Man accused of recruiting, paying Marines to smuggle people across border

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SAN DIEGO — Federal prosecutors have charged a man with recruiting and paying San Diego-based Marines to bring people across the border from Mexico illegally.

Francisco Saul Rojas-Hernandez is accused of carrying out the scheme, which allegedly involved about two dozen Marines from Camp Pendleton, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. At least 13 of the accused Marines have since left the Corps.

The investigation into Rojas-Hernandez dates back to at least July 3, when two Camp Pendleton Marines were arrested near Jacumba Hot Springs on suspicion of bringing unauthorized immigrants into the country.

During questioning, prosecutors say the two Marines admitted a man known as “Rojas” had “recruited them and organized the smuggling operation,” officials told the U-T. A series of arrests involving other service members allegedly involved in the scheme followed.

Meanwhile, Border Patrol linked at least six cases of human smuggling back to Rojas-Hernandez, prosecutors told the U-T. The suspected smugglers, some of whom were U.S. citizens not affiliated with the Marine Corps, at times picked “Rojas” out of a lineup when asked to identify the man who recruited them.

Now accused of organizing the smuggling ring for “financial gain,” Rojas-Hernandez and his lawyer did not return a request for comment from the newspaper.

While investigators built their case against the suspected ringleader, the case against the Marines started to crumble.

In November, a Marine Corps judge ruled the way 16 of the accused Marines were arrested on base at Camp Pendleton was unlawful, the U-T reports. The judge said the way the Marines’ commander helped organize the dramatic arrest — carried out during drills in front of the group’s unit — had been an unlawful use of “command influence.”

Officials said most of the Marines’ criminal proceedings would likely be dropped, and administrative punishments would be dealt instead. As of Dec. 3, six Marines had pleaded guilty at courts-martial and four were still facing criminal charges. Many of the Marines were expected to be — or already have been — discharged from the service.

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