Authorities break up international migrant smuggling ring in Central America

(Credit: BMiz/Flickr)

Authorities detained 29 people across Central America last week for their involvement in a human smuggling network. These days, the migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border are mostly from Central America – but the victims of this smuggling ring were migrants from countries across Africa and Asia.

Guatemalan authorities arrested the alleged ringleader, Luis Leonardo Mejía Pasapera, alias “Leo,” along with eight other suspects, while the remaining 20 were detained in El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama, Insight Crime reported.

The coordinated raids took place on June 28 as part of “Operation Mesoamerica,” in which authorities from the U.S., Mexico and multiple other Latin American states worked to dismantle the network.

Costa Rican General Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría said the operation is likely the most important anti-human-trafficking operation in the continent in recent years. “This operation demonstrated that Central American countries have the ability to work together,” he said at a press conference.

The smuggling ring mainly transported migrants of Asian or African nationalities – predominantly from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Bangladesh and Nepal – seeking passage into the United States.

These migrants gathered in Dubai, according to investigators, where they were provided with documentation to enter Brazil. There, they boarded planes to Colombia before entering Panama by land. The network then smuggled the migrants through Central America, using either Pacific or Atlantic sea routes.

Upon reaching Mexico, criminal groups used the migrants as mules to smuggle drugs into the United States, according to Chavarría.

Officials said the entire route cost each migrant an amount ranging from $7,000 to $25,000.

In a news conference, Guatemala’s Secretary General of the Public Ministry Mayra Véliz said the investigation into the smuggling network began in March 2015 based on information from the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. The network was well-organized and capable of smuggling up to 150 people at a time, she said, adding that during the course of the investigation, 75 people were rescued.

The Costa Rican Director of Migration Gladys Jiménez said the operation was “a very hard hit” to human trafficking organizations and stressed the necessity of not criminalizing migrants, who are victims of the situation.

Migrants from Central America still make up the majority of those who fall victim to smugglers, who are finding increasingly creative ways of trafficking Central American migrants through Mexico to the U.S. border. Earlier this month, a group of human traffickers was apprehended in northern Mexico, smuggling Central American migrants in cars registered with the Uber ride-hailing service.

To avoid deportation, migrants are now also seeking out new, hidden routes by foot or public transit. But by avoiding the authorities, the migrants are becoming less visible, Reuters reported, putting them at even greater risk of being trafficked.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com