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Human Smuggling/Trafficking

First of 3 Texas National Guardsmen sentenced to 3 years for alien smuggling

The Guardsmen smuggled as many as 100 illegal aliens through the Laredo checkpoint

LAREDO, Texas - One of the three Texas National Guardsmen convicted of conspiracy to transport illegal aliens was sentenced here on Friday to more than three years in prison. This announcement was made by U.S. Attorney Don DeGabrielle, Southern District of Texas. This case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Clarence Hodge Jr., 36, of Fort Worth, Texas, was sentenced to 38 months in federal prison. Hodge was a sergeant in the Texas National Guard assigned to "Operation Jumpstart." Jumpstart is a presidential initiative designed to support U.S. Customs and Border Protection along the southern border to detect and apprehend illegal aliens entering the country. At Friday's hearing before U.S. District Judge George P. Kazen, Hodge tearfully apologized to the court admitting that by his actions he embarrassed both his family and the military. During Judge Kazen's announcement, she remarked that it was a sad day.

Jerry Zuniga, 29, of Laredo, was also sentenced Friday to three years imprisonment; he will also serve a three-year-term of supervised release.

Hodge and Zuniga, along with co-defendant guardsmen, Jose Rodrigo Torres and Julio Cesar Pacheco, all pleaded guilty in August 2007 to conspiracy to transport illegal aliens on various dates between May 2007 and June 7, 2007. Torres and Pacheco have not yet been sentenced.

Hodge admitted to his involvement with Torres and Pacheco in what Judge Kazen termed a "sophisticated" smuggling operation uncovered June 7 when Torres was arrested after having driven through the Interstate Highway-35 Border Patrol checkpoint north of Laredo. Twenty-four illegal aliens were discovered in the Guard-leased passenger van. The ICE investigation revealed that the smuggling operation began when Hodge and Torres were recruited by Pacheco in moving aliens through the IH-35 checkpoint, where all three guardsmen were assigned to assist Border Patrol agents.

The investigation further revealed that Pacheco instructed Torres via cell phone and text messaging that aliens were ready for pick up at a local Laredo residence; then they were to be transported through specific areas north of Laredo and the checkpoint. According to ICE, the residence used to stage these aliens belonged to Zuniga.

During each smuggling event, Hodge pretended to conduct National Guardsmen business with Torres. Whenever Torres approached the checkpoint's service lane driving a van with illegal aliens, Hodge facilitated the van's passage through the checkpoint without an immigration inspection. Hodge also assisted in acquiring the National Guard leased-van for Torres to transport illegal aliens on June 7. In addition to using his residence to harbor aliens before transport, Zuniga also drove a counter-surveillance vehicle along IH-35 and directed guardsman Torres to the drop off location north of the checkpoint.

After reviewing the facts, Judge Kazen heard from Hodge and his family about the defendant's personal circumstances. In addition, Judge Kazen also heard from the government on the negative impact caused by the defendants' illegal scheme, and its ripple effect on the Texas National Guard's Operation Jumpstart mission and purpose along the Texas-Mexico border.

In sentencing Hodge to 38 months in prison without the possibility of parole, Judge Kazen took into account Hodge's abuse of his position of trust in effecting the successful undetected passage of more than 100 illegal aliens through the checkpoint. In addition to his term of imprisonment, Hodge was sentenced to a term of three years of supervised release after he's released by the Bureau of Prisons. In lieu of a fine, Judge Kazen further ordered Hodge to perform 120 hours of community service. The sentence is final since Hodge waived all appeals. Zuniga was given a term of 36 months imprisonment and will also serve a three-year-term of supervised release.

Assistant U.S. Attorneys Mary Ellen Smyth and Diana Song, Southern district of Texas, Laredo Division, prosecuted this case.