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Houston Chronicle, June 12, 2007
by James Pinkerton and Mariano Castillo, Houston Chronicle
Accusations that three Texas National Guardsmen smuggled illegal immigrants past a Laredo border checkpoint in an operation documented by text messages have rekindled concerns about using military units for immigration control.
"Obviously, the most desirous thing would be to have the people who know the border, as their job, doing the job," said border expert Anthony Knopp, a history professor at the University of Texas at Brownsville.
On Monday, Sgt. Julio Cesar Pacheco, 25, and Pfc. Jose Rodrigo Torres, 26, both of Laredo, and Sgt. Clarence Hodge Jr., 36, of Fort Worth, appeared before a federal magistrate on charges of conspiring to transport undocumented aliens. The suspects are being held in a detention facility in Laredo in lieu of $75,000 bail each.
Pacheco, who had served in Europe with the Army, was awarded a Purple Heart two years ago for injuries he suffered in Iraq in 2004.
All three Guard members were assigned to Operation Jumpstart, a Bush administration initiative launched in July that deployed 6,000 National Guard troops along the Southwest border to support Border Patrol agents.
Meanwhile, one federal source confirmed there is a "very good chance" the ongoing criminal investigation could result in more arrests.
Torres, according to a federal prosecutor, was wearing a Texas National Guard uniform and driving a van leased by the National Guard when he was stopped near Cotulla on Interstate 35 North on Thursday evening. U.S. Border Patrol agents said they found 24 illegal immigrants in the van, and a federal complaint states that Torres admitted it was his seventh load. Pacheco and Hodge were arrested Friday.
Later, agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement retrieved text messages from the Guardsmen's cell phones indicating they were negotiating with smugglers about the size of the loads and when they would be delivered, according to a federal complaint filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Laredo.
Court documents say a text message Torres sent to Hodge shortly before Torres' arrest reads: "tell them Ill only do 1 run @ no more than 20 people @ $150 a person and I want to leave @1930 hours and Ill go 2 San Antonio if they want."
ICE agents said Hodges and Torres told them that Pacheco recruited and paid them for the smuggling operation.
Arrests shock families
According to documents, Pacheco allegedly sent Torres a text Thursday afternoon offering $3,500 for taking 24 people. "24 will be tuff 2 fit but ill try," Torres allegedly replied.
Hodge told ICE investigators he helped Torres get the van with the two dozen immigrants past a Border Patrol highway checkpoint. Hodge walked up to the van and made it appear they were conducting National Guard business, the complaint alleges.
Families of the Guardsmen said they were shocked by the arrests.
"My son has never done anything wrong in his life," Elvira Lerma, Torres' mother, said.
The living room of Pacheco's parents' home is plastered with family photos, many boasting the accomplishments of the young soldier in the military.
Pacheco, a 2000 graduate of Nixon High School in Laredo, served in Germany, Kosovo and Iraq over four years in the Army, his family said.
After returning home, he sought to become an officer, but in the interim decided to join the National Guard, specifically to volunteer for Operation Jumpstart and to stay in Laredo.
Pacheco told the Associated Press last year that he was excited to help the Border Patrol because other soldiers were "going back to Iraq, and I get to serve here in my hometown."
A year earlier, Pacheco was awarded the Purple Heart for injuries he sustained in Iraq.
"To me, it would be stupid to be an American hero and to destroy yourself like that," Pacheco's brother Benito said. "The guy got injured serving his country, came home a hero, and now they treat him like a criminal."
Critics of the border troop deployment, including Laredo mayor Raul C. Salinas, a retired FBI agent, said the incident shows that National Guard troops need more training.
"Before these people are sent and placed in position ... they should be given a very tough course on ethics," said Salinas.
'It's a big temptation'
T.J. Bonner, a Border Patrol agent in San Diego who is president of the 11,000-member National Border Patrol Council, said he was "not shocked" by the arrests.
"You just don't send people down there without the proper training and the proper background checks," Bonner said. "It's a big temptation. Smugglers are waiving a lot of money in the faces of these guys."
Jerry Robinette, the special agent in charge of the ICE San Antonio district, said the arrests do not signify the end of the investigation.
"It's a major priority for us, and we're going to do anything and everything we can to expeditiously bring it to an end. There's a lot of work to be done," he said.
In Austin, Texas National Guard spokesman Capt. Dick Jinks said the smuggling allegations are the first incident of this type and will not affect the border operation.
"There is no change to the mission," Jinks said.
"Of course, we are disappointed with this. But we will continue to assist and cooperate with the investigation as it goes on."
Texas Adjutant General Lt. Gen. Chuck Rodriguez said he was "extremely disappointed" to learn about the smuggling charges.
"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."
If convicted of the charges, the Guardsmen face a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
The suspects are scheduled for a June 19 preliminary hearing in U.S. court in Laredo, and also face an investigation by military authorities.