Two U.S. soldiers were charged on Tuesday with attempting to smuggle a pair of illegal immigrants through a border patrol station near the U.S.-Mexico border on Sunday.
According to a legal complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, U.S. Army soldier Ralph Gregory Saint-Joie, 18, and Pennsylvania National Guardsman Emmanuel Oppongagyare, 20, were caught attempting to bring two Mexican nationals with them as they crossed into the U.S. at the Hebbronville Border Patrol Station on June 13.
Oppongagyare and Saint-Joie were both stationed at Fort Hood, Texas at the time of their arrests, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
According to the complaint, Oppongagyaye was driving a black sedan and Saint-Joie sat in the passenger seat. The two were wearing their U.S. Army Operational Camouflage Pattern (OCP) uniforms as they approached the U.S. border. The vehicle reportedly approached the border station at a “high rate of speed” before coming to an abrupt stop and loud music was playing.
A Border Patrol agent asked the pair to lower the volume of the music and asked Oppongagyare where he was traveling to. When Oppongagyare, a dual citizen of Ghana and the U.S., said he was travelling to San Antonio, the border agent asked about his route of approach, to which Oppongagyare responded that he was simply following the route his GPS set out for him to get there. The legal complaint stated GPS directions are a common explanation used by smugglers to justify their unusual routes of travel to San Antonio in particular. Based on Oppongagyare’s answers, the border agent directed the vehicle to a secondary inspection site.
During the secondary inspection of the car, the two service members were observed talking to one another in low toned voices and avoiding eye contact with border agents. Upon a further inspection of the vehicle, border agents found two Mexican nationals in the trunk in cramped positions.
Upon the discovery of the two Mexican nationals, Oppongagyare said he was approached by an individual who he met through Saint-Joie to pick up undocumented aliens (UDAs) in McAllen, Texas and take them to San Antonio. Oppongagyare said he was paid $100 from the start and that the individual promised to pay Oppongagyare and Saint-Joie an undetermined amount of money when they arrived in San Antonio. Oppongagyare also said they were specifically instructed they wear their Army uniforms to avoid questioning by border agents.
According to the legal complaint, the two Mexican nationals Francisco Sanchez-Hernandez and Diana Lizeth Andres-Ochoa admitted to being in the U.S. illegally and agreed to serve as material witnesses in the case against Oppongagyare and Saint-Joie.
In a statement on Tuesday, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Texas said the two soldiers face up to 10 years in federal prison and a possible $250,000 maximum fine if convicted.
Thousands of U.S. service members have been deployed along the U.S. southern border in recent years to assist Department of Homeland Security (DHS) efforts to secure the southern border. U.S. troops have primarily helped with detection and monitoring of border crossing efforts, logistics, and transportation support for U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP).
Brad Rhen, the deputy state public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania National Guard told the Washington Examiner that Oppongagyare was off duty at the time of the arrest. Rhen confirmed they Guard will cooperate with investigations of the incident.
Oppongagyare and Saint-Joie aren’t the first U.S. service members to have been charged in connection with border smuggling efforts since U.S. troops first began deploying along the southern border.
In July 2019, two U.S. Marines were stopped seven miles from the U.S. border with three Mexican nationals in their vehicle.
Later in July 2019, 15 Marines at Camp Pendleton, Calif. were arrested while standing in formation, on charges they participated in a cross-border smuggling ring during a border deployment. The videotaped arrest of the Marines, as they stood in formation, garnered heightened attention at the time.