intent on embarrassing the Marine Corps” and “will seize on the political irony of having Marines on the border patrol mission while having other Marines smuggling migrants.”

The attorney alleged that the mass arrest violated a military principle known as unlawful command influence by publicly humiliating the Marines and intentionally seeking to influence the court-martial process.

A judge agreed, and military prosecutors were forced to drop charges against most of the Marines, with the exception of a few who had already pleaded guilty. The Marine Corps discharged the others. The battalion deployed on time to Japan. 

With most of the Marines off the hook, Law and Salazar-Quintero became the public face of a scandal that had neither begun nor ended with them.

At his court-martial hearing, Law said he had let himself down and embarrassed the Marines, and called his decision to smuggle migrants “a disgrace to myself, my family, and the Marine Corps.” He told the judge it “started out as a financial gain for myself and just the others that were involved.”

But, he said, that changed over time as he learned why the immigrants were coming to America.

“It kind of just went from a whole money motivation to just the kind side of my heart that helps someone else, because you never know when you’re going to help someone—or just when they might need help,” he said. “I know it’s not correct for me to help them the way I did, but it’s just, kind of, giving them a foothold into America to figure out what they need to do.”

The judge sentenced Law to 18 months confinement. Salazar-Quintero received 12 months.

“The money was too easy, and that’s why deterrence is really what the government’s hitting on here with requesting this sentence,” a prosecutor told the judge at Salazar-Quintero’s court-martial. “Snapchat, text messaging, the ability to navigate with a GPS, make this crime so accessible to Marines in the border area.” 

Law, Salazar-Quintero, and the others caught up in the smuggling are trying to rebuild their lives. One became a model. Another is an insurance broker. Salazar-Quintero said he planned to enroll in a community college and live with his mom. Law moved back to his home state of Texas to live with the family that took in as a high school student.

VICE World News reached out to Law, who said he wanted to put that chapter of his life behind him. He declined to answer further questions. Salazar-Quintero also declined to talk. 

Rojas, the 20 year-old who recruited the Marines, was arrested eight months after Law and Salazar-Quintero. A judge sentenced him to 10 months in federal prison in February 2021, after he made a deal with prosecutors to tell them what he knew. 

“I loved the amount of money that came with it,” Rojas told me. “Just like that money came, though, that money went—on my family, on my kids, on my baby momma, on weed, luxurious events, hotels, fancy restaurants, casinos. I was barely 20 and I knew I wanted to do something legit with the money, but I went blind with it.”

The smuggling continues.

Since the mass arrests in July 2019, the Navy has convicted four more Marines of smuggling migrants into the country. Border Patrol arrested a fifth on Christmas Day last year. The real number is likely far larger. 

Matthew Gault contributed reporting to this story.

Tagged:

immigration, mexico, marines, worldnews, worldnews-immigration

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