24 California Marines Kicked Out Over Smuggling and Drug Charges

A screen grab from a YouTube video shows Marines being arrested during formation at Camp Pendleton in July, 2019. (Screen capture)
A screen grab from a YouTube video shows Marines being arrested during formation at Camp Pendleton in July, 2019. (Screen capture)

Dozens of Marines have been hit with less-than-honorable discharges -- and one was sent to prison -- in the months since federal agents swarmed their infantry battalion last summer on suspicion of human-smuggling operations.

Twenty-four members of the California-based 1st Marine Division have faced judicial or administrative action over human-smuggling or drug-related offenses associated with arrests made during a July battalion formation, Maj. Kendra Motz, a spokeswoman for the unit, told Military.com.

One of those Marines has been confined to the brig for 18 months, she said.

Nine of the most serious cases were sent to courts-martial. Eight of the Marines facing trial pleaded guilty, Motz said, and have since been dismissed from the military under less-than-honorable conditions, including two bad-conduct discharges.

One case is still pending. That Marine will face a general court-martial, considered the most serious level of military trials.

"All cases were handled at the appropriate level and with respect to the rule of law," Motz said.

Fifteen other Marines charged with lesser offenses faced administrative punishment at the unit level. Those Marines were also dismissed under less-than-honorable conditions, Motz said.

The arrests started last year when Lance Cpls. Byron Darnell Law II and David Javier Salazar-Quintero were picked up after being pulled over about seven miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Federal border agents found the two riflemen with 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, were transporting three unauthorized immigrants, according to court documents.

The Marines said they'd been recruited by Francisco Saul Rojas-Hernandez to drive people who'd crossed the border. Police arrested Rojas-Hernandez in San Diego County last month after several people told investigators he had orchestrated smuggling operations and paid them to transport people.

Related: Man Charged After Marines Allege He Recruited Them for Smuggling Operations

The arrests of Law and Salazar-Quintero prompted a wider investigation that led to information about other Marines being involved in similar crimes, officials said at the time. That led to the battalion formation arrests, but a military judge later determined the highly visible apprehensions violated the Marines' rights.

Motz said the Marine Corps has a duty to the American people "to be the most ready when the nation is least ready."

"And we will continue to enforce the standards of honor, courage and commitment that serve as the great hallmarks of our Corps," she said.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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