Edited by Jacob Levitan
The Darién Gap on the Panamá-Colombia border is one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes. The remote, roadless crossing of over sixty miles of extensive swamps, precipitous mountain ranges, and dense jungles has become a leading transit point for migrants in search of work and safety. For many migrants crossing the Darién, the goal is to reach the United States on foot since authorities have clamped down on other means of transportation north.
Edward Piñero, a 24-year-old Venezuelan migrant now living in Indiana, expressed how desperate he and others who made the journey were. In Venezuela, he said people were “fleeing for so many reasons… general violence, political persecution, lack of medicine, food, and water,” as well as fleeing climate change’s effects with recurring natural disasters. After a series of blackouts that plunged swaths of Venezuela into darkness, Piñero moved throughout South America from Peru, Bolivia, Chile, and then back to Colombia, seeking security and safety. But he was determined to go to America, where he believed he would be much safer regardless of the risk of expulsion or detainment.
Although the majority of migrants come from Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, some hail from as far as Angola, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. Under mounting pressure from the United States to contain illegal immigration, the Mexican government has cracked down on immigration, redirecting migrants to countries with more lax policies like Brazil or Ecuador. From there, migrants will trek northward to the Darién Gap.
The scarcity of dependable migration routes forces migrants to resort to dangerous paths like the Darién. And the flow of migration is not linear either, as Roger Alonso, the IOM Head of the Panamá (Global) Administrative Center and Chief of Mission, points out. Several flows converge as people move upward, seeking opportunity, and others move back downwards after being turned away from the border, expelled from countries, or simply returning home to reunite with family. Regardless of the insecurity migrants face, however, Piñero said that he and others felt there was no other option.
Within the Darién Gap, immigrants face human trafficking, robbery, drug trafficking, sexual exploitation, disease, dangerous animals, and death. Outside the Gap, though, migrants also face a multitude of problems. In the summer of 2019, Mexico cracked down on the flow of migrants, sending 6,000 National Guard troops to its southern border to intercept migrants without documentation. Then, COVID-era policies made migration even more difficult with lockdowns.
Following that, the relaxation of COVID-19 travel restrictions across the region has seen thousands of migrants – more than before the pandemic – flood the small town of Necocli, Colombia, a major transit point into the Darién Gap. The sudden influx in the summer of 2021 spurred a public-health emergency where the town’s healthcare system collapsed, and a food and water shortage in the town persists. Despite these difficulties, migrants face in crossing the Darién and stricter immigration policies in North and Central America, the number of migrants crossing the jungle nearly doubled from 2021 to 2022.
Laws enforced strictly up north have created a bottleneck effect in Panamá. With no effective police force in the Darién Gap, the territory is controlled by the Gulf Clan drug cartel, one of Colombia’s largest paramilitary drug cartels. Alongside the Gulf Clan are the “coyotes” who specialize in guiding, or smuggling, migrants across the region. Both the Gulf Clan and the coyotes heavily exploit the migrants for safe passage, gouging prices upwards of 18 times standard costs.
The trek poses natural dangers as well, ranging from muddy inclines to poisonous snakes, jaguars, and severe weather. These dangers put migrants at the mercy of the coyotes, on whom they are dependent for safe passage. But because of the coyotes’ monopoly, the coyotes are not held accountable if they do not fulfill their promises or if someone gets injured or killed. The Gulf Clan can similarly exploit these vulnerable people for their profit. Because they control the Gap and are funded by criminal activity, the area is rampant with drug trafficking, illegal mining, and human trafficking.
The dangers continue past the Darién Gap as well. Many migrants face detention in inhuman conditions in countries like Mexico, as Piñero did. A fear of many aiming to live in the US is getting stuck in ‘immigration limbo’ in Mexico. Some of these migrants do not want to apply for asylum in Mexico for reasons ranging from fear of gang violence to not understanding Spanish. Migrant insecurity is constant before, during, and after the Darien Gap. As Alonso aptly points out, the more illegal the activity is made to be, and the less regulated, the more dangerous it will be.
With minimal intervention or immigration reform in Panamá, the Darién has become far more dangerous. Government officials have discussed setting up a boat service to take migrants from Colombia to Panama across the Caribbean, reducing the risks while protecting the rainforest. But, so far, nothing has happened.
Responding to the needs of irregular migrants in transit poses significant challenges mainly related to funding. The support of international cooperation is urgently needed to respond, in coordination with governments, to the immediate needs of the population in transit through Latin America and the Caribbean. Guiseppe Loprete, the IOM Head of the Panamá (Global) Administrative Center and Chief of Mission, says that migration cannot be handled in isolation by countries of origin, transit, or destination. “A regional and coordinated response is required to overcome the adverse factors that force people to seek opportunities beyond their countries,” he says. The crisis has many challenges, and Panamá making a plan with all the actors involved will help. Solutions could be found and implemented in all countries through a long-term strategic plan with all actors involved, starting with Panamá.
Another critical element in changing the situation is opening and strengthening pathways for regular, safe, and humane migration. Migrants are essential contributors to development, and evidence-based policies can reap the actual benefits of regular migration. Panamá’s immigration policy can better advocate for establishing safe routes, channels, and mechanisms to protect the rights of migrants in transit and prevent situations of vulnerability associated with irregular migration, migrant smuggling, and other risks.
Creating non-governmental groups can also relieve pressure on the Panamanian government as it provides healthcare access to migrants. Panamá can also look into providing tools to help people stay in their country of origin. Social and economic integration, maybe through employment or microcredits or giving training to migrants, can be more effective long-term solutions.
For now, though, Edward Piñero says he feels safe and grateful to be in the United States. He’s been working in construction since he first arrived in the country and is actively seeking asylum. However, his goal for the near future is to remain in the United States and study if he gets the opportunity.
Piñero may currently be a success story, but for every struggle he has overcome in his journey, there are countless migrants who have lost. The Darién Gap is not the heart of this migration problem but is a microcosm of this vulnerable population’s many dangers. If Panamá doesn’t act, the state of affairs in the Darién will only deteriorate further.