An INTERPOL-coordinated operation targeting migrant smuggling networks across the Americas has led to the arrest of 49 suspected people smugglers.
During Operation Andes towards the end of 2018, officers across 11 countries acted on leads and carried out nearly 44,000 checks at air, land and sea borders in order to identify and disrupt smuggling routes and especially target the organized crime networks behind them. The four days of coordinated action saw 18 individuals arrested on people smuggling charges.
The operation was initiated by Colombia in February 2018 during a meeting of INTERPOL’s Specialized Operational Network against People Smuggling. Authorities in the country had gathered sufficient evidence to believe that organized crime networks were smuggling migrants from South Asia through the Americas and into the United States.
In a pre-operational phase, Colombia arrested 31 individuals for migrant smuggling, uncovering nearly USD 2 million in financial transactions, highlighting the scale of the criminal enterprise and the huge profits generated by people smuggling.
The INTERPOL Regional Bureau in Buenos Aires hosted the Operational Coordination Unit, with round-the-clock support from the Organization’s Command and Coordination Centre.
In Chile, authorities uncovered migrants posing as crew members of a shipping company in order to obtain temporary visas. Migrants from Bangladesh presented immigration officers with false working papers and ship documentation, which had been provided by smugglers. INTERPOL has since published a Purple Notice alerting member countries to this modus operandi.
Marine units patrolling the coast of Nicaragua intercepted a speedboat carrying 21 migrants and two Nicaraguan smugglers. The group was travelling from Costa Rica to Nicaragua’s south coast. Migrants revealed that they had paid between 200 and 300 USD for the five-hour boat trip.
“With another 13 investigations opened across the region, what we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg,” said INTERPOL Secretary General Jürgen Stock.
“As a direct result of Operation Andes, we are confident the results will grow in the coming months, striking a blow to the criminal structures who seek to profit from the vulnerabilities of others.
Officers across the region were able to gather valuable intelligence from interviews with migrants on itineraries, recruitment and communication methods, payment and logistics. INTERPOL’s Criminal Analysis unit is now working on making the consolidated information available to law enforcement in the new year.
Migrants from India, Nepal and Bangladesh reported paying between $15,000 and $30,000 per journey, with many having sold their homes to finance their passage.
Acting on a tip-off received during one of these interviews, police in Nicaragua rescued 22 African and Haitian migrants – including infants – who had been left to their fate in the mountains by smugglers, or ‘coyotes’.
Reinforced border controls and surveillance during Operation Andes led to a number of additional arrests, indicating that organized crime groups were benefiting from a convergence of crimes and using the same routes for a number of illicit activities:
- Four individuals were arrested on INTERPOL Red Notices linked to fraud, homicide and terrorism.
- Authorities in the Dominican Republic rescued 30 potential victims of human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Most of the women had been lured from Venezuela on promise of high earnings, only to have their passports confiscated upon arrival.
- Colombian police arrested six Israelis and two Colombians for facilitating the passage of travelling sex offenders and exploiting young women and girls in Colombia.
- In El Salvador, a man was arrested on charges of possession of child sexual abuse material, with connections to a wider group exchanging the images internationally.
Operation Andes was carried out under the umbrella of the INTERPOL Foundation for a Safer World. The participating countries were: Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Peru.