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Worse Than We Thought: 18 Camp Pendleton Marines And One Sailor Are In Custody For Alleged Drug Crimes And Human Smuggling

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The main gate of Camp Pendleton Marine Base in a 2013 file photo. An investigation by the military led to the arrest of 16 Marines Thursday. (Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press)
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Updated Friday at 1:20 PM:

Navy law enforcement has revised the number of apprehensions of Camp Pendleton Marines caught up in Thursday's crackdown on possible drug crimes and allegedly taking cash to transport undocumented immigrants.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) said in a statement 18 Marines and one Navy sailor were picked up "in relation to an ongoing investigation into allegations of human smuggling and drug-related offenses."

"NCIS is dedicated to investigating allegations of criminal activity that poses threats to Department of the Navy readiness and the safety of U.S. citizens," said NCIS spokesman Patrick Barnes.

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"Out of respect for the investigative and judicial process, and to protect witnesses, NCIS will not comment further until the investigative and judicial process has completed," Barnes added.

Most of the Marines were taken into custody at Camp Pendleton, the major Marine Corps base near Oceanside.

The 1st Marine Division called the operation a "mass arrest" and said it stemmed from the July 3rd arrest of two members of the corps.

Here's what we know so far.

How The Arrests Went Down

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It was highly visible display of discipline: NCIS took the majority of the Marines into custody during a morning battalion formation at a parade deck. The entire unit was there to see, a Camp Pendleton official said. Another eight Marines were pulled aside for questioning. The final two Marines and one sailor were not present at formation, but were apprehended later.

"[The Marines] were arrested for alleged involvement in various illegal activities ranging from human smuggling to drug-related offenses," a statement said.

The 19 are in the same unit as two Marine lance corporals busted by Border Patrol earlier this month.

Byron Law II and David Javier Salazar-Quintero were about 20 miles from the Tecate port of entry with three Mexican nationals in their car when they were arrested on July 3. The two are now facing federal charges for transporting unauthorized immigrants for financial gain.

As investigators dug into Law and Salazar-Quintero's case, more Marines came under scrutiny -- and that led to Thursday's arrests.

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"Based on the NCIS investigation of that particular case, these names came up in connection," said Major Kendra Motz with the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton.

What We Know About The July 3 Arrests

According to a complaint filed in federal court, Border Patrol agents were tracking footprints they believed were tied to migrants trying to enter the U.S. illegally when they spotted a "small black car pull over on a dirt turnaround."

Agents then reported they found footprints near where they spotted the car stopped. A short time later, they pulled over a vehicle matching the description. That's when they discovered Law, Salazar-Quintero and three other individuals who lacked documentation to be in the U.S.

The complaint, obtained by our friends at KPBS in San Diego, goes on to say Salazar-Quintero admitted it was not the first time he had picked up migrants in the area for the promise of payment.

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According to the complaint, the Mexican nationals also apprehended that day told authorities they'd paid $8,000 to be smuggled into the United States.

What We Know About Mass Arrests

Like Salazar-Quintero and Law, those arrested are from 1st Battalion 5th Marine Regiment. Their ranks range from Private 1st Class through Corporal.

"Usually for those rank ranges the ages are about 18 to 22, generally speaking," Motz said.

Although some members of the U.S. military have been assigned to assist with border enforcement operations, "[n]one of the Marines arrested or detained for questioning served in support of the Southwest Border Support mission," according to the 1st Marine Division statement.

Investigators are looking into any possible links to organized crime or drug cartels. "That's also part of the investigation. Those questions are being asked in the proper channels," Motz said.

What's Next

The Marines arrested on Thursday have not been charged.

"If it's found that a Marine does not meet the high standards that we set for them, then they'll be held accountable," Motz said.

For now, the investigation is in the hands of NCIS. That agency will prepare its findings in a report for Marine Corps leadership.

There are several possible outcomes -- both inside and outside the judicial system -- depending on the results of the investigation. The 18 Marines and one sailor could face Non-Judicial Punishment handed down by military commanders, which would not constitute a criminal conviction or lead to a court martial.

The arrests come just two weeks after a new four-star general, David H. Berger, took charge of the Marine Corps. Berger is a former leader at Camp Pendleton -- from 2014 to 2016, he was in charge of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force at the base North of San Diego. Prior to that he deployed to Afghanistan commanding the 1st Marine Division in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

"I believe in my soul Marines are different. We are not like everybody else. And the Marine Corps is not like every other organization," Berger said at his July 11 change of command ceremony, according to a report by the U.S. Naval Institute. "I think we are not defined by our equipment or our vehicles or our planes or anything else. I think our identity, in our soul, our identity is firmly rooted in our warrior ethos."

Another Military Case In The Headlines

While it waits for the results of the NCIS investigation, the Pentagon has another major disciplinary issue on its hands: a platoon of Navy SEALs was yanked back to San Diego this week for misconduct during deployment in Iraq.

The SEALs were sent home for drinking and an alleged sexual assault of a female service member, the Washington Post reports.

"The Commander lost confidence in the team's ability to accomplish the mission," said a statement from U.S. Special Operations Command. "Commanders have worked to mitigate the operational impact as this SEAL platoon follows a deliberate redeployment."

UPDATES:

July 26, 1:20 p.m.: This story was updated with an NCIS statement uodating the number of people arrested Thursday.

July 27, 12:30 p.m.: This story was updated with additional information about the July 3 arrests.

This article was originally published at July 25 at 8:15 p.m.