Surf the latest U.S. headlines on immigration, and you’ll read plenty of criticisms from Republicans against Vice President Kamala Harris for not visiting the southern border and plenty of frustrations from Democrats that she needs to focus more on the root causes of migration out of Central America. Lost in this back-and-forth is a noteworthy development: the formation of a task force led by the Department of Justice to go after human smugglers and traffickers.

If we’re serious about border security, then pursuing, prosecuting and dismantling criminal enterprises that trick, exploit and endanger migrants fleeing their homelands must be a key strategy.

Our colleague Alfredo Corchado has written in detail about the sophistication of these smuggling networks and the depth of their deception. One Guatemalan migrant told Corchado this spring that he was enticed by a smuggler promising a safe and smooth trip into the U.S., with an Uber ride and a stay at a nice hotel — promises buttressed by flashy Facebook photos and a TikTok video. The smuggler told the migrant that he would get multiple attempts to cross the border in exchange for a fee starting at $10,000.

The migrant, Pedro Gomez, paid $6,000 upfront after securing a bank loan. On his first try, he fell off the border wall and broke his ankles. His smuggler guide abandoned him.

So many people are fleeced by smugglers who falsely tell families that they will be admitted into the U.S. if they bring their children. What usually happens is that federal border authorities catch the families and expel them back to Mexico, where they are preyed upon by drug cartel members who rob and rape migrants.

Joint Task Force Alpha, as the new DOJ initiative is called, will assemble federal prosecutors from Arizona, California and Texas and officials from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration. The task force will focus on individuals or networks that abuse migrants, that pose national security threats or that have links to transnational organized crime.

We support the work of this task force, which will work closely with another recent federal operation targeting smugglers’ assets, logistical networks and travel documents. We should expect our top law enforcement officials to marshal the breadth of resources and intelligence of the federal government to combat intricate criminal operations whose tendrils have likely ensnared banks and even foreign government officials.

But even as we support this work, we worry about its chances of success to the extent that investigations rely on cooperation from Central American governments. The president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, vetoed multipartisan legislation this year designed to outlaw social media advertising of smuggling services and to enhance prison sentences for people convicted of smuggling and trafficking. Bukele argued El Salvador shouldn’t “keep criminalizing migration.”

Meanwhile, Juan Orlando Hernández, the president of Honduras, has been linked by U.S. prosecutors to drug traffickers, and the Guatemalan government faces questions about its treatment of officials involved in anti-corruption efforts.

The problems in the region may seem intractable, but the U.S. can’t sit idle. We’re glad it is bolstering smuggling and trafficking investigations stateside while extending a helping hand to Central America. This is complicated work that will require an array of strategies, and it should get our own politicians talking across the aisle to find solutions.

The Dallas Morning News

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