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U.S. offers millions in rewards targeting migrant smugglers in Darién Gap

Record number of migrants navigate Darién Gap
Record number of migrants trek through Panama's perilous Darién Gap 04:58

The State Department on Tuesday announced up to $8 million in rewards to target human smugglers operating in the largely ungoverned Darién region between Colombia and Panama. Hundreds of thousands of migrants cross Panama's treacherous Darién Gap jungle on foot each month on their way to the U.S. southern border. 

The announcement came on the third anniversary of Joint Task Force Alpha, a federal program aimed at investigating and prosecuting human smuggling at the southern border. Senior leaders from the departments of Justice, Homeland Security and State convened to discuss the progress made in the past three years, officials said. 

Officials say the aim of the JTFA is to disrupt and dismantle criminal smuggling organizations working in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. The task force's accomplishments include more than 300 domestic arrests and more than 240 U.S. convictions, according to a senior official from the Justice Department. 

Migrants trudge in the jungle near the village of Bajo Chiquito, as they make their way through the Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama in 2023. LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

The three new rewards approved by Secretary of State Antony Blinken were part of a new Anti-Smuggling Rewards Initiative targeting key leaders in human smuggling operations. They include up to $2 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction of any key leader, up to $1 million for information leading to the disruption of the smuggling operations' finances, and up to $5 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction of any key regional leader "involved in human smuggling in the Darién by encouraging and inducing aliens to enter the United States resulting in death," according to the State Department. 

Other initiatives discussed during Tuesday's meeting included the JTFA's expansion to combat smuggling in Colombia and Panama, as well as a legislative proposal to increase penalties for "the most prolific and dangerous human smugglers," the Department of Justice said in a news release. 

Migrants cross the Tuquesa river near Bajo Chiquito village, the first border control of the Darien Province in Panama, on September 22, 2023. LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

"Today, we are doubling down on our efforts to strike at the heart of where human smuggling networks operate," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a news release, which noted that organized criminals who control the region's route routinely target migrants, both adults and children, for violent crimes that include murder, rape, robbery and extortion. 

Hundreds of thousands of migrants, many of them women and children, crossed the once-impenetrable Darién jungle on foot last year, a record and once-unthinkable number, according to Panamanian government data. The vast majority of the migrants came from Venezuela, which has seen millions of its citizens flee in recent years to escape a widespread economic crisis and authoritarian rule.

–Priscilla Saldana, Camilla Schick and Camilo Montoya-Galvez contributed reporting.

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