The Perils of the Darién Migration Route: A Treacherous Odyssey

This formidable challenge faced by migrants along the Darién migration route is a perilous 266-kilometer journey on foot

Another devastating migration story. Between Colombia and Panama. Photo Credit – Carlos Andrés

On the 6th of October, Presidents Laurentino Cortizo of Panama and Rodrigo Chaves of Costa Rica embarked upon a journey to the Darién region, with the collective aim of addressing the prevailing migration crisis. While both presidents are unequivocally committed to fostering controlled and secure migration, their proposed strategy is confronted by the illicit entities that commandeer the passage through the forbidding Darién jungle, concurrently fostering a financial system tailored to the exigencies of migration.

During this diplomatic encounter, President Chaves of Costa Rica expressed a pronounced affinity with the migration policy of the United States, advocating that countries categorized as “sending” and “transit” nations for migrants must endeavor to ensure that individuals migrate “in a legal, organized, and humane manner.” In congruence with this perspective, President Cortizo of Panama underscored the pressing need for these countries to expeditiously harmonize these measures, thereby preempting the inhumane ordeal referred to as the “viacrucis” through the Darién. He fervently emphasized the imperative of taking action prior to migrants’ arrival at the Texas border.

A striking testament to the gravity of the situation is the arrival of over 2,000 individuals, predominantly of Venezuelan origin, in Bajo Chiquito, the first settlement encountered after navigating the arduous jungle, a mere day after swollen rivers had limited daily arrivals to fewer than 600.

Nevertheless, the accounts collated by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Médecins Sans Frontières, a non-governmental organization known as Doctors Without Borders, diverge significantly from the approach articulated by the United States.

Incidents of violence, peril, and indebtedness proliferate within this migratory corridor. Perilous descents from cliffs, drownings, kidnappings by criminal syndicates, the witnessing of sexual assaults, and an overarching sense of helplessness in the face of criminal threats punctuate the experiences relayed by these humanitarian organizations.

This relentless influx of migrants originating from South America, en route to the United States while traversing the treacherous Darién Gap, has propelled the Darién into the annals of history as the “Jungle of Death,” as designated by President Laurentino Cortizo of Panama, and the “Green Hell,” as described by President Rodrigo Chaves of Costa Rica. The magnitude of this migration has surged to unprecedented levels, potentially culminating in a half-million displacements by year’s end.

The hazards intrinsic to the Darién, once considered so inhospitable that it earned the moniker of the “Tapón,” coupled with the operations of criminal cartels that facilitate migrant trafficking, have collectively rendered this route the most perilous migratory conduit globally. Astonishingly, in defiance of these ominous circumstances, approximately two thousand individuals of diverse age groups endeavor to traverse this expanse on foot daily.

Xavier Castellanos Mosquera, the Undersecretary of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, has lamented the physical toll exacted upon migrants navigating El Darién. He notes that their skin is grievously marred by mosquito bites and attacks from jungle fauna. Additionally, he has raised a critical concern that remains largely unacknowledged within the discourse, asserting the presence of commercial banks willing to extend loans to communities embarking on the migration route, thereby plunging families into indebtedness as they engage with human traffickers, a matter demanding further investigation.

Migrants have attested that, upon reaching Capurganá in Colombia, the final point before entering the jungle, they encounter illicit organizations that prescribe rules for passage, with the common refrain being “you pay, you pass.” Some have recounted being held hostage until their ransom is fulfilled.

It is worth noting that during their aerial reconnaissance of regions such as Río Tres Bocas, Canaán Membrillo, and Bajo Chiquito, which are frequented by migrants along their Darién route, the leaders were unable to corroborate the reported conditions.

On the 22nd of October, Mexico convened a meeting of regional heads of state with the overarching objective of “achieving effective results in the short and long term” in response to this escalating migration crisis.

The Darién has evolved into the epicenter of an extensive migratory exodus, with over 400,000 individuals having crossed its formidable terrain by the end of September, nearly double the preceding year’s figures. Official statistics indicate that 25% of these migrants are minors, with the majority comprising Venezuelans (exceeding 265,000), Ecuadorians, and Haitians, alongside a contingent of Asians and Africans.

Subsequent to their traverse of this inhospitable 266-kilometer-long jungle, migrants aspire to reach the United States via Central America and Mexico. Upon arrival at their destination, they undergo registration by immigration authorities and are subsequently dispatched, often in the early hours of the morning, in vessels equipped with outboard motors to an alternate reception point in the Darién, located just beyond the jungle’s periphery. From there, they proceed to the Costa Rican border by means of buses.

Although their arrival is irregular, the National Border Service captures their personal information and permits their continuation, an approach characterized as a “controlled flow” by the government. Typically, migrants do not linger within Panamanian territory, as doing so exposes them to the risk of apprehension and subsequent deportation.

In acknowledgment of the persistent and burgeoning migratory flow, the Panamanian and Costa Rican governments are championing a plan to deploy around 200 buses as of the forthcoming Monday, facilitating the transfer of migrants from the Darién to a temporary shelter located a few kilometers from Paso Canoas, situated on the Costa Rican side. This initiative aims to alleviate the strain and accumulation of foreign nationals in this locale, previously dedicated to retail tourism.

Furthermore, these governments are resolute in their efforts to combat human trafficking networks operating at customary arrival points. Presidents Cortizo and Chaves recently conducted an aerial survey of the Bajo Chiquito area and visited the Lajas Blancas community, both within the Darién. During their visit, they observed groups of migrants arriving by boat, including women cradling infants. Notably, prior to the arrival of the dignitaries, at least two women required medical assistance along the riverbank.

Both leaders are calling for an expeditious assembly of heads of state from all nations implicated in this migration scenario, encompassing countries of origin such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia, as well as transit and destination nations. They ardently endorse the forthcoming summit convened by Mexico, scheduled for the 22nd of October, as a pivotal forum to yield “concrete and immediate outcomes.”

The magnitude of this predicament necessitates the collective engagement of all relevant stakeholders, as articulated by President Cortizo: “This is such a big problem that we need the participation of all the links.”

By the IDHUS Institute

The Institute for the Development of Human Societies is a think tank shedding light on the complex interplay between demography, human development, the impact of technology on society and global population dynamics