By Daniel Trotta
(Reuters) - A recent crackdown on migrant smuggling and human trafficking throughout the Americas turned up migrants from 69 countries, an indicator of the steep growth in Asians and Africans who are crossing oceans and continents to reach the United States.
Coordinated by the international police organization Interpol, the fifth annual Operation Turquesa united immigration enforcement officers from throughout the Americas from Nov. 27 to Dec. 1 in an attempt to dismantle international crime syndicates.
Among the victories officials claimed were stopping a Portuguese national who was buying newborn babies from impoverished Brazilian women for sale in Europe, arresting three suspects linked to the notorious Venezuelan prison gang Tren de Aragua, and freezing $286,000 worth of assets belonging to a ring that recruited Brazilians to a cyber fraud center in Cambodia.
In its fifth annual Operation Turquesa, Interpol brought together law enforcement from 31 countries in the Americas, including Cuba for the first time, plus France and Spain. Together they netted 257 arrests, rescued 163 suspected victims of human trafficking and detected nearly 12,000 undocumented immigrants from 69 countries, Interpol said.
Dozens of trafficking victims were children, including 12 in Honduras.
Sixty-nine countries is the highest number ever and is more than double the 28 countries reported in the first sweep in 2019.
Focused on migrants destined for the U.S. and Canada, this year's operation showed a "marked increase" in migrants from Asia and Africa, particularly from China, which was the third most popular country of origin behind Venezuela and Ecuador, Interpol said.
"The number of nationalities detected during Operation Turquesa V demonstrates how this major migration corridor, once considered a route reserved to the Americas, has become the target of organized crime groups from around the world," Interpol Secretary General Jurgen Stock said in a statement.
Migrants who cooperated with police provided insight into recruitment tactics, travel conditions and the cost of being smuggled, which ranged from $2,700 to $20,000 per person depending on the journey, Interpol said. Smugglers often have ties with the illicit drug trade, adding untold fortunes to gangsters already awash in cash.
The number of migrants encountered at the U.S. border with Mexico from countries outside of Latin America and the Caribbean increased by 43% between the 2022 and 2023 fiscal years, according to CBP data.
In October, the first month of the 2024 fiscal year, there were nearly 12,000 migrants at the border from those "extracontinental" countries, nearly the same amount as arrived in all of 2021.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security calls the current trend "the highest level of mass migration since World War II." U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) attributed it to "economic distress and political upheaval" triggered in part by natural disasters and a worldwide pandemic.
BRAZIL AS MIGRATION HUB
Operation Turquesa also offered a peek into Brazil's outsized role in the transcontinental trade, with migrants crisscrossing the country. Most were destined for the United States, others for Europe and some settled in Brazil itself, according to Brazil's Federal Police.
Federal Police deployed officers to nine points around Brazil, the fifth-largest nation in the world by area and one sharing a border with 10 other countries.
Brazil has detected patterns such as migrants from Cuba and Haiti traveling to the tiny coastal nation of Guyana, then crossing illegally into Brazil and making a two-day overland journey to the Brazilian Amazon city of Manaus. There they begin a more than 1,000-kilometer (1,600-mile), weeklong riverboat journey up the Amazon to the jungle outpost of Tabatinga, on the border with Colombia and Peru.
Tabatinga also attracts migrants from elsewhere in the Caribbean basin who are destined for Europe, police said. In one route, Dominican Republic nationals obtain fake Colombian passports in Colombia, cross into Brazil at Tabatinga, then make the long journey to Sao Paulo, more than 2,000 miles (3,200 km) away, their last stop before Europe.
"We have this open arms (immigration) policy ... and we have some complicated neighbors regarding drug production and everything else," said Commissioner Cristiano Eloi, chief of Brazil's Federal Police enforcement for human trafficking and migrant smuggling.
"And we have these more than 16,000 kilometers, 10,000 miles of border with all these Latin American countries. So it makes it absolutely impossible to take care of each centimeter of our borders."
Another Federal Police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not the official spokesperson, said many criminal suspects blend in with the migrants, who are often reluctant to cooperate. Moreover, Brazilian law prevents police from arresting people simply for immigration violations.
With those limitations, Brazil arrested only three suspects in Turquesa, but it did free four trafficking victims: the two babies who were to be sold, plus two women who were stopped at Sao Paulo airport before going to Europe, Eloi said.
"We are not going after the migrants," Eloi told Reuters. "We are going for the smuggler ... for the traffickers that are sending people to be exploited."
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta in Carlsbad, California; Additional reporting by Mica Rosenberg in New York; Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman)