On the Colombia-Panama border, where migrants wait to fight their way through the dense and sometimes deadly jungle of the Darien Gap, Americans from the Department of Homeland Security join forces with the Colombian National Police to take down drug traffickers. people before they can lead migrants north.
Camping along the beaches of this verdant isthmus, where South America becomes Central America, migrants must choose between following people smugglers into the nearly trackless forest or paying a higher fee to cross the glittering blue waters of the Caribbean.
Earlier this month, an NBC News crew flew over the jungle in a Blackhawk helicopter with Col. Óscar Cortés of the Colombian National Police, unfolding a map and pointing out routes that migrants and their smugglers may take. We were embedded with Homeland Security Investigations, or HSI, in Colombia as it worked with local law enforcement to identify and capture three leaders of an international smuggling ring.
Although migration without documentation is not illegal in Colombia, it is illegal to exploit migrants by charging them to travel in and out of Colombia. While we were embedded, one of those three alleged leaders was arrested near Necoclí, Colombia, and taken back to a base paid for by the United States government. From there, he will be tried on smuggling charges in Colombia and could face extradition to the US.
The mission is part of a global strategy by HSI, the investigative arm of DHS that works to stop the smuggling of drugs, weapons and migrants before they reach the US.
This year alone, HSI has trained, equipped and provided intelligence to law enforcement in 14 countries, leading to more than 3,800 arrests, an agency spokeswoman said.
In Colombia alone, HSI has worked with local police to arrest 42 suspected human traffickers and 210 suspected narcotics-related crimes. They also seized more than 16,400 pounds of cocaine in Colombia during the last fiscal year, the spokeswoman said.
Internally, the Biden administration has credited the operations with making a dent in the overall flow of migrants and drugs into the US, according to documents obtained by NBC News this summer.
Still, more than 70,000 pounds of cocaine arrived in the US during that same period, and Colombia remains one of the top five producers of illegal drugs in the world.
Although U.S.-Mexico border crossing attempts by undocumented immigrants reached an all-time high last year, HSI officials believe the numbers could be higher were it not for their work with law enforcement agencies in the western hemisphere. As transnational criminal organizations become more sophisticated by using new smuggling routes, cryptocurrency and other methods to conceal their activity, HSI officials say they are looking to develop programs like the partnership in Colombia to share intelligence between countries.
“It’s a constant game of cat and mouse, because if they think we’re getting them, they’ll change their patterns on illicit pathways to the United States,” said Anthony Salisbury, deputy director of HSI.
It can also be a game of whack-a-mole.
Brian Vicente, head of HSI in Colombia, said after the arrests of the three suspected human traffickers: “It’s an organization that has been dismantled, disrupted and dismantled.”
“Will others appear? Maybe, but not this one,” she said.
Colombia has been willing to work closely with US law enforcement.
Colombian National Police Major Nicolás Berrio told NBC News that he values the training offered to Colombians working with HSI and the intelligence provided by their American partners. At the end of the day, he says, the Americans and the Colombians need each other to arrest international criminals.
“United States agents have no jurisdiction in our country. So they have to work with us as a team,” Berrio said. “We can get evidence from the agents of the United States and we can give them that information to get all [these] bad people.”
Berrío was speaking just after his officers stormed a Medellín apartment and arrested two suspects from an international drug syndicate. The agents alleged that the leader had been importing drugs such as ketamine from Argentina through veterinarians in Colombia. From there, the drug was broken down and shipped to Miami. While the alleged leader was being arrested at his apartment, other agents in the city raided a lab they say the leader ran and found more than 650 vials of ketamine.
david paredes contributed.