By Irene Escudero
Necocli, Colombia, Oct 7 (EFE).- People in this northwestern Colombian town have now grown accustomed to hundreds of migrants camping out on its beaches every day and waiting for boats to take them across the Gulf of Uraba to a spot just southeast of the Panama border.
There, they will start a trek through a portion of the Darien Gap that straddles that binational frontier, a jungle- and swamp-covered, 100-kilometer-long (60-mile-long) expanse that is one of the most treacherous sections of a journey they hope will take them to the United States.
The flow of migrants from all parts of the world has been virtually non-stop in recent years.
Entire families walk together with the common goal of forging a better future at any cost, even though that means crossing an inhospitable, missing stretch of the Pan-American Highway that is home to armed guerrillas, drug traffickers and deadly wild animals.
According to Panamanian authorities, a record 133,726 people crossed the Darien Gap last year and those numbers have risen sharply again in 2022, with 151,572 making that perilous trek in the first nine months of this year.
The first stop on the route is a relatively pleasant one – the sleepy town of Necocli, where migrants rest on the sand, their children play in the ocean or make castles out of dominoes and sounds of vallenato and salsa waft through the air from beach kiosks.
“The situation is difficult. This thing is going to blow up in our face,” said one person in Capurgana, a village on the edge of the Darien Gap that receives those migrants on the other side of the Gulf of Uraba and is just a short distance from the Panamanian border.
That individual said between 1,200 and 1,600 people are now passing through every day, up from 650 per day last year when the Colombian government had put more restrictions in place.
The growing movement of migrants represents a business opportunity for the residents of Necocli.
The company that runs a ferry service to Capurgana has purchased three additional boats.
More hotels have been established, while informal businesses selling food, rubber boots and dollars have sprouted up on a humble, seaside promenade where trash accumulates on the ground and migrants walk back and forth looking for some useful item for their trek through the jungle.
Lately, there also has been a shift in the nationality of the migrants. While Haitians made up virtually 100 percent of the total last year, in 2022 more than 70 percent have been people from crisis-hit Venezuela.
Leonardo, one of those Venezuelan migrants, said the boats are filled until Sunday, so his family – a group of 40 people accompanying him – will have wait to until then on the beach.
“Some say that Venezuela has gotten better, but it’s a big lie,” Yasmari, one of the members of that large family, said.
The migrants in Necocli have either gone straight to that town from Venezuela or decided upon a trek through the Darien Gap after trying their luck in regional countries such as Peru, Chile and Colombia.
Typically, they have been told by people they know in the US that things are better there.
They readily admit to being afraid of what lies ahead – a merciless jungle filled with myriad challenges, from turbulent rivers; steep, muddy hills made dangerous by torrential rains; gangs that rape, rob and kill migrants and asylum seekers; and potentially deadly snakes, spiders and insects.
Even so, they refuse to let fear stand in their way of their dream – the possibility of a better future at the end of their long and highly uncertain odyssey. EFE