Senior Biden officials are pushing to send U.S. troops to South American jungle to help curb human smuggling

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Senior Biden administration officials are pushing to send U.S. troops to the rugged, lawless area between Colombia and Panama to help local authorities curb drug smuggling, human trafficking and migration, according to a senior administration official and a U.S. defense official.

The stretch of land, known as the Darien Gap, connects South America with Central America. The roadless area is made up of jungles, rain forests, rivers and steep mountains, making it a dangerous but crucial part of a journey from South America to the U.S.

Thousands of migrants attempt to cross from Colombia to Panama every year, often relying on smugglers to get them through the harsh terrain.

The U.S. military has a Security Force Assistance Brigade working in the two countries, primarily advising local forces, but now administration officials are pushing to expand the training mission, including moving troops to the Darien Gap to advise Colombian and Panamanian forces about how to cut off the flow of people and drugs in the area, the officials said.

The training will focus primarily on border security, counter human smuggling, planning and logistics, counternarcotics and counter-transnational organized crime operations, and possibly targeting human traffickers. The U.S. military personnel could also help support the construction of an operation center for the National Border Service.

The officials say Liz Sherwood-Randall, President Biden’s homeland security adviser, is one of the officials pushing for U.S. troops to focus more directly on the Darien Gap.

The commander of U.S. Southern Command, Army Gen. Laura Richardson, visited the Darien Gap Monday to see the current situation there firsthand, according to a SOUTHCOM spokesperson.

A senior official with the Colombian National Police said Richardson met with officials in Colombia, but did not give a number or time line for sending U.S. troops to the Darien region.

The official said the Colombian National Police are anticipating the arrival of more U.S. troops in the region. The troops could work with Colombian National Police and other U.S. agencies already in the region, including the Drug Enforcement Administration and Homeland Security Investigations, part of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The goal is to find ways for both Colombia and Panama to slow down migration, according to the U.S. officials, and plans could also involve agents from Customs and Border Protection.

The officials said the most likely option for now would be to move a small number of U.S. troops already in the countries — as few as 10 —to the Darien Gap to advise local forces. But some Biden administration officials are hoping to beef up the presence even more.

Migrants line up to take a boat after crossing the Darien Gap from Colombia, in Bajo Chiquito, Panama (Natacha Pisarenko / AP file)
Migrants line up to take a boat after crossing the Darien Gap from Colombia, in Bajo Chiquito, Panama (Natacha Pisarenko / AP file)

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas and Richardson traveled to Panama in April, when they signed a trilateral agreement with Panama and Colombia for a 60-day campaign to address the humanitarian situation in the Darien Gap. Among the goals was to “end the illicit movement of people and goods through the Darien by both land and maritime corridors.”

An administration official said the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security “are increasing support to both the Panama and Colombian governments within their existing authorities as part of the 60-Day Darien Surge Campaign, including with personnel."

"Our support is focused on law enforcement training, planning, coordination and information-sharing. It is important to emphasize that no U.S. personnel is directly involved in executing counter-smuggling missions," the official added.

The official said they are not considering sending Defense Department personnel to assist with enforcement activities.

“We are supporting from behind the scenes," the official said.

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