EL PASO, Texas – A trio of National Guard soldiers assigned to help stop illegal immigration in South Texas instead ran an immigrant smuggling operation using cell phone text messages, according to court records filed Monday by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Laredo.
In a series of text messages uncovered by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents after Pfc. Jose Rodrigo Torres was arrested on Thursday, the three soldiers allegedly negotiated the details, price and number of people who would be smuggled north, the complaint said.
"tell them ill only do 1 run @ no more than 20 people @ $150 a person and i want 2 leave @ 1930 hrs and ill go 2 San Anto if they want," Torres typed to Sgt. Clarence Hodge Jr. hours before Torres was arrested along Interstate 35 near Cotulla, Texas, about 68 miles north of the border, according to the complaint.
A message later that day from Sgt. Julio Cesar Pacheco instructed Torres that a trip was a go, with a promised payment of $3,500 for the delivery of 24 illegal immigrants.
"24 will b tuff 2 fit but ill try," Torres wrote in response, the complaint said.
The 24 immigrants, at least five of whom were Mexican nationals, did fit in the van that was waved through a Border Patrol checkpoint before later being stopped along the highway.
Torres, 26, of Laredo, told federal investigators that it was his seventh immigrant smuggling trip. Torres implicated 36-year-old Hodge, a Fort Worth resident, as the soldier who waved his van through the checkpoint.
According to interviews immigration authorities conducted with some of the immigrants, Torres told the group to stay down and be quite inside the vehicle. One woman, a Mexican national, told investigators she paid $1,500 to be taken to Dallas.
Investigators say Hodge pointed to Pacheco, 26, of Laredo, as the man who recruited and paid him. Hodge told investigators he had been paid for helping smuggle a load of immigrants in May but the men had not worked out payment for the most recent load.
Pacheco, in an interview a year ago with The Associated Press when he was first deployed to the border, said he was eager for the assignment in his hometown of Laredo.
"That's why we're here, to help them out," said Pacheco, who has served in Iraq and Europe. "I'm very lucky because they're (fellow soldiers in Europe) going back to Iraq and I get to serve here in my hometown."
In another text message exchange Thursday allegedly between Hodge and Torres, Hodge allegedly asked Torres to make a trip on Friday, and said "they suplyin da van," according to the court records.
All three soldiers, who were arraigned Monday in Laredo on charges of conspiracy to transport illegal immigrants, are assigned to border duties as part of Operation Jumpstart, President Bush's initiative to place Guard troops at the border to help local and federal authorities with immigration enforcement. All the soldiers are volunteers.
Pacheco has been accused of recruiting soldiers to transport the migrants for $1,000 to $3,500 a trip. He and Hodge were arrested Friday.
The trio are not the first Operation Jumpstart troops in Texas to be accused of illegal activity. In September, three other soldiers were arrested on charges that they opened fire in a neighborhood near Eagle Pass. According to local police, the soldiers claimed that boredom was at the heart of a joyride with two cases of beer and a loaded 9 mm pistol.
Torres, Pacheco and Hodge were each being held Monday by civilian law enforcement authorities on $75,000 bond. It was unclear if the men had hired lawyers.
A man who answered the phone at Pacheco's house said no one would be talking to reporters. Attempts to reach the other Guardsmen Monday were unsuccessful.
Texas military forces will determine whether the men will be charged under military justice as well, according to a statement issued by the Texas National Guard. A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for June 19 in Laredo.
Texas Adjutant General Lt. Gen. Chuck Rodriguez said he was extremely disappointed to learn of the arrests.
"Our military service members have an affirmative obligation to be actively supportive of our law enforcement partners at every level of government," Rodriguez said. "This is our duty. Any breach of the public's trust and military law by our soldiers will be thoroughly investigated."
Smugglers' have been successful at recruiting U.S. agents in the past. In California, at least nine border agents have been arrested or sentenced in the last 18 months on corruption charges. In Texas, at least 10 agents, including four Border Patrol agents, have been charged or sentenced in border corruption schemes.
For Lee Morgan, a retired Customs agent from Arizona, the statistics, including last week's arrest, attest to how difficult the job has become.
"Any time the money is easy, you are going to find someone," Morgan said.