The arrest of two US Marines on migrant smuggling charges raises concerns that criminal groups along the US-Mexico border are targeting the country's troops, promising them fast money to take part in smuggling operations.
The Marines were arrested on July 3 after Border Patrol agents stopped their vehicle on a California highway near the US-Mexico border. Sitting in the car's back seat were three migrants who had illegally entered the United States, according to a federal criminal complaint obtained by the New York Times.
Information gleaned from the two Marines -- who were stationed at Camp Pendleton, just 90 kilometers north of the Mexican border -- subsequently led to the arrest of 18 marines and a sailor at the military base. They are accused of a number of crimes, ranging from migrant smuggling to drug violations, according to the Associated Press (AP).
This is not the first case where US military personnel have been involved in migrant smuggling rings.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of the US-Mexico Border
Last year, four active duty soldiers stationed in Fort Hood, Texas, were convicted for smuggling migrants through a border checkpoint. The migrants were hidden under military equipment.
Also in 2018, a National Guardsman in California was caught ferrying Mexican migrants trying to enter the United States illegally near San Diego.
Before that, two soldiers pleaded guilty in 2016 to transporting a pair of undocumented migrants in the back of their vehicle across a border checkpoint in Falfurrias, along the Texas-Mexico border.
In most cases, the troops were not actively involved in patrolling the US border with Mexico. US Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which includes the Border Patrol, is the force that secures all US borders, though National Guardsmen and Marines have also been deployed to the US-Mexico border in the past.
InSight Crime Analysis
The recent arrests show that troops and other US authorities along the border make attractive partners for criminal groups involved in migrant smuggling.
A US Border Patrol spokesman told the AP that “smuggling rings have been luring US troops, police officers, Border Patrol agents and others to work for them as drivers.” A military figure driving a truck is less likely to be stopped and interrogated.
The quick money to be made may be difficult for some to resist. One of the Marines charged with human smuggling said that he was offered $1,000 for the migrant pick up, according to the federal complaint. Most of those arrested at Camp Pendleton, a base located on a known migrant smuggling route, were reportedly junior enlisted Marines whose monthly salary typically falls between $2,000 and $3,000 per month. But even this scheme may backfire, as smugglers often promise more money for more rides but never pay out, according to the AP.
There are also concerns that US immigration policy is exacerbating the issue. The crackdown on the border by the administration of President Donald Trump has led to a jump in smuggling fees and journeys across riskier terrain for migrants.
As a result, criminal groups are likely looking to find any edge they can. The complicity of a US official would be a prized asset.