Agents with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) have arrested a suspect who allegedly recruited Camp Pendleton-based Marines to smuggle undocumented immigrants across the border.
Court documents obtained by NBC 7 Investigates confirm that federal agents arrested Francisco Saul Rojas-Hernandez on Jan. 22 in Solana Beach. Rojas-Hernandez is charged with felony Conspiracy to Transport Aliens for Financial Gain.
More than two dozen Marines based at Camp Pendleton have been implicated in that alleged human smuggling ring, which allegedly operated from at least July, 2019 until early this year.
NCIS investigators first learned about Rojas-Hernandez last July when Border Patrol agents detained Marines Byron Law II and David Salazar-Quintero in eastern San Diego County, according to court documents. The two Marines were caught with three undocumented Mexican nationals in the backseat of their car. Law and Salazar allegedly confessed that a man named “Rojas” had contacted them on Snapchat with an offer to make up to $8,000 smuggling human cargo across the U.S.-Mexico border.
Rojas’ name came up again in September 2019 when agents detained Joel Chavez-Marquez for hiding two undocumented immigrants in the trunk of his car. In a subsequent interview, Chavez-Marquez allegedly revealed that he “...met ‘Rojas’ earlier that day and was given $40 for gas and instructed to drive to Jacumba to pick up illegal aliens.”
NCIS investigators found additional evidence that Rojas served as the liaison for multiple “load drivers” for smuggling operations in August 2019, September 2019, December 2019, and on Jan. 13, according to a federal court search warrant.
On Jan. 20 a U.S. District Judge issued an arrest warrant for Rojas. Two days later NCIS and Border Patrol agents pulled Rojas over on Academy Drive in Solana Beach.
An attorney for Rojas declined to comment for the story.
One immigration activist said the ringleaders of human smuggling operations recruit U.S. Marines because their connection with the military makes it less likely they’ll be questioned by border agents or have their vehicles searched if stopped.
Alex Mensing of Pueblo Sin Frontreras also predicted that this latest round of arrests will not deter border smugglers.
“Because as long as there’s money available to corrupt people, it’s just going to keep happening,” Mensing said. “There’s always going to be somebody who’s got their price, who’s going to take a bribe and take a risk to take somebody across the border.”