By Alvaro Murillo
SAN JOSE (Reuters) - Costa Rican and Panamanian officials on Tuesday morning arrested nearly 50 people linked to an international network suspected of smuggling migrants through Central America and towards the United States, prosecutors said.
In one of the largest operations against people smugglers conducted in the country, Costa Rican migration police and prosecutors raided 36 locations on the border with Panama and Nicaragua, arresting 37 suspected members of the network.
In Panama, federal police arrested 12 people connected to the same network, local authorities said.
The number of migrants crossing the region to reach the United States has grown in recent years, stoking tensions between the Trump administration and Mexico and Central America.
U.S. President Donald Trump has used the threat of trade tariffs to push Mexico and Guatemala to crack down on migrants heading towards the United States.
Stephen Madden, deputy director of Costa Rica's migration police, said the criminal network charged between $7,000 and $20,000 to transport each migrant.
The ring moved individuals from various Asian and African countries, as well as from Cuba and Haiti, he added.
Panama said its crackdown involved 24 operatives from the prosecutor's office and over 50 federal police officers. On Twitter, the Panamanian attorney general's office said migrants were paying smugglers $1,500 and above to pass through Panama.
Costa Rican officials have documented 249 migrants who had been transported by the busted smuggling ring, although police official Madden said "there have been many more."
Leaders of the network included a Costa Rican man working in the health ministry, and two Nicaraguan women, Madden said in a joint press conference with Costa Rican prosecutors.
One of the women, nicknamed "Mama Africa," coordinated an underground housing network for migrants in La Cruz, in the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica that borders Nicaragua, he said.
According to a Costa Rican police report, the investigation opened in 2018. It discovered two routes used by the network: one by land, and another by sea to Honduras, via the northern port of Puerto Soley.
The report said migrants were then picked up by other organizations in Guatemala to cross into Mexico and as far as the southern border of the United States.
(Reporting by Alvaro Murillo; additional reporting by Elida Moreno in Panama City; writing by Rebekah F Ward; editing by Dave Graham and Bernadette Baum)