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Colombia Navy Members Arrested for Smuggling Migrants


Colombia Smuggling Migrants
A Family of Migrants Credit: Santiago Valenzuela/MSF

In Colombia, a major operation against illegal migrant smuggling has led to the arrest of 24 individuals, including five active members of the National Navy. This operation, supported by the HSI ICE Group of the United States and the Colombian Aerospace Forces (FAC), spanned several cities, including Bucaramanga, San Andrés, Maicao, Coveñas, Cartagena, and Necoclí.

Operation Against Migrant Smuggling Network

The network, known as “The Agency,” facilitated the illegal migration of people to the USA, Canada, and Australia, employing two primary methods. The first involved processing incorrect paperwork for leaving the country, while the second exploited the notorious Darien Gap. In Saint Andrew, the network charged $1,500 for travel to Central America and then to the United States, offering what the Attorney General’s Office termed a “VIP package” for more convenient transit compared to the perilous Darien Gap route.

The investigation, initiated by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in the Santander department, revealed a structured organization where three women allegedly managed visas. The naval officers and non-commissioned officers arrested were involved in bypassing maritime signal controls and alerting the network to the location of ships, receiving bribes ranging from 3 to 10 million pesos. Additionally, a Colombian immigration officer was implicated for demanding money to stamp passports.

The accused face charges including conspiracy to commit a crime, migrant trafficking, bribery, and money laundering. Additional charges include espionage and felony for intimidating an immigration officer in San Andrés. The two-year investigation involved 48 operations with undercover agents, leading to the interception of 42 cell phones.

This operation highlights the ongoing challenges faced by Colombian authorities in combating illegal migrant smuggling and the complex networks that facilitate these activities.

The Perilous Journey Through the Darién Gap

In a related development, the perilous journey of migrants through the Darién Gap, a 100-kilometer stretch of wilderness between Colombia and Panama, has reached alarming levels. In 2023 alone, 500,000 migrants, including children, pregnant women, and elderly people, have made this treacherous journey, often facing extreme dangers without any protection or assistance.

The Darién Gap is known for its harsh conditions, where migrants face risks such as falls, drowning, and violence from criminal gangs. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) has reported that migrants traveling through Latin America are extremely vulnerable, exposed to hunger, lack of accommodation, misinformation, scams, xenophobia, and physical, psychological, and sexual violence.

The journey often begins far from the Darién Gap, with many migrants traveling from countries like Venezuela, Haiti, China, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Cameroon, and Burkina Faso. They face limited assistance throughout Latin America, with shelters in Colombia accommodating only a fraction of the migrants, leaving many to sleep in the streets or public parks.

The dangers intensify upon entering the Darién Gap. Migrants encounter dead bodies, face robbery, kidnapping, and extortion. Women are particularly vulnerable to sexual violence. Despite the presence of some aid agencies on the Colombian side of the Darién Gap and in reception centers set up by the Panamanian government, the assistance available is vastly insufficient for the number of people making the journey.

Call for Global Response and Safe Migration Routes

MSF has called on governments of countries through which migrants pass to coordinate efforts to ensure safe routes and access to basic services for people on the move. The humanitarian crisis in the Darién Gap requires a global response, highlighting the need for increased attention and resources to address the plight of migrants in this perilous journey.

The situation in Colombia, with the recent crackdown on illegal migrant smuggling and the ongoing crisis in the Darién Gap, underscores the complex challenges facing migrants and the authorities attempting to manage these migration flows. It calls for a coordinated, comprehensive approach to ensure the safety and well-being of migrants, while addressing the root causes and mechanisms of illegal migration.

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