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December 22, 2022Washington, DC, United StatesHuman Smuggling/Trafficking

HSI Panama, Costa Rica investigation results in 19 arrests, 77 rescues linked to human smuggling

WASHINGTON – Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Panama, in coordination with the local Transnational Criminal Investigative Unit (TCIU), in addition to HSI Operation Expanded Impact Costa Rica and the Government of Costa Rica, executed 20 arrest warrants and 23 search warrants that resulted in the arrest of 19 individuals, the seizure of several vehicles, and the rescue of 77 migrants, Dec. 13. The individuals rescued were from various countries enroute to the United States, including nationals from Colombia, Ecuador, India, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, and Venezuela. The arrests included six employees of the migration service for Panama.

“HSI will continue to coordinate with Panamanian law enforcement and judicial authorities to identify and monitor the smuggling of immigrants through Panama, while helping bring perpetrators of associated crimes to justice,” said Patrick McElwain, Assistant Director of HSI International Operations. “Our Panama TCIU will continue to exploit investigative leads across Panama and surrounding countries to ensure criminal organizations are detected, disrupted, and swiftly dismantled.”

In November 2020, the HSI Panama TCIU received information from the Panama National Police (PNP) that a checkpoint located on the Panamerican Highway in Santa Maria, Divisa, Herrera, Panama, had stopped and arrested two Panamanian citizens attempting to smuggle three Cuban nationals. Subsequent interviews and questioning led to the identification of Eliani Muñoz Alcuria, who was later discovered to be a main coordinator for smuggling Cuban nationals through the Tocumen International Airport (PTY).

HSI Panama TCIU initiated an investigation and discovered this transnational criminal organization (TCO) of Cuban smuggling was highly complex. The TCO, which operates in Panama, managed to get clients to enter the country without meeting passport or visa requirements. The organization utilized various individuals and businesses to smuggle migrants to the province of Chiriquí and then transport individuals through other Central American countries with the ultimate intent of reaching the U.S.

Special agents were able to identify individuals and locations associated with the TCO – a Panamanian national known as Juan Manuel Nieto Marin was identified as another primary organizer. The organization relied heavily on Nieto Marin, a former Panamanian immigration official who worked at the PTY, for the mobilization and the stashing of irregular migrants.

HSI’s TCIUs enhance foreign partner countries’ ability to investigate and prosecute people involved in transnational criminal activities that threaten the region’s stability and national security and who pose continuing threats to the United States. TCIUs identify targets, collect evidence, share intelligence, and facilitate prosecution in the United States and foreign countries. In fiscal year (FY) 2022, HSI TCIUs conducted more than 3,800 criminal arrests, rescued 175 victims, and seized approximately $57 million in currency and criminally derived assets. TCIUs also seized more than 349,000 pounds of narcotics and precursor chemicals. HSI’s TCIUs facilitate information exchange and rapid bilateral investigation of various programmatic areas to include weapons trafficking and counter-proliferation, money laundering and bulk cash smuggling, human smuggling and trafficking, narcotics trafficking, intellectual property rights violations, and other customs fraud, child exploitation, and cyber-crimes within HSI’s investigative purview.

HSI is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), responsible for investigating transnational crime and threats, specifically those criminal organizations that exploit the global infrastructure through which international trade, travel, and finance move. HSI’s workforce of over 10,400 employees consists of more than 6,800 special agents assigned to 225 cities throughout the United States, and 93 overseas locations in 56 countries. HSI’s international presence represents DHS’s largest investigative law enforcement presence abroad and one of the largest international footprints in U.S. law enforcement.

Updated: 12/23/2022