Authorities in Colombia have broken up a human smuggling ring that transported Nepalese and Bangladeshi migrants into Central America, highlighting the apparent growth in illegal South Asian migrants passing through Latin America on their way northwards.
The operation was discovered after investigators from Colombia’s Attorney General’s Office uncovered nine migrants -- most from Nepal or Bangladesh -- hidden in a house in the Caribbean coastal city of Turbo. The investigation led to the arrest of 18 people, reported El Tiempo.
It is thought the migrants were most likely on their way to the United States, via Central America and Mexico. Turbo is close to the Darien Gap, a treacherous jungle region between Colombia and Panama, which has emerged as a popular route with migrants due to the lack of state presence.
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News of South Asian migrants passing through Colombia is not new; reports have been increasingly commonplace in local media in recent years, with a recent investigation by El Tiempo highlighting the "wave" of South Asians using the Darien to evade the authorities.
Yet passing through this inhospitable jungle zone carries its own risks. The area is a guerrilla stronghold and extremely difficult to navigate. The Colombian Army has stated that the 57th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which dominates the region, is charging migrants money to pass through and may be guiding them on their journey.
According to the El Tiempo investigation, South Asian migrants often arrive in Brazil, where they do not require a visa, before passing through either Venezuela or Ecuador. Due to the challenging terrain they must pass through to arrive in Colombia undetected, migrants often rely on "coyotes" -- people who charge thousands of dollars to act as guides.
Cubans still make up the largest illegal migrant group passing through Colombia, representing 45 percent of the 1,079 migrants detained by immigration authorities over thel last 18 months. However, the influx of South Asians is a rising phenomenon, with El Tiempo reporting the discovery of 27 Nepalese and 19 Bangladeshis in the first four months of this year, compared to 49 and 30 respectively for the entire of 2012.