Guardsmen on border accused of running smuggling ring

The Associated Press | June 11, 2007
By Alicia A. Caldwell

LAREDO, Texas -- Three National Guardsmen assigned to the Texas-Mexico border were accused of running an immigrant smuggling ring after 24 immigrants were found inside a van that one of them was driving, a U.S. attorney said Monday.

The three, arrested late Thursday and Friday, were arraigned Monday on a federal charge of conspiring to transport illegal immigrants.

Pfc. Jose Rodrigo Torres, 26, and Sgt. Julio Cesar Pacheco, 25, both of Laredo, and Sgt. Clarence Hodge Jr., 36, of Fort Worth, were arrested near Laredo.

A Border Patrol agent found 24 illegal immigrants inside a van Torres was driving along Interstate 35 near Cotulla, Texas, about 68 miles north of the border, prosecutors said. Torres was in uniform at the time of his arrest Thursday.

The van was leased by the National Guard, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Prosecutors accused Hodge of helping Torres pass through a Border Patrol checkpoint on the highway by making it look like the two were conducting Guard business.

Pacheco was accused of recruiting soldiers to transport the migrants for $1,000 to $3,500 a trip. He and Hodge were arrested Friday.

All three soldiers 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.

The three soldiers used cell phone text messaging to negotiate the details, price and number of people who would be smuggled north, according to a complaint filed in court Monday.

"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 Hodge hours before Torres was arrested, according to the complaint.

A message later that day from Pacheco instructed Torres that a trip was a go, with a promised payment of $3,500 for the delivery of 24 illegal immigrants, the document said.

"24 will b tuff 2 fit but ill try," Torres wrote in response, the complaint said.

Torres told federal investigators that it was his seventh immigrant smuggling trip. Torres implicated Hodge as the soldier who waved his van through the checkpoint, the complaint said.

Investigators say Hodge pointed to Pacheco as the man who recruited and paid him. Hodge told investigators that he had been paid for helping smuggle a load of immigrants in May but that the men had not worked out payment for the most recent load.

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."

The soldiers are each being held by civilian law enforcement authorities on $75,000 bond.

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 was scheduled for June 19 in Laredo.

It was unclear whether the men had hired lawyers. A man who answered the phone at Pacheco's house said no one would talk to reporters. Calls to telephone listings for the other two men were not successful.

Pacheco, in an interview a year ago with The Associated Press when he was first moved 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."