Central America arrests break up major human trafficking ring, police say

June 29, 2016

Judicial and immigration officials in Costa Rica on Tuesday arrested two men suspected of forming part of a criminal group responsible for smuggling migrants across the Americas on their way to the U.S.

Detainees are a Costa Rica man with the last names Santos Vargas and a Nicaraguan national surnamed Arce Martínez, who were arrested at their homes on the country’s borders with Panama and Nicaragua.

Local officials conducted raids as part of a multinational operation called Mesoamérica that also led to the arrest of 10 people in Guatemala, seven in Panama, five in Honduras and one in El Salvador.

Among those arrested in the operation is the alleged leader of the group, a Peruvian national named Leonardo Mejía, aka Leo Pasapera.

Costa Rican General Prosecutor Jorge Chavarría said the operation is likely the most important anti human-trafficking operation in the continent in recent years.

“This operation demonstrated that Central American countries have the ability to work together,” he said at a press conference.

Officials during raids found a group of African and Caribbean migrants at Arce’s house. They also confiscated documents including immigration permits and receipts for payments received from the migrants, Chavarría said.

In the raid of Santos’ house, police found a gun and documents containing information about the number of migrants the group has allegedly trafficked in past months.

The investigation

The police investigation concluded that the group contacted people mostly from Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh and various African countries.

Those who agreed to attempt the trip were reportedly picked up in Dubai and then sent by air to Brazil.

The journey throughout the Americas would continue through Colombia, various Central American countries and Mexico before reaching the final destination in the U.S.

Chavarría said that once in Mexico, members of the group forced many of the migrants to smuggle drugs into the U.S.

The entire route cost each migrant an amount ranging from $7,000 to $25,000, officials said.

Deputy Prosecutor Mauricio Boraschi said the joint investigation began in Guatemala in November, and led police to conclude that the human trafficking network operated virtually throughout the Americas.

The first actions in Costa Rica allowed the arrest of six people linked with the two men arrested Tuesday.

National Police officers on Dec. 30 arrested the first three members of the network while it was transporting 51 migrants on a truck in the South Pacific canton of Golfito.

Officers on Feb. 25 arrested three other men transporting 15 migrants along a road in the Central Pacific canton of Garabito.

All eight suspects arrested so far in Costa Rica will face charges of human trafficking. According to the Immigration Law, charges are punishable with prison sentences ranging from six to 10 years.

Ongoing human trafficking cases

Boraschi said the total number of people arrested in five countries is 31, including the six people arrested in Costa Rica in the past months.

The migration of African nationals is the most recent case of human trafficking in Costa Rica.

Immigration officials noted an increase in the arrival of migrants from that continent since April, shortly after the country faced a serious situation with the arrival of more than 8,000 migrants from Cuba.

The Cubans were stranded at 40 temporary shelters in the country’s borders with Nicaragua and Panama due to Nicaragua’s decision to forbid their entrance into the country.

Recommended: Nowhere to go: A day at a Costa Rica migrant shelter

The AFP contributed to this story.

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