Washington, DC - Forty-one individuals linked to transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) responsible for smuggling hundreds of individuals through South and Central America into the United States were arrested by foreign partners last week in two separate multinational operations under U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) ongoing efforts in the region as part of Operation Citadel.


“Operation Mesoamerica” was a 15-month multinational investigation that began with a tip from the ICE Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Assistant Attaché Office in Merida, Mexico, and ended Tuesday, June 28, with the arrest of 27 individuals throughout Central America. A second human smuggling investigation yielded 14 arrests on Monday, June 27, in Colombia.

“Operation Mesoamerica” took place in Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica. Among those arrested was Luis Leonardo Mejia Pasapera, the alleged head of a TCO operating in Guatemala and the region. Pasapera, a Peruvian national, was fraudulently living as a Guatemalan citizen. He was arrested on June 28 by the Guatemalan National Police in Guatemala City, Guatemala.

“This operation is a reflection of the multilateral commitment to identifying and dismantling criminal networks involved in the illicit movement of people,” said ICE Director Sarah R. Saldaña. “Through this effort, we are demonstrating that when it comes to protecting our borders, the international community will operate as one in a united front against those involved in human smuggling.”

Evidence gathered during the investigation revealed that Pasapera worked with other TCOs in Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras and El Salvador to smuggle individuals from Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East through South America and Central America. According to court documents, Pasapera charged approximately $20,000 USD per individual. He faces more than 20 years imprisonment, if found guilty.

The Guatemalan National Police arrested 10 individuals, including Pasapera. Of those, one was an alleged corrupt Guatemalan National Police officer. Guatemalan officials also executed 16 search warrants at different locations throughout the country, seizing vehicles, motorcycles, guns, ammunition, passports and money.

The Panamanian National Police arrested seven individuals and executed six search warrants, while Costa Rican authorities nabbed two individuals, executing two search warrants and seizing one weapon. Salvadoran officials arrested one individual and Honduran officials arrested six individuals to include two alleged corrupt immigration officials. A seventh individual, the main Honduran target, was arrested in Nicaragua and will be turned over to Honduran officials. All are alleged to have been working with Pasapera.

The following ICE Attaché offices participated in the multinational investigation: Guatemala, Panama, Honduras, Mexico, Brazil, and El Salvador. HSI Washington, D.C., HSI New York and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (USCBP) also assisted with the investigation.

The following agencies conducted the arrests and are handling the prosecution of the cases: the Guatemalan National Police, the Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office, the Salvadoran National Police, the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office, the Panamanian National Police, the Panamanian Attorney General’s Office, the Costa Rican National Police, the Costa Rican Attorney General’s Office, the Honduran National Police and the Honduran Attorney General’s Office.

In a separate human smuggling case not linked to Operation Mesoamerica, the ICE Attaché Colombia supported the Colombian National Police in a human smuggling investigation that yielded 14 arrests in five Colombian cities and the execution of seven search warrants. Evidence uncovered during the investigation revealed that the TCO in Colombia was responsible for smuggling individuals primarily from Bangladesh through Colombia and Venezuela into the United States. During the operation, officials seized the equivalent of $6,000 USD in Colombian and Venezuelan currency and one weapon. The case is being handled by the Colombian Attorney General’s Office.

Operation Mesoamerica comes under ICE HSI’s Operation Citadel, a multinational effort that focuses on increasing partner nation capacity to identify, disrupt, and dismantle transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), and other support networks involved in human smuggling throughout South and Central America, and Mexico. The scope of the operation includes cross-border enforcement actions with partner nations, document and media collection at ports of entries and along illicit smuggling routes, and traditional training events. 

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Joint Task Force for Investigations (JTF-I) provided

investigative and analytical support for Operation Citadel. JTF-I is one of three new inter-component task forces established as part of DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson’s unity of effort initiative to better integrate DHS components’ capabilities, authorities and expertise.

Through its International Operations, HSI has 65 operational attaché offices in 46 countries around the world. HSI special agents work closely with foreign law enforcement agencies through a robust network of specialized, vetted units known as Transnational Criminal Investigative Units. Additionally, HSI brings personnel from host countries to the United States to train at the Department of Homeland Security Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia.