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Colombia becomes new hub for human smuggling into US

Long a starting point for cocaine smuggling, Colombia has now become a major hub for human smuggling from Africa and Asia to the US via Mexico.

By Sibylla BrodzinskyCorrespondent / February 22, 2010

Abdullahi (c.) and other Somali nationals lounge on donated mattresses in a sports stadium in Sincelejo, Colombia. The travelers were shipwrecked while trying to reach the US illegally.

Sibylla Brodzinsky for the Monitor

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Sincelejo, Colombia

The boat was cramped and uncomfortable, with nowhere for its 71 passengers to sit during the three-day ride. But Abdullahi was excited. He was halfway to America from his native Somalia, which he had left more than a month before.

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Pressed together with six other Somalis and 63 Eritreans, they had set off in the dark of night from the Colombian coastal city of Cartagena, headed for somewhere in Central America. But shortly after they set sail, the vessel's steering mechanism snapped, the engine failed, and the boat began to take on water.

For an entire day and night, they were adrift at sea. Many of the passengers fell ill from the rocking of the waves. All feared for their lives.

"Pray to your God," the captain told them. And they did.

The boat finally ran aground on the tiny island of El Latal. The passengers scrambled ashore and the captain fled. Soon the Colombian Navy arrived, ushering the East African immigrants to the mainland and housing them in a small basketball stadium in this steamy city near the coast. Once here, they requested refugee status.

The aborted voyage put a temporary hold on the Somalis' and Eritreans' plans to get to the United States, but Abdullahi says it hasn't dashed his dream. He fled Somalia after his eldest brother was shot dead by the radical Islamist group Al Shabab because he worked as a doctor for a Western aid group. In the US, he says, "I can be safe."

Colombia – long a starting point for much of the cocaine smuggled into the US – has now become a major hub for smuggling people from Africa and Asia to the US via Mexico. And, although this particular boatload of Africans may not have posed a security risk to the US, authorities are increasingly concerned that the Colombian human-trafficking hub could bring in terrorists.

Alarm bells start ringing

"About a year and a half ago, the alarm bells went off when we started detecting a growing number of illegal immigrants passing through [Colombia]," says Felipe Muñoz, director of Colombia's domestic intelligence and immigration agency, known as DAS. "It's become a hub because it [is in] a strategic position to reach Central America."

In 2009, Colombian authorities captured more than 480 illegal immigrants from China, Somalia, Eritrea, Bangladesh, Nepal, Ethiopia, India, and other countries in Asia and Africa. "We don't know how many actually got through undetected," says Mr. Muñoz.

Once in Central America, these immigrants join the thousands of Latin Americans who make the treacherous journey to the Mexican-US border.

In December, Colombian officials arrested Ethiopian national Yohannes Elfneh Neguissie, who they say was in charge of running the Colombian leg of an East African smuggling ring. Three Colombian nationals were also charged. Mr. Neguissie had been living in Colombia since 2006 when he requested, and was granted, refugee status.

After discovering small groups of East Africans on boats leaving the tiny Colombian island of San Andrés, near Nicaragua, Colombian authorities began tracking the movements of Neguissie in the capital, Bogotá. "He would go to travel agents looking for the best deals on flights to San Andrés for the immigrants, and we detected that he would receive money wires from South Africa and the US," says the lead investigator on the case, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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