Darien Gap: Hell for migrants, lucrative revenue source for traffickers

By Giovanna Ferullo M.

Panama City, Mar 23 (EFE).- The Darien Gap is one of the world’s thickest rainforests, a forbidding natural border between Colombia and Panama whose dangers include turbulent rivers, steep hills, wild animals and armed gangs who rob and rape.

But those well-known perils still are not enough to deter hundreds of thousands of migrants willing to risk everything for the mere chance of a better life in the United States.

That 575,000-hectare (2,220-square-mile) expanse, home to a Panamanian national park that links the northern tip of South America with the Central American isthmus, is known as the Darien Gap because it marks the only break in the Pan American Highway, a network of roads that otherwise runs uninterruptedly from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.

It also has been a key route for decades for organized crime groups moving weapons, drugs and undocumented migrants, whose growing numbers have made them one of the gangs’ most – if not the most – lucrative businesses.

“The reality behind all this is that it’s a very, very profitable business,” more so than “drugs and with fewer risks … it can be organized so that people pay in each country if you want to continue,” the chief of mission of the International Organization for Migration in Panama, Giuseppe Loprete, told Efe.

Authorities in Panama said an unprecedented total of 248,284 undocumented foreigners entered the country in 2022 after crossing the Darien Gap.

And a new record of some 400,000 migrants is expected this year if the pace of the first several weeks continues. By comparison, 30,055 migrants entered Panama via the Darien Gap in 2016.

Although the bulk of these undocumented travelers are citizens of South American and Caribbean countries, individuals and families from more than 50 nations worldwide are transported via air and sea by transnational networks before making their way to northwestern Colombia and embarking on the 100-160-kilometer (60-100-mile) trek through that inhospitable jungle.

Many who arrive at migration reception stations in Panama recount episodes of violence they endured, including sexual assault, and say dead bodies strewn on the ground were a frequent sight.

They also say they were deceived by traffickers, who had promised a relatively rapid and uneventful trek though the jungle.

A report from the Ideas for Peace Foundation, an independent think tank created by a group of Colombian business leaders; and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, a Geneva-based international NGO, says Colombia’s Clan del Golfo neo-paramilitary group plays a key role in the trafficking of migrants through the Darien Gap.

The Clan maintains “hegemonic control of the region from the Colombian side of the border with Panama,” and therefore “the national and international trafficking networks and the migrants who arrive alone must interact in one way or another with the group,” says the 40-page document titled “La frontera del Clan: migracion irregular y crimen organizado en El Darien” (The Clan’s Border: Irregular Migration and Organized Crime in the Darien Gap).

That criminal group charges a tax for “all activities related to migration,” suppresses “violence and abuse of migrants on the Colombian side of the border” and restricts “the use of maritime and terrestrial routes,” according to that report published in November.

The researchers said they “did not find evidence of the direct participation of the Clan del Golfo in the transportation of the migrant population out of its area of control, nor beyond (Colombia’s) border with Panama.”

That situation reflects the Clan’s interest in “avoiding being visible” to Panama’s Senafront national border service, “which, unlike its Colombian counterpart, carries out operations in the Darien Gap to combat criminals who prey on migrants,” the report said.

The plight of migrants in that region has been the subject of recent conversations involving representatives from the United States, Colombia and Panama.

In their latest meeting in February in Panama City, the three countries coordinated efforts to safeguard the lives of migrants who cross the Darien Gap, dismantle the criminal organizations who control people-trafficking networks and combat the disinformation surrounding the supposed benefits of undertaking that dangerous journey, the US Embassy in Panama said then. EFE


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