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April 27, 2023San Diego, CA, United StatesNarcotics

Former service member sentenced to 12 years for conspiring to smuggle drugs into the US

SAN DIEGO — A former Marine received a 12-year prison sentence for his role in trafficking illegal drugs into the United States.

San Diego resident Roberto Salazar II, 26, who until his arrest was an active-duty U.S. Marine stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California, was sentenced in federal court April 21, to 144 months in prison for his role in a years-long drug importation and distribution conspiracy that involved dozens of smuggling events.

Salazar pleaded guilty in October 2022 to conspiring to distribute controlled substances, including heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine and fentanyl, and to importing fentanyl into the United States from Mexico. According to his plea agreement, Salazar recruited, managed and paid multiple drug couriers — both before he joined the Marine Corps and while he was on active duty. He also personally distributed controlled substances within the United States.

According to court documents, Salazar and his co-conspirators favored the use of specific model cars with unique engine compartments that they used to conceal and import drugs. Salazar helped obtain these cars and delivered them to a business in Mexico, where couriers were directed to retrieve the drug-laden cars and drive them across the border.

By the time Salazar and his co-defendants were arrested, according to prosecutors, Salazar had become so involved in drug trafficking that he was commissioning a Mexican songwriter to write a drug ballad known as a “narcocorrido” about him. Information gathered from Salazar’s seized cell phones showed he was in communication with a Mexican songwriter about writing music and lyrics celebrating his role in drug trafficking, including references to his military service. In one line that Salazar suggested to the songwriter, he boasted, “I wanted to study and became a soldier, but I liked the fast life better.”

Among the individuals Salazar personally recruited were two former service members who had recently been discharged from the Marine Corps at the time Salazar recruited them. Salazar directed these individuals’ activities and paid them $2,000 each time they successfully imported drugs. Several of the drug couriers who worked for Salazar or his co-conspirators, including one of the former Marines Salazar recruited, were caught at the border by Customs and Border Protection officers and charged with importing controlled substances. In another failed attempt to deliver drugs in Las Vegas, one of Salazar’s co-conspirators abandoned a kilogram of heroin on a grocery store shelf and fled from law enforcement.

“While disheartened by an individual who hid in the ranks of our prestigious U.S. military, this should serve as a warning to any would-be narcotics smugglers that you cannot hide your nefarious crimes and you will be held accountable,” said Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) San Diego Special Agent in Charge Chad Plantz. “Today’s sentencing is a result of ongoing HSI investigation, in collaboration with our law enforcement partners, to disrupt and dismantle transnational criminal organizations and their importation of deadly narcotics into the U.S.”

“This case involved a Marine who was supposed to protect and defend our country, but instead brought great harm to Americans by trafficking fentanyl and other dangerous drugs,” said U.S. Attorney Randy Grossman. “He also betrayed his solemn oath by recruiting other Marines to do the same. Through this case, the defendant has been held to account for his crimes and we have dismantled yet another link in the supply chain for the deadly narcotics that are indiscriminately killing members of our community.” Grossman thanked the prosecution team, HSI, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) for their outstanding work on this case.

“Mr. Salazar betrayed his oath to the Marine Corps and posed a significant threat to our national security by participating in an illegal operation to smuggle fentanyl into the United States,” said Special Agent in Charge Todd Battaglia of the NCIS Marine Corps West Field Office. “NCIS and our partners remain committed to fully investigating all allegations of criminality within the ranks that threaten military readiness and jeopardize the safety of our community members.”

"Through his actions, Mr. Salazar violated his duty as a Marine, dishonored the public's trust and promoted conditions that endangered the safety of the people,” said Director of Field Operations Sidney K. Aki of CBP’s San Diego Field Office. “National security efforts, which include narcotics interdictions, must remain our primary focus. Today’s sentencing is a clear indication of the strong partnership that continues in San Diego between federal agencies.”

HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of more than 8,700 employees consists of more than 6,000 special agents assigned to 237 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.