At the Colombia-Panama border, where migrants wait to make their way through the dense and sometimes deadly jungle of the Darien Gap, Americans from the Department of Homeland Security team up with the Colombian National Police to arrest the smugglers before they can lead migrants north.
Migrants camp along the beaches of this verdant isthmus, where South America becomes Central America, and must choose between following human traffickers into the nearly roadless forest or paying a higher fee to cross the bright blue waters of the Caribbean.
Earlier this month, an NBC News crew flew over the jungle in a Blackhawk helicopter with Colonel Oscar Cortes of the Colombian National Police, as he laid out a map and showed routes that migrants and their traffickers can take . We were embedded with Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, in Colombia, which worked with local law enforcement to identify and capture three leaders of an international smuggling ring.
Although undocumented migration is not illegal in Colombia, it is illegal to exploit migrants by charging them to travel through and out of Colombia. While we were on board, one of these three suspected leaders was arrested near Necoclí, Colombia, and taken back to a base paid for by the US government. From there, he will be tried for smuggling into Colombia and could be extradited to the United States.
The mission is part of a global strategy by HSI, the investigative arm of DHS that works to stop the trafficking of drugs, weapons and migrants before they reach the United States.
This year alone, HSI has trained, equipped and provided intelligence to law enforcement agencies in 14 countries, leading to more than 3,800 arrests, an agency spokeswoman said.
In Colombia alone, HSI worked with local law enforcement to arrest 42 suspected smugglers and 210 drug-related crime suspects. They also seized more than 16,400 pounds of cocaine in Colombia in the last fiscal year, the spokeswoman said.
Internally, the Biden administration attributed the operations to a dent in the overall flow of migrants and drugs to the United States, according to documents obtained by NBC News this summer.
Yet more than 70,000 pounds of cocaine ended up in the United States during the same period, and Colombia continues to be one of the top five producers of illegal drugs in the world.
Although attempts to cross the U.S.-Mexico border by undocumented migrants have reached an all-time high over the past year, HSI officials believe the numbers could be higher without their work with U.S. forces. Western Hemisphere Order. As transnational criminal organizations become more sophisticated using new smuggling routes, cryptocurrency and other methods to conceal their activity, HSI officials say they are looking to expand programs like the Colombia Partnership to share information between countries.
“It’s a constant game of cat and mouse because if they think we’re on to them, they’ll move their ways into illicit routes into the United States,” said Anthony Salisbury, deputy director of HSI.
It can also be a mole swipe game.
Brian Vicente, the head of HSI in Colombia, said after the arrest of the three alleged smugglers: “This is an organization that has been dismantled, disrupted and dismantled”.
“Will others appear? Maybe, but not this one,” he said.
Colombia has agreed to work closely with US law enforcement.
Major Nicolas Berrio of the Colombian National Police told NBC News that he appreciates the training offered to Colombians working with HSI and the intelligence provided by its American partners. Ultimately, he says, Americans and Colombians need each other to stop international criminals.
“Agents from the United States have no jurisdiction in our country, so they have to work with us as a team,” Berrio said. “We can get evidence from American agents and we can give them that information so to get all [these] bad people.”
Berrio spoke just after his officers stormed a Medellin apartment and arrested two suspects from an international drug syndicate. Officers alleged the chef imported drugs like ketamine from Argentina via vets in Colombia. From there, the drugs were broken down and sent to Miami. While the alleged leader was arrested in his apartment, other officers across town raided a lab they believe the leader ran in and found over 650 vials of ketamine.
David Paredes contributed.