LAREDO, Texas — Sgt. Julio Cesar Pacheco was a changed man when he came home from a tour in Iraq.
"To me he looked different," his big brother, Benito Pacheco, told The Associated Press this week. "When he came back he said, 'The Army changed me, brother.' The kid in him ended and now the man came out."
The younger Pacheco, who earned a Purple Heart, couldn't find a job when got home, so he joined the Texas National Guard. He volunteered when President Bush ordered Guardsmen to the border to help the Border Patrol stop illegal immigrants.
"I'm very lucky because they're going back to Iraq and I get to serve here in my hometown," he told the AP before his deployment.
Pacheco, 25, the father of a newborn daughter, is the alleged ringleader among three Texas National Guard soldiers accused of conspiring to smuggle more than 100 illegal immigrants past a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint they were assigned to monitor.
"He's not that type of person," Benito Pacheco said. "It's not in his character. It's not him. There's no badness, no evilness in him."
His kid brother was committed to being a soldier and fulfilling his duties, Benito Pacheco said, citing his brother's commendation for helping his fellow soldiers during an attack at their base in Iraq.
"He didn't care about his life, he cared about his comrades, his duty," Benito Pacheco said.
But federal investigators say Julio Pacheco recruited Sgt. Clarence Hodge Jr., 36, of Houston, and Pfc. Jose Rodrigo Torres, 26, of Laredo, to help with the smuggling ring. Torres was arrested after a van he was driving with 24 illegal immigrants inside was stopped along Interstate 35 about 65 miles north of Laredo near Cotulla. He cited Hodge and Pacheco as his cohorts.
Torres detailed the plot after his June 7 arrest and investigators found a series of cell phone text messages in which the soldiers planned several smuggling runs that successfully delivered 88 immigrants and covered more than 1,200 miles in eight trips among Laredo, Cotulla and San Antonio.
Hodge, who is accused of waving Torres' van through the I-35 checkpoint in May and June, also pointed the finger at Pacheco, records show.
Pacheco, Torres and Hodge have pleaded not guilty.
Pacheco's brother also defended Hodge, an old flag-football buddy.
"He planned to retire in September," he said of Hodge. "For him to just wash it all away, just to make $100? I don't think so."
Torres is accused of earning between $1,000 and $3,500 for smuggling immigrants across. It's not clear how much Pacheco and Hodge are alleged to have earned or who paid them.
Though prosecutors have detailed eight smuggling trips from May 15 to June 7 — each allegedly started with Julio Pacheco contacting Torres and directing him to a house in Laredo while Hodge later waved the National Guard van through the I-35 checkpoint — they have not identified a specific motive.
Benito Pacheco said he didn't know any of any financial trouble his brother was having, and in fact had saved enough money during his active-duty Army career to buy a doublewide trailer with his wife, from whom he is separated. And if he did need money, the Pacheco family would have been more than willing to help, Benito Pacheco said.
Benito Pacheco said he believes his brother would have turned in anyone who approached him to help smuggle immigrants.
"He has a real good job," Benito Pacheco said. "Especially when his ... dream is to become a Border Patrol agent. That's ironic, that's dumb. To have big dreams and to squash them ... I don't think that's going to happen. That's not him."
All three soldiers remain jailed in Laredo and are scheduled to stand trial in August.