Reporting from San Diego — The illegal immigrants donned Marine Corps camouflage uniforms and military-style buzz cuts. The license plates on their van had been switched from Mexican to U.S. government plates. If anyone asked, they were Marines traveling to March Air Reserve Base.
But their ploy didn't take into account the possibility of being stopped by a U.S. Border Patrol agent who was a former Marine armed with a simple question. The agent, S. Smith, asked the driver to tell him the birthday of the Marine Corps. The driver, Arturo Leyva, didn't know.
Border Patrol Agent "Smith knows the [Marine Corps] birthday is one of the first things taught to all Marines in basic training. At that time, BPA Smith knew Leyva's claim of being a U.S. Marine was false," according to a criminal complaint from a smuggling case filed last week in federal court.
On the night of March 14, Border Patrol agents arrested 13 illegal immigrants, Leyva and another suspected smuggler, Jose Guadalupe Ceja Jr., in one of the more elaborately flawed smuggling attempts in recent memory along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Smugglers and illegal immigrants have a long history of traveling in disguise. They have painted their vans to look like Border Patrol or public utility vehicles. Immigrants wearing hard hats have posed as highway workers or government contractors.
Last week's scheme was aimed at slipping the illegal immigrants under the noses of Border Patrol agents who are accustomed to waving through Marines traveling through the Interstate 8 checkpoint about 55 miles east of San Diego.
The smugglers gathered the illegal immigrants at a trailer park in the Imperial County town of Seely. The immigrants had already crossed the border, but needed to be transported to the Los Angeles area, which meant getting through the Border Patrol checkpoint.
The immigrants were ordered to change out of their clothing and into the military garb and caps, according to a statement Leyva gave to agents. The younger immigrants were told to sit toward the front of the van and they took off on Interstate 8.
The van drew suspicion the moment it passed by Smith, a plainclothes agent who is part of an anti-smuggling team that patrols in unmarked vehicles. The government license plate on the van, he noticed, appeared to be altered.
When he and other agents stopped the vehicle and peeked inside, they noticed that the group was wearing camouflage uniforms of different shades. The uniforms of Leyva and Ceja were both marked with the name "Lopez."
After Leyva failed to answer the question about the birthday of the Marine Corps, the plot quickly unraveled.
When an agent asked Ceja, the other suspected smuggler, what unit he was in, he didn't answer. Do you speak English, the agent asked. "No. Not good," Ceja answered.
As for the immigrants in the back, they didn't even try to fool the agents. When asked for their citizenship, they all admitted they were Mexican. And none offered an answer to the simple question for any real Marine: Nov. 10, 1775, the birthday of the Marine Corps.