Migrants on the Colombia-Panama border

Authorities in Colombia have struck against what appears to be one of the largest and most sophisticated human smuggling rings seen in the region recently, an indication that Colombia is growing in importance as a hub for migrants headed north.

Colombian police working with international partners arrested 35 alleged migrant traffickers in a series of simultaneous raids carried out in cities around the country, reported EFE. According to investigators, the suspects were all part of a migrant trafficking network dubbed "the merchants of humans" ("mercaderes de humanos").

The ring allegedly funneled over 3,000 people from countries such as Cuba, India, Nepal, and Somalia through Latin America and towards the United States and Canada. It was allegedly led by two Cuban citizens that live in the United States and Cuba, who coordinated criminal franchises in countries across the region, according to EFE.

In Colombia, the network allegedly ran front business including hotels and tourism operators in border regions to conceal their activities.

They are also suspected of working with the Urabeños, the criminalized paramilitary network that controls many of the border territories, and are believed to be behind the murders of two Colombians and two Cubans that refused their demands, reported Semana.

SEE ALSO: Urabeños News and Profile

Over the course of the five month investigation, Colombian authorities documented more than 2,100 transactions worth approximately $435,000 through one money transfer company in the northwestern city of Turbo, which they believe were payments for smuggling migrants through Colombia and into Panama, according to Semana.

The operation was coordinated with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Interpol offices in Ecuador, Panama, Mexico, Costa Rica and the United States, Semana noted.

InSight Crime Analysis

In recent years, Colombia has emerged as an ever more popular route for international migrants seeking to reach the United States. The route was largely pioneered by Cubans, who could enter Ecuador without a visa then travel north through Colombia. But it has since become popular with migrants from all around the world.

The character of the network targeted in Colombia illustrates how this route has become a key link in a highly lucrative international migrant smuggling chain, and how sophisticated criminal organizations with transnational capacities are now coordinating much of this activity.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

The network's alleged links to the Urabeños are a troubling but predictable development, since the key border region -- the crossing into Panama -- is Urabeños territory, meaning the crime group would almost certainly demand a cut of any significant criminal activity taking place in the area.

Even more of a concern is the allegations the network resorted to violence and could be responsible for several murders. For an organization prepared to murder those who stand in their way, an alliance with the Urabeños would be ideal, as the group can provide services such intimidation, debt collection, enforcement and murder for those willing to pay.

Investigations

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