HomeNewsAnalysisCentAm Authorities Break Up Massive Migrant Smuggling Ring
ANALYSIS

CentAm Authorities Break Up Massive Migrant Smuggling Ring

GUATEMALA / 30 JUN 2016 BY DAVID GAGNE EN

Authorities across Central America have dismantled a migrant smuggling network that spanned from Brazil to Mexico, a remarkable sting operation that comes amid heightened US concerns of potential terrorists using these networks to illegally enter the United States.  

Twenty-nine alleged members of the network were captured in El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama during coordinated raids on June 28 as part of "Operation Mesoamerica," reported Prensa Libre. Guatemalan authorities arrested the alleged ringleader, Luis Leonardo Mejía Pasapera, alias "Leo," along with eight other suspects. Twelve individuals were detained in Panama, five in Honduras, two in Costa Rica, and one in El Salvador, according to Guatemala's Public Ministry (as the Attorney General's Office is known there). One of the leaders of the smuggling network was arrested last week in Brazil.

Many of the migrants were of Asian or African nationalities looking for passage into the United States. The trafficking network gathered migrants in Dubai, according to investigators, where they were provided with documentation to enter Brazil. Once in Brazil, the migrants traveled by plane to Colombia before entering Panama by land. The network then smuggled the migrants through Central America, using either Pacific or Atlantic sea routes.  

When the migrants arrived in Mexico, criminal groups used them as mules to smuggle drugs into the United States, according to Costa Rica's attorney general, Jorge Chavarría. Prensa Libre reported the smuggling ring charged each migrant between $7,000 and $25,000 for the journey.

Guatemala's Secretary General of the Public Ministry, Mayra Véliz, said the network was well-organized and capable of smuggling up to 150 migrants at a time.

"It is perhaps the most powerful migrant trafficking organization in the region," said Mauricio Boraschi, a prosecutor in Costa Rica investigating organized crime.

Véliz said the investigation into the smuggling network began in March 2015 based on information from the US Embassy in Guatemala. US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) supported the operation that led to the arrest in El Salvador, reported La Prensa Gráfica.

Guatemalan authorities said there are still suspected operatives who have yet to be detained. 

InSight Crime Analysis 

As of now, it is unclear what role US authorities played in either coordinating or assisting in Operation Mesoamerica. The only information that has been reported so far is that the US Embassy in Guatemala alerted local authorities to the existence of the migrant smuggling network in early 2015, and that ICE provided support to the operation in El Salvador. Repeated attempts by InSight Crime to reach the US Embassy in Guatemala's press office were unsuccessful.

Some US officials familiar with the issue are concerned migrant smuggling networks may be aiding potential terrorists illegally enter the United States. Under this pretext, the smuggling networks vault from an illegal immigration issue to a national security issue for US authorities. However, almost 15 years after September 11, there is no indication terrorists have illegally entered the United States from Latin America. And evidence of an overarching terrorist-organized crime nexus in the region remains scarce

Although these fears originate from the events of September 11, 2001, there may be heightened attention on this issue now for a couple of reasons. First, the huge influx of Central American migrants into the United States could be making the US southern border increasingly vulnerable. A US border patrol agent told the Arizona Republic last November that he fears criminal groups could smuggle potential terrorists across the border while a distracted US force is busy rounding up and deporting migrants. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Human Smuggling 

Second, a high-ranking US official has suggested potential terrorists would prefer entering the US via smuggling networks rather than by legal means. While some US politicians oppose receiving Syrian refugees because they fear terrorists could be camouflaged as asylum-seekers, others say terrorists have quicker and less risky alternatives. 

"Frankly, if I came with a clear intent to do harm in this country, I don’t think that I would choose the route of entering here and asking for refugee status or asking for refugee status overseas," US Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske told the Arizona Republic.

Finally, such concerns are likely fueled by reports of links between Middle Eastern terrorist groups and Latin American organized crime. There have been periodic warnings over the years about Hezbollah's growing influence in the region, and the threat it poses to the United States, though hard evidence of that threat has not materialized. 

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

ELITES AND CRIME / 5 FEB 2020

The Rocky theme music played as the mayor entered the boxing ring, perhaps in the hope that he would gain…

EL SALVADOR / 6 DEC 2016

Criminal groups are stealing commercial shipments transiting Central America's Northern Triangle, illustrating how insecurity in the region is negatively impacting…

EXTORTION / 4 JAN 2011

At least six people died and another dozen were wounded after a bomb exploded on a public bus on Monday…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

Who Are Memo Fantasma and Sergio Roberto de Carvalho?

24 JUN 2022

Inside the criminal career of Memo Fantasma  In March 2020, InSight Crime revealed the identity and whereabouts of Memo Fantasma, a paramilitary commander and drug trafficker living in…

THE ORGANIZATION

Environmental and Academic Praise

17 JUN 2022

InSight Crime’s six-part series on the plunder of the Peruvian Amazon continues to inform the debate on environmental security in the region. Our Environmental Crimes Project Manager, María Fernanda Ramírez,…

LA ORGANIZACIÓN

Series on Plunder of Peru’s Amazon Makes Headlines

10 JUN 2022

Since launching on June 2, InSight Crime’s six-part series on environmental crime in Peru’s Amazon has been well-received. Detailing the shocking impunity enjoyed by those plundering the rainforest, the investigation…

THE ORGANIZATION

Duarte’s Death Makes Waves

3 JUN 2022

The announcement of the death of Gentil Duarte, one of the top dissident commanders of the defunct Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), continues to reverberate in Venezuela and Colombia.

THE ORGANIZATION

Cattle Trafficking Acclaim, Investigation into Peru’s Amazon 

27 MAY 2022

On May 18, InSight Crime launched its most recent investigation into cattle trafficking between Central America and Mexico. It showed precisely how beef, illicitly produced in Honduras, Guatemala…