by Jeff Seldin
PENTAGON – The number of U.S. military personnel taken into custody in connection with an alleged human smuggling operation in southern California is growing.
A spokesman for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) said Friday investigators apprehended a total of 18 Marines and one sailor as a result of a mass arrest at Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base located roughly 79 kilometers (49 miles) north of San Diego.
Arrests made during formation
NCIS and Marine officials initially announced the apprehension of 16 Marines with the Fifth Marine Regiment during Thursday’s mass arrest, which took place after the Marines were called to a battalion formation.
The initial statement from the Marine Corps said another eight Marines had been taken in for questioning on unrelated drug allegations.
“The 1st Marine Division is cooperating,” NCIS spokesman Jeffrey Houston said in a statement Friday, in which the additional apprehensions were announced.
“Out of respect for the investigative and judicial process, and to protect witnesses, NCIS will not comment further until the investigative and judicial process has completed,” he added.
No charges filed
None of the Marines apprehended in what was described by some officials as a sting operation have yet been charged, nor have officials indicated if or when charges might be filed.
In a separate statement Friday, the Marine Corps’ 1st Division said it would not release additional information until charges are formally announced. It also said the Fifth Regiment’s commanding officer “will act within his authority to hold the Marines accountable at the appropriate level, should they be charged.”
Thursday’s actions were the result of information uncovered by U.S. border patrol agents while trying to track illegal immigrants earlier this month.
According to court documents, Marine Lance Corporal Byron Law II and Marine Lance Corporal David Salazar-Quintero were arrested on July 3 after agents found them picking up three illegal aliens along a stretch of Interstate 8, about 11 kilometers (7 miles) north of the U.S. border with Mexico.
In contact with a recruiter
The complaint said the two Marines admitted to having been in contact with a recruiter, who offered to pay them for transporting the illegal immigrants from the interstate to other locations.
Law told authorities he and Salazar-Quintero were never paid for the interaction, according to the complaint.
Marine and NCIS officials said Friday the investigation into the alleged human smuggling is ongoing.
A spokeswoman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection said the agency is also assisting with the investigation.
According to the Marine Corps, none of the Marines detained as part of the investigation were assigned to the U.S. military operation to support efforts to secure the U.S. southern border with Mexico.
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