In 2016, Brazilian Federal Police uncovered a smuggling network operating between Brazil and South Africa that delivered fake visas to Africans seeking to travel through Latin America to the United States or Canada. The documents allowed migrants to enter Brazil, Bolivia or Venezuela without getting arrested.
Abdifatah Hussein Ahmed, a Brazil-based South African national ran the operation with two partners, and after a joint investigation with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Ahmed was arrested in August 2019 for human trafficking.
Details of the smuggling enterprise were made public as part of a nine-month investigation by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism and 16 media outlets from across the world, including The Museba Project, an independent investigative reporting organization covering Central Africa and the Great Lakes. The investigation exposed two top human smuggling organizations in Latin America and their global operations helping migrants from Asia and Africa seeking refuge in the US or Canada.
Europe’s crackdown on migration via the Mediterranean and reports of migrants being enslaved in Libya have spurred African migrants fleeing persecution, violence and economic hardship to take the long and convoluted route through Latin America to the US and Canada. They begin their 10,000-mile journey first by flying to Brazil (and previously Ecuador) because of its loose visa requirements and good flight connections. From Brazil, the migrants travel through Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, before finally reaching the US.
According to the OCCRP/CLIP investigation, rising migration restrictions along the route, particularly in countries like the US—which slashed its refugee admissions quota from 110,000 when president Barack Obama left office in 2016 to 18,000 currently, under president Donald Trump— are making migrants more desperate.
“The pressure of people going into smuggling and secret routes and more dangerous routes has completely skyrocketed because there’s less and less ways to get in legally,” said Maria Teresa Ronderos, co-founder of the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism, who helped coordinate the investigation. “This pushes them into the hands of traffickers.”
“That is exactly at the heart of what we found everywhere,” she said.
Law enforcement sources told the reporters that they were seeing a rise in the use of forged documents like visas and passports. In July 2019, US Border Patrol apprehended more than 66,000 migrants at the southern border, setting a record then for the highest total in a single month in almost a decade. Some of these migrants get to their destination through deals with traffickers affiliated with criminal organizations such as drug cartels and even, as suspected in Ahmed’s case, terrorist groups.
This growing reliance on smugglers has made their operations sizably profitable. It is estimated that these sprawling smuggling networks in Latin America generate between $150 million to $350 million a year, excluding payments to corrupt police officers, lawyers, local agents known as “coyotes,” and embassy and immigration officials. One particular operation in Guatemala made $4 million between 2009 and 2016; smugglers charged African and Asian migrants between $7,000 and $25,000 each.
While some operations help the migrants get to their destinations up north, others exploit them and put them at great risk. Migrants have been robbed, kidnapped, raped and forced to traffic drugs.
In January 2019, 12 African migrants, including seven children, died in a shipwreck off Capurganá, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast while being transported by traffickers to Panama. Last October, three Cameroonian migrants also drowned when their boat, travelling off Mexico’s southern border state of Chiapas, capsized. The incident in Chiapas took place four months after Mexico and the US signed an agreement to curb the flow of migrants northwards. Consequently, Mexico stopped issuing exit permits to migrants at the time, leaving thousands of African migrants stranded in southern Mexico.
“They told us we had to go back,” one of the migrants who survived the shipwreck in Mexico told a reporter. “We had no choice.”
Although there are now more African migrants seeking asylum at the US border—majority of whom are from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Cameroon—apprehension records from border officials in both the US and Mexico show African migrants comprise a small share of that asylum-seeking migrant population. Majority of the asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border are from Latin America.
Travel restrictions and border closures owing to the coronavirus have impacted and slowed both migration and human-smuggling operations; about 30,000 migrants are currently stuck in limbo in northern Mexico, waiting for the restrictions to ease.
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