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Inside the Darién Gap: At the Center of Migration in the Americas

Examining the various factors influencing migration through the treacherous Darién Gap region of Panama and Colombia, including the reasons prompting migration, the challenges encountered by migrants, and the actions taken by relevant stakeholders in response.

 
Darién Gap
A map depicting the Darién Gap, situated along the Panama-Colombia international border. Thousands undertake illegal crossings through this region annually, driven by aspirations for safety and upward mobility.

The Darién Gap

The presence of migrants next to flags symbolizes the widespread outflow of migration originating from countries across Latin America and globally.

Crossing the Colombia-Panama border poses a significant challenge primarily due to its rugged geography. Similar to other notorious crossing areas known for high numbers of missing migrants around the world, the terrain of the Darién Gap is exceedingly difficult to access. However, despite these challenges, migrants continue to make the trek each year, defying expectations.


In 2023 alone, an astonishing 520,000 migrants risked their lives crossing the perilous Darién Gap migration route on foot, according to recent data from the Panamanian government. Among them, Venezuelans and Haitians stand out as the most populous migratory groups, with migrants from Cuba, Africa, and Asia also traveling along the route driven by desperation. Push factors such as political instability, economic hardship, and social unrest in their home countries have compelled these migrants to undertake such a risky journey in search of safety and opportunity.


From 2015 to 2021, nearly 79% of newcomers consisted of individuals from Haiti, Cuba, or offspring born in Brazil and Chile to Haitian migrants who had resettled in South America in previous years. However, in 2022, a significant demographic shift occurred, with the majority of those making their way to Panama after journeying through the jungle originating from Venezuela. This change was prompted by Mexico and several Central American countries' decision to mandate visas for individuals from Venezuela that year, leading many who were unable to secure legal entry to cross through the Darién instead.


Migrants in South America and the Caribbean face obstacles in obtaining visas for Mexico and Central American countries, leaving them with limited alternative pathways to reach North America. The Darién Gap presents itself as a viable option due to its geographical location as the only land bridge connecting South and Central America. Consequently, migrants are compelled to navigate through the Darién Gap despite its hazardous terrain and associated risks.


Migration Challenges in the Darién Gap

Darién Gap
Migrants trekking through the Darién Gap on foot.

Authorities in Panama have been monitoring migrant arrivals since 2010, with speculation that this extends to a decade prior. Thousands have crossed this region situated between the borders of Colombia and Panama, aspiring to settle in the United States or other countries in the region where they seek better opportunities. However, the passage across the Darién Gap presents significant challenges marked by dense jungle, rugged terrain, and formidable natural obstacles, including dangerous wildlife, adverse weather conditions, and the risk of contracting diseases such as malaria.


The absence of established infrastructure, roads, and formal routes compounds the challenges for migrants navigating the area, creating an environment where criminal gangs can operate freely, heightening the dangers faced by migrants. Despite the ongoing risks, migrants choose this route due to the limited options available and the enduring legacy of migration through the Darién Gap. While the Pan-American Highway offers an appealing alternative route, its path abruptly halts at the 60-mile wide Darién Gap, cutting off the connection between Central and South America by road.

Map highlighting the Pan American Highway, with a notable pause at the Darién Gap.

Situated along the Panama-Colombia border, this remote region is home to indigenous communities and criminal gangs operating beyond governmental oversight. Efforts to enhance security and establish safe passage initiatives along the Pan-American Highway face ongoing challenges, including logistical, political, and financial constraints. Consequently, many migrants find themselves compelled to undertake the perilous journey through the Darién Gap, underscoring the critical need for comprehensive solutions to address migration's root causes and ensure the safety of those pursuing a brighter future. As migration continues to reshape the Darién Gap and its surrounding communities, the intersecting challenges confronting migrants and indigenous residents highlight the imperative for collaborative action to tackle the multifaceted issues at hand.


Impact on Indigenous Communities

Bajo Chiquito
The rural village of Bajo Chiquito in Panama, originally home to indigenous communities, now hosts thousands of migrants passing through each year.

Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain their cultural identity, traditional lands, and ways of life, as recognized by various international agreements and declarations, including the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP). The movement of migrants through the Darién Gap has significantly impacted indigenous communities in the region. As migrants travel through their territories, indigenous peoples face various challenges, including disruptions to their traditional way of life and potential conflicts over resources. Additionally, the presence of migrants may burden already limited resources and infrastructure, impacting the well-being and livelihoods of indigenous populations. This situation emphasizes the importance of considering the rights and needs of indigenous communities in the context of migration through the Darién Gap.


When migrants travel through indigenous territories, it can disturb the social fabric and traditional practices of these communities. Additionally, increased migration may lead to conflicts over resources such as land and water, potentially exacerbating tensions between migrants and indigenous peoples. Furthermore, indigenous communities in the Darién Gap may face human rights violations as a result of the influx of migrants. This can include violations of their rights to security, health, and self-determination.


Bajo Chiquito Community

Darién Gap
A depiction of the harsh conditions migrants must endure, including the obstacles and dangers of relocation.

The influx of migrants passing through the Darién Gap has significantly impacted Bajo Chiquito, a community deeply rooted within this challenging terrain. Surrounded by dense jungle and formidable natural barriers, the small village serves as a significant stop along the migration route, attracting travelers navigating this perilous journey. Traditionally sustained by fishing and farming, Bajo Chiquito now experiences a shift in economic opportunities, as residents provide services to passing migrants and their families. Playing a pivotal role in Panama's migration landscape, the community acts as a critical stop along the challenging migration route through the Darién Gap. Positioned strategically along this pathway, the community functions as a central hub where migrants pause to rest, obtain supplies, and receive assistance before continuing their journey.


As migrants move through this hazardous route, they encounter various dangers, from the loss of fellow travelers to encounters with wildlife and the looming threat of criminal gangs. Many migrants report incidents involving these gangs, where they are assaulted and robbed of whatever few belongings they possess. The undeniable reality of these hazards emphasizes the immense challenges faced by migrants seeking passage through the Darién Gap. In Bajo Chiquito, this reality intertwines with the community's evolving dynamics, shaping their responses to the changing circumstances brought about by the increase in migration. Furthermore, the emergence of organized crime poses an additional challenge for Bajo Chiquito. As economic opportunities shift, the community must confront the dual challenge of accommodating migrants while combating criminal activities, adding another layer of complexity to their response to increased migration.


Organized Crime in the Darién Gap

Armed illegal gangs have emerged throughout the Darién Gap, aiming to control and traffic migrants passing through, exploiting the lack of government oversight in the region.

The primary route favored by migrants journeying from Colombia into Panama predominantly relies on boat transport. This expedition typically initiates in the coastal town of Necoclí, Colombia, where migrants often find themselves compelled to pay a bribe fee to certain individuals, colloquially known as 'coyotes'. These coyotes play a pivotal yet illegal role in facilitating the stealthy border crossing. Within this context, the term coyotes denotes individuals engaged in the smuggling of people across international borders, navigating through the complex web of regulations and enforcement measures.


Colombian based coyotes are closely tied to organized crime networks operating in the region. Reports indicate that the coyotes assisting migrants charge fees ranging from $70 to $150 per migrant. While seemingly assisting migrants, they are deeply involved in criminal enterprises, exploiting vulnerable individuals for financial gain. Beyond smuggling, these groups engage in activities like drug and human trafficking, maintaining control over migration routes and perpetuating exploitation. Collaborating with other criminal elements, they maximize profits and expand operations, increasing risks for migrants and reinforcing the perilous nature of irregular migration routes.


Challenges and Responses in Addressing Migration

Janaina Isabel Tewaney, Panama's Foreign Minister, exchanges greetings with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas following their joint statement on migration in Panama City, Panama on April 11, 2023.

Acknowledging the urgency to address migration through the Darién Gap, governments on both sides of the border have recognized the pressing need for action. The United States, exerting notable influence, views the dense jungle as a strategic area to deter prospective migrant arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border. Despite commitments from Colombia, Panama, and the United States to tackle migration, the growing number of individuals traveling through the Darién Gap emphasizes the formidable challenges faced by such policies.


