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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.

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Colombian officials say the US has expressed an interest in extraditing Neguissie, who is negotiating a plea bargain with Colombian prosecutors. "His was a major operation that may have moved as many as 1,000 people through Colombia in 2009," says Muñoz.

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However, Muñoz acknowledges that Neguissie's capture won't end the smuggling. "It will slow them down for a while, but there will soon be someone to replace him," he says. "The arrest, more than stopping the traffic, helps us learn more about how the networks function."

It appears that Neguissie's operation has continued to work fine without him. Abdullahi and his travel companions were found 15 days after Neguissie's arrest and are believed to have been his "clients."

Huddled on mattresses covered with lime-green and pink sheets on the floor of Sincelejo's municipal basketball stadium, the Eritreans and Somalis spent six days fretting over their fate, after being picked up by the Colombian Navy. "We are happy to be alive, but we don't know what will happen now," said a tall, thin Eritrean with a broad smile who called himself Sami. Most of the immigrants interviewed would only give their first names.

Under a controversial program of the Eritrean dictatorship, Sami, like all of his countrymen, was forced into indefinite national service, assigned to be a soldier. Twice he had been caught trying to escape the country and twice he had been thrown into prison, he said. "The second time was worse," he said in halting English. "Like Guantánamo, but worse. There were many beatings." He asks his companions for the precise translation of a word in Tigrinya. "Torture," they tell him. "Yes, torture," he says.

He managed to escape what he described as an underground desert prison and, after saying goodbye to his mother, slipped into Sudan. There he met a man named Carlos who said he could get Sami to Colombia and from there to the US. Sami worked for 14 months as a cleaner at a hotel in Sudan to raise the money. By the time he'd made the Colombian leg, he'd already paid $6,500.

The immigrants' main fear is being deported to their homelands. "If that happens," says Sami, "everyone knows his fate: It's either prison for life or shooting."

Colombia is giving this group permission to remain in the country for 30 days, during which they can seek refugee status – or find a way to continue their journey.

Based on past experience, Colombian officials say, most will do both. Although they go through the paperwork to be recognized as refugees, by the time Colombia decides their cases, they are long gone.

Colombian and US authorities say they've detected a number of routes by which Asian and African immigrants reach Colombia.

South Africa's visa loophole

Ethiopians and Eritreans usually come to the continent via South Africa, where smugglers provide them with a false South African passport, which allows them to enter Brazil without visas. Once in Brazil, they travel to its porous border with Colombia. From Somalia, the route often passes through Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Moscow; and Cuba to Colombia.

The rescued Somalis and Eri­treans had all arrived in Colombia individually or in small groups and were kept under lock and key until the large group was complete.

The smugglers whisked them onto the boat in the middle of the night only to end up back on the mainland two days later. One of the Eritrean immigrants who declined to give his name says that as soon as he can he will try to complete his journey to the US. "If you're going to die either way," he says, "it's better to die trying to live."

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