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Human Rights

Justice Dept. task force declares war on cartels smuggling migrants through Darién Gap jungle

The U.S. announced the $8 million reward on Tuesday for information leading to arresting those involved in migrant smuggling

La ruta más peligrosa para migrantes latinoamericanos está controlada por grupos criminales
La ruta más peligrosa para migrantes latinoamericanos está controlada por grupos criminales | EFE/ Bienvenido Velasco

June 13, 2024 9:20am

Updated: June 13, 2024 10:34am

The U.S. Justice Department announced a reward of up to $8 million on Tuesday for information leading to arresting cartel members trafficking migrants from in the Darién Gap, a treacherous jungle area that acts as a natural land bridge between Colombia and Panama as well as South and Central America.

The new measure is part of a set of objectives established by Joint Task Force Alpha (JTFA), which was formed in June 2021 by the Justice Department to improve law enforcement against human smuggling and trafficking groups that operate in Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

To date, the JTFA has made more than 300 national and international arrests, with more than 240 convictions, seizures of millions of dollars in cash, real estate and vehicles, said directors James Hepburn and Ian Hanna during a June 5 online DOS briefing.

Hepburn, who is co-director of Joint Task Force Alpha with the Department of Justice’s Criminal Division’s Human Rights and Special Prosecution Section said that that so far, government officials “have over 305 domestic and international arrests, 242 convictions within the United States, and 175 defendants sentenced.

He added that the number of arrests has steadily climbed, noting that from June 2022 the U.S. went from 85 arrests to March of 2023 to 179 arrests through December of 2023, then 260 arrests, and by the time of the online briefing, 305 arrests.

“But we’re not in it just for the numbers … to build stats for these convictions,” the State Dept. official stressed. “We want these convictions to matter. We are aimed at specific deterrence. We are taking people out of the smuggling realm.  But we’re also looking for a general deterrence to send the message that human smuggling will not be accepted and will not be tolerated, and smugglers will not operate with impunity.”

Hanna, who is co-director of Joint Task Force Alpha with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas warned that victims were being lured by social media scams.  

I think it’s important to draw a distinction between human trafficking and human smuggling,” Hanna explained  So not every legal system sees a distinction between those two things.

“Our legal system in the United States does. So when we’re talking about human smuggling, primarily what we’re talking about … is the movement [of] people from one country to another without permission, illegally…  Whereas human trafficking is the movement of people from one country to another for a follow-on illicit purpose. Oftentimes that’s sex work, work at factories…  So those are two different things in our system. 

“Historically, in terms of using social media, it – the Facebook scams – and this is to recruit people for moving drugs as well as people where there’ll be an advertisement for work at an exorbitant amount.

“One of the requirements is that you have a visa or some kind of legal status to cross a port of entry, and a lot of times that’s the job. And people are recruited surreptitiously, unbeknownst to them sometimes to move any commodity, whether it be a drug, some other contraband, or people. That’s a very common scheme that’s used by a lot of organizations to recruit on the southern border, through Facebook.”

Through its State Department, the U.S. also announced an $8 million reward targeting the Clan del Golfo, a Colombian paramilitary cartel operating in the Darién Gap.

This group has attacked migrants, kidnapped children and committed violent crimes, including murder, rape, robbery and extortion, according to government officials.

The State Department’s Transnational Organized Crime Rewards Program has offered a series of rewards for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of various Clan (CDG) leaders for those violating 8 U.S.C. §1324 (a)(1)(A)(iv) and §1324(a)(1)(B)(iv).

The rewards offer up to up to $1 million for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any “key leader of CDG involved in human smuggling in the Darién … up to $2 million for information “leading to the disruption of financial mechanisms of the CDG to finance, sustain, or support human smuggling operations in the Darién,” and up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest and/or conviction of any key leader of CDG “involved in human smuggling in the Darién by encouraging and inducing aliens to enter the United States resulting in death.”

During their briefing, Hepburn and Hanna recalled what they described as “tragic events” that took place as migrants made their way to the United States.

Showing a slide of an accident in Chiapas, Mexico in December 2021, Hepburn said more than 56 migrants were killed and more than 100 were seriously injured in an overturned tractor trailer. He also described a similar event in June 2022 in San Antonio Texas where 53 were killed and 16 were injured.

“It’s these sorts of events that give us the drive to push these cases, to work tirelessly to go after the smugglers operating south of our borders, and that’s what we’ll strive to do each and every day,” Hepburn stressed.

ADN has previously reported the increase in danger to migrants who are attempting to cross the Darién Gap.

The intercontinental jungle land bridge has been described as “one of the most dangerous and physically daunting migration routes in the world” by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and has become a 60 mile jungle area more frequently used by smugglers and migrants who are making their way to the U.S. southwest border.

As of 2023, around 84% of those crossing the gap are from Venezuela, Haiti, and Ecuador, where catastrophic combinations of economic collapse, political dysfunction, and violent crime have forced thousands of families to flee.

Since there is no permanent law enforcement or military stations there, it has become a hotbed for drug cartels who use migrant transit to their advantage.

ADN reported on April 4 that, as part of the increased migratory flows, the environment has also suffered deforestation as many jungle crossers have left behind waste and litter.

Tips about human smuggling and trafficking can be submitted to the Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) by phone at (866) 347-2423 (toll free) or online at 

Executive Editor

Gelet Martínez Fragela

Gelet Martínez Fragela is the founder and editor-in-chief of ADN America. She is a Cuban journalist, television producer, and political refugee who also founded ADN Cuba.