Responding to the migration crisis, Colombia, Panama, and the United States have collaborated to confront the challenges posed by irregular migration flows through the Darién Gap. Colombia, being the primary country of origin for many migrants embarking on the perilous journey, has implemented measures to enhance border security and combat human trafficking networks operating within its territory. Additionally, Colombian authorities have intensified their presence along the border with Panama to prevent illegal crossings and provide support to migrants in need.


As the transit country for migrants journeying to North America, Panama has focused on improving humanitarian assistance and protection for individuals crossing the Darién Gap. The Panamanian government has established reception centers and temporary shelters along the migration route to offer essential services and support to migrants. Furthermore, Panama has collaborated with international organizations, including the United Nations, and neighboring countries to strengthen border management and address the root causes of migration.


Recognizing the strategic significance of the Darién Gap in managing migration flows, the United States has provided financial assistance and technical support to Colombia and Panama. This support aims to enhance border security and improve migration management efforts. Additionally, the United States has implemented policies aimed at deterring irregular migration, including increased border enforcement and cooperation with regional partners to disrupt human smuggling networks. Despite these efforts, the challenges posed by rugged terrain and organized criminal networks persist, complicating the effective management of migration through the Darién Gap.


Conclusion

Migrant camp in Bajo Chiquito village, Darién province, Panama.

With the ongoing increase in migration through the Darién Gap, Panama's future trajectory is subject to significant implications. However, it's important to recognize that migration not only affects Panama but also has profound implications for other Central American countries, Mexico, and the United States. As migrants travel through Panama, they often continue their journey towards the north, seeking refuge or opportunities in other countries within Central America, such as Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Guatemala, and Honduras. This influx of migrants places additional strains on the resources and infrastructure of these countries, exacerbating existing challenges related to social services, healthcare, and employment opportunities.


Furthermore, the movement of migrants from Central America into Mexico and eventually towards the United States border has significant ramifications for U.S. immigration policies and border security. The United States, as a destination for many migrants fleeing violence, poverty, and instability, faces pressure to manage and address the flow of individuals seeking asylum or better livelihoods. This situation has led to debates and policy discussions surrounding immigration reform, border enforcement, and humanitarian assistance.


In response to these challenges, there is a need for enhanced cooperation and coordination among countries in the region to develop comprehensive strategies for managing migration effectively. This includes efforts to address the root causes of migration, such as poverty, violence, and political instability, through targeted development initiatives and diplomatic engagement. Additionally, there is a need for greater investment in border security, humanitarian assistance, and capacity-building initiatives to support both migrants and host communities.

Ultimately, addressing the complexities of migration requires a multi-dimensional approach that considers the economic, social, and political factors driving migration while prioritizing human rights, dignity, and the well-being of all individuals affected by migration flows.


Bibliography

  1. Connectas. "Bajo Chiquito: How Migration Transformed a Village in the Jungle." https://www.connectas.org/especiales/bajo-chiquito-how-migration-transformed-a-village-in-the-jungle/

  2. Roy, Diana. "Crossing the Darién Gap: Migrants Risk Death on the Journey to the U.S," Council on Foreign Relations (2024). https://www.cfr.org/article/crossing-darien-gap-migrants-risk-death-journey-us.

  3. Human Rights Watch (2023). "How the Treacherous Darien Gap Became a Migration Crossroads of the Americas." https://www.hrw.org/news/2023/10/10/how-treacherous-darien-gap-became-migration-crossroads-americas.

  4. Lizcano Villalba, Javier, and Raquel Ballestin. "Organized Crime Profits From Migrants in the Darien Gap," Insight Crime (2022). https://insightcrime.org/news/organized-crime-profits-migrants-darien-gap/.

  5. Yates, Caitlyn. "Inclusive Counting: An Essential but Insufficient Approach to Account for Missing Migrants in Panama and Colombia’s Shared Darien Gap." Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, ahead-of-print, no. ahead-of-print (2023): 1–18.

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