Americas: 257 suspected migrant smugglers and human traffickers arrested

An INTERPOL-coordinated operation against people smuggling and human trafficking across the Americas has led to 257 arrests, the rescue of 163 potential victims and the detection of nearly 12,000 irregular migrants from 69 different countries.

During Operation Turquesa V, authorities in 33 countries carried out more than 850,000 checks at major transit points to disrupt the transnational organized crime groups profiting from smuggling routes to the USA and Canada.

Throughout the five-day operation (27 November – 1 December), INTERPOL set up an Operational Coordination Unit in Costa Rica. Officers from the Human Trafficking and Smuggling of Migrants unit were also deployed to the land border in Tabatinga, Brazil, and to the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama, where they used INTERPOL Mobile Devices to perform live checks against its global databases.

A snapshot of irregular migration trends
Since 2019, Operation Turquesa has provided a snapshot of migration trends in transit countries across South and Central America, allowing destinations further north to monitor changes in migration flows.

Preliminary results of this year’s edition show a marked increase in trans-continental flows, particularly from China, which was the third most detected country of origin among irregular migrants, behind Venezuela and Ecuador.

During interviews, smuggling victims provided valuable insights on recruitment methods, travel conditions and costs. Migrants reported paying between USD 2,700 and upwards of USD 20,000 depending on the journey.

Jürgen Stock, INTERPOL Secretary General 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.

“They are making enormous profits by smuggling vulnerable migrants and exploiting men, women, and children along the way. As law enforcement, we must form a united, global front by sharing more information across borders to empower frontline officers.”

In Curaçao, a passport check flagged an inbound passenger from the Dominican Republic as a potential migrant smuggler. Though he claimed to be part of a softball team travelling for a tournament, his luggage contained no equipment or uniforms, nor did his ‘teammates’. They were deported to the Dominican Republic where the man was arrested on arrival.

Thanks to information provided by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS), authorities in the Bahamas detected a group of 18 Ecuadorian irregular migrants, pointing to a potential new route through the Caribbean.

Human trafficking: sexual exploitation and cyber-enabled

The majority of victims identified during the operation had been trafficked for sexual exploitation. Dozens of underage victims were rescued, including 12 children in Honduras, the youngest of which was six years old.

After identification of three victims of sexual exploitation and nearly 200 irregular migrants, Chile’s Policia de Investigaciones arrested three suspected members of an organized crime group linked to the Tren de Aragua. At the request of Venezuela, INTERPOL published five Red Notices for additional members of the group.

In a rare case, Brazilian authorities were alerted by hospital staff to a man who had made two separate paternity claims for abandoned newborns in less than one month. They later found that the 49-year-old had recently traveled to Portugal with a newborn, but returned to Sao Paolo alone. Following extensive cooperation between both countries, the baby girl was safeguarded in Portugal and international child trafficking investigations are ongoing.

With organized crime groups becoming increasingly digital, most trafficking victims reported being recruited via messaging apps and social media platforms. In Brazil, the Federal Police froze USD 286,000 in criminal proceeds belonging to an organized crime group running cyber scam centres in Cambodia. More than 100 Brazilians had been promised cryptocurrency jobs through social media ads offering generous wages, productivity bonuses, food, and lodging. Once they arrived, however, they were held against their will and forced to carry out online investment scams.

International cooperation

This operation was financed by Global Affairs Canada, under the framework of Project Turquesa. The initiative leverages the strengths of INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to ensure a whole-of-justice approach to migrant smuggling and human trafficking.

The UNODC will therefore play a key role in following up with prosecutors to carry out the judicial process.

Additional support was provided by Europol and the International Office on Migration.