State Department Announces $8M in Rewards to Target Smuggling Ring

On Tuesday, the State Department announced it is offering as much as $8 million in rewards as part of a mission to target human smugglers that operate out of the Darien region in South America, nestled between Panama and Colombia.

That area of the world is largely ungoverned, mainly because it’s very dense rainforest. Every month, thousands of migrants cross through the Darien Gap on foot as they trek toward Mexico’s border with the U.S.

The announcement from the State Department came on the third anniversary of a federal program known as Joint Task Force Alpha. That program had an aim of investigating and ultimately prosecuting human smuggling that’s happening at the U.S. southern border with Mexico.

Recently, officials said that senior leaders from three major U.S. departments — Justice, State and Homeland Security — met to discuss what progress has be made with this program.

The ultimate goal of the program, according to officials, is to disrupt and then dismantle all smuggling organizations that work out of Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The accomplishments of the task force, according to a senior DOJ official, include in excess of 300 domestic arrests as well as more than 240 convictions in the U.S.

Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, approved three new rewards as part of a newly-created Anti-Smuggling Rewards Initiative that targets some of the key leaders in these smuggling operations. 

One reward is worth up to $2 million for any information that leads to a key leader being arrested and/or convicted. Another can be worth as much as $1 million for any information that leads to disruption of an operations’ finances. 

And the third is worth up to $5 million for any information that leads to an arrest and/or conviction of any key regional leader “involved in human smuggling in the Darien by encouraging and including aliens to enter the United States resulting in death.”

During the meeting on Tuesday, some other initiatives that were discussed included expanding the JTFA to further combat smuggling operations in Panama and Colombia, and a legislative proposal that would increase the penalties for “the most prolific and dangerous human smugglers,” the DOJ said in a press release.

In that release, Attorney General Merrick Garland said:

“Today, we are doubling down on our efforts to strike at the heart of where human smuggling networks operate.”

He added that the criminals who control the route throughout the region typically target both children and adult migrants for heinous and violent crimes.

According to data provided by the government in Panama, hundreds of thousands of migrants — including many women and children — crossed the Darien jungle by foot just last year. That region used to be though impenetrable, but migrants are doing anything they can to escape their countries and come to the U.S.

A majority of those migrants, according to the Panamanian government, came from Venezuela, as that country is experiencing a major economic crisis amid its authoritarian rule.