With a global upsurge in migration, more and more people are making the perilous journey over the Darién Gap, a narrow land bridge that links South and Central America. In 2023, more than 400,000 individuals traversed the Darién forests, turning it into a migratory center. While the Gaitanistas, Colombia’s most prominent criminal organization, control drug trafficking and other rackets in the region, locals have given up their traditional occupations to serve newcomers.
Roaring migrant numbers have prompted demands for drastic measures, especially in the United States, while regional solutions are falling behind. It is very difficult to ensure the security of migrants while simultaneously controlling the flow of people at the borders. There has to be a shift in policy toward measures that strengthen law enforcement, aid the nations from which the majority of migrants leave, divide up the work of welcome, and increase security and humanitarian assistance.
Although the Darién provides migrants with opportunities, it poses human and policy-level obstacles. Migrants risk violence, heat fatigue, and sickness while paying exorbitant prices for the journey. The gaitanistas’ forceful supervision runs a flourishing cocaine supply chain down the Pacific, making routes along the Colombian side safer.
There is less organized criminality but more imminent physical risk on the Panamanian side of the border. There have been allegations of border authorities abusing vulnerable women, and gangs created by local adolescents have been known to harass and assault migrants, abducting them and molesting them in tents.
Nearly all criminal organizations and corrupt state officials in the region get away with it, and almost all migrants(97%) who are making their way to the United States say that the Darién is the most dangerous leg of their journey.
As they make their way to the southern border of the United States, hundreds of migrants have been molested, including children, while walking through the perilous Darien Gap rainforest in Panama. In 2023 alone, Doctors Without Borders (or Médecins Sans Frontières) treated approximately 400 victims in the Darien Gap. Threatening those trying to traverse the forest are gangs of armed bandits who abduct, rob, and abuse them.