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Inside a U.S. and Colombian operation to bust human traffickers

NBC News embedded with Homeland Security Investigations in Colombia as it teamed with local law enforcement to arrest the alleged leaders of an international smuggling network.

On the border between Colombia and Panama, where migrants wait to make their way through the dense and sometimes deadly jungle of the Darien Gap, Americans from the Department of Homeland Security are teaming up with Colombian National Police to take down human smugglers before they can lead migrants north

Migrants camp along the beaches of this green isthmus, where South America becomes Central America, and must choose between following human traffickers into the nearly roadless forest or paying a higher fee to cross the bright blue waters of the Caribbean.

Earlier this month, an NBC News crew flew above the jungle in a Blackhawk helicopter with Col. Oscar Cortes of the Colombian National Police, as he spread out a map and pointed out the routes migrants and their traffickers can 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 network. 

Medellin, Colombia
Medellin, ColombiaNBC News

Though migration without documentation isn’t illegal in Colombia, it is illegal to exploit migrants by charging them to make the journey through and out of Colombia. While we were embedded, one of those three alleged leaders was arrested near Necoclí, Colombia, and brought back to a base paid for by the U.S. government. From there, he will be tried on charges of smuggling in Colombia and could face extradition to the U.S.

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 ever reach the U.S.

Just this year, HSI has trained, equipped and provided intelligence to law enforcement in 14 countries, leading to more than 3,800 arrests, a spokeswoman for the agency said.

In Colombia alone, HSI has worked with local law enforcement to arrest 42 alleged human smugglers and 210 suspects in narcotics-related crimes. They’ve also seized over 16,400 pounds of cocaine in Colombia over the last fiscal year, the spokeswoman said. 

U.S. and Colombian law enforcement gather for a tactical briefing before an international human trafficking operation.
U.S. and Colombian law enforcement gather for a tactical briefing before an international human trafficking operation.NBC News

Internally, the Biden administration has credited the operations for making a dent in the overall flow of migrants and drugs to the U.S., according to documents obtained by NBC News this summer

Still, more than 70,000 pounds of cocaine found its way into the U.S. over that same time period and Colombia continues to be one of the top five illegal drug producers in the world.  

Though attempted U.S.-Mexico border crossings by undocumented migrants reached an all-time high in the past year, HSI officials believe the numbers could be higher if 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 hide their activity, HSI officials say they are seeking to grow 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 onto them, they’ll shift their patterns in illicit pathways into the United States,” said Anthony Salisbury, the deputy director of HSI. 

It can also be a game of whack-a-mole.

Brian Vicente, the head of HSI in Colombia, said after the arrests of the three alleged human smugglers, “It’s one organization that’s been taken off, disrupted and dismantled."

Officers arrest a suspected member of an international drug syndicate.
Officers arrest a suspected member of an international drug syndicate.NBC News

“Will others pop up? Maybe, but not this one,” he said.

Colombia has been willing to work closely with American law enforcement. 

Maj. Nicolas Berrio of the Colombian National Police told NBC News said he values the training offered to Colombians working with HSI and the intelligence his American partners provide. At the end of the day, he says, the Americans and Colombians both need each other to arrest international criminals.

“Agents from the United States have no jurisdiction in our country. So they have to work with us like a team,” Berrio said. “We can get evidence from United States agents and we can give them that information in order to get all [these] bad people.”

Berrio spoke just after his officers had stormed a Medellin apartment and arrested two suspects from an international drug syndicate. Agents alleged the leader had been importing drugs like ketamine from Argentina via veterinarians in Colombia. From there, the drugs were broken down and sent to Miami. As the alleged leader was being arrested in his apartment, other agents across town raided a lab they say the leader ran and found over 650 vials of ketamine.