Colombian maritime companies hit with US visa curbs over migrant transport

By Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. issued visa restrictions against executives of several Colombia maritime companies allegedly linked to migrant transportation to the Colombia-Panama border, a senior U.S. official said on Monday on a call with reporters.

The announcement was tied to a meeting of Western Hemisphere officials in Guatemala focused on both supporting migrants and increasing enforcement in the region under an agreement known as the Los Angeles Declaration.

The visa curbs target ferry operators "ruthlessly smuggling" migrants who intend to cross from Colombia to Panama through a dangerous jungle known as the Darien Gap, fueling "a humanitarian and ecological crisis," the senior official said.

The U.S. State Department confirmed the visa restrictions, saying it would continue to target "unscrupulous" companies moving migrants.

The Darien Gap has been a major transit route for migrants from around the world who plan to seek humanitarian entry into the U.S. or cross the U.S.-Mexico border illegally. More than half a million migrants passed through the Darien Gap in 2023, according to Panamanian government statistics.

Despite a 2023 agreement between the U.S., Colombia and Panama to crack down on crossings through the jungle, crossings have remained high this year, with 37,000 transiting in March.

Many migrants take ferries from the Colombian town of Necocli to the jungle as part of the journey.

The State Department in February announced that it would impose visa restrictions against owners and executives of transportation companies providing services primarily used by migrants trying to illegally enter the U.S.

The policy followed a move last year to target individuals operating charter flights into Nicaragua carrying migrants bound for the U.S.-Mexico border.

The regional migration meetings in Guatemala will take place on Monday and Tuesday, with countries expected to announce commitments related to migration efforts at the conclusion.

(Reporting by Ted Hesson in Washington; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Michael Perry)