At first glance, the white van seemed full of clean-cut Marines in uniform -- not necessarily an unusual sight near the Border Patrol's desert checkpoint along Interstate 8 in eastern San Diego County.
But a plainclothes Border Patrol agent who had served in the Marine Corps wasn't fooled -- especially when the driver didn't know the birthday of the Marine Corps -- something every Marine is taught.
Another agent later noticed that passenger Jose Guadalupe Ceja Jr. didn't seem to understand English, and he and the driver both had name tags reading "Lopez."
A closer look revealed 13 of the people were actually illegal Mexican immigrants and two were suspected U.S. smugglers trying to make it through the checkpoint in camouflage fatigues.
It was a shocking new tactic even for migrant smugglers known to go to great lengths -- from stuffing illegal immigrants into the trunks of cars to transporting them in vehicles painted to look like TV news trucks and Border Patrol vans -- to dodge authorities patrolling the border.
Mexican smugglers often don that country's military uniforms to try to get their illegal loads past authorities. In a 2006 incident that strained U.S.-Mexico relations, traffickers dressed as Mexican soldiers crossed the Rio Grande and were seen helping suspected drug smugglers elude U.S. law enforcement during a chase.
But the use of Marine disguises appears to be one of the first cases of smugglers and immigrants posing as U.S. military.
Former Marine Capt. David Danelo, a senior fellow at Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia who has authored a book about the U.S.-Mexico border, says smugglers had the unfortunate luck of running into well-trained Border Patrol agents with military experience.