By Bram Ebus
On an overcast morning in November 2022, Yeimy, a Venezuelan migrant, sat on a plastic chair, clutching her knees together and tightly gripping her backpack. Despite the commotion around her – agitated strangers coming and going, carrying luggage under constant rain to the docked boats – her eyes remained fixed on her two toddler sons. She and her children were among the hundreds of thousands of people attempting a dangerous trek through − or preferably around − the Darién, a patch of dense jungle between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea on the strip of land connecting Colombia and Panama. The Darién – the only stretch of the continent without a road – has long been one of the most treacherous routes in the Americas. Generations of adventurers –sixteenthcentury Spanish conquistadors, seventeenthcentury Scottish settlers, missionaries – have tried to traverse it, often failing. Today, it is somewhat easier to cross, but migrants are at risk of extortion, rape and violence as they venture north. Around 250,000 people navigated the Darién in 2022 – a figure that could rise to 400,000 in 2023.
During the trip, Yeimy (Crisis Group is not sharing her last name to protect her) and other migrants I met would find themselves at the mercy of an interlocking web of criminal networks. Local smugglers, or coyotes, have fashioned themselves as “guides” the migrants must hire – or pay off. The Colombian side of the Darién is controlled by the Gaitanistas Self-Defence Forces, the country’s largest cocaine trafficking organisation; while the Gaitanistas claim not to be involved in migrant smuggling, according to numerous reports they do indeed profit from it. Tens of thousands of people from dozens of countries are attempting to traverse the Darién every month, making it the continent’s most notorious bottleneck. Passage through it is an obstacle course of hardship and abuse; travellers are at risk of sexual assault, theft and, in some cases, death. For many migrants, the help purportedly offered by traffickers and criminals is the only measure of protection at hand.
Perils of the Pacific
Yeimy is one of seven million Venezuelans who have fled their economically destitute homeland in the past eight years. She was 28 years old when she left her job as an administrator in a public hospital in Caracas, the country’s capital. Like most Venezuelans, she earned her salary in bolivars, the local currency, which amounted to only a few dozen U.S. dollars per month and wasn’t enough to feed her family. She decided to flee north; to finance the trip, she sold her house, even though she lived in a state-built unit she did not in fact own. With the $3,910 in cash she pocketed, she prepared to leave.
The trip was perilous from the start. When Yeimy was crossing the border into Colombia, officers from the Venezuelan National Guard tried to extort money from her for an exit stamp in her passport. She decided not to pay, opting to head into Colombia using a trocha, an informal crossing. The decision would have a significant impact on her future progress: Yeimy immediately became an undocumented migrant, ineligible for legal protection and assistance programs in place for those with the right paperwork. She was thus at a major disadvantage for the rest of her journey.
Bahía Solano, which sits on the Pacific coast, is a beach town with a postcard-worthy look. It is also a hub for cocaine trafficking, however, and a pit stop for migrants finding their way to the United States. At Bahía Solano, Yeimy, her sons and others were waiting for a speedboat to Juradó, the next stop on the migrant route before Panama. The boat was not yet ready for departure, and music was blasting over the bay from the nearby beachside brothel where sex workers, their pimps and clients were boozing and carousing. When the woman in charge of the passenger list approached, she said Yeimy and her children would not be able to board. “No foreigners”, she declared icily, adding that it was on the orders of the dominant local armed group – the Gaitanistas. Yeimy was visibly crushed when she heard the news.
“No one wants us here”, she whispered to me.
Desperate, she attempted to reach her coyote through phone calls and text messages, only to be informed that the fee for passage had increased by $500 from what they had agreed upon. After some haggling, Yeimy managed to bring the extra payment down to $150 and finally secured a place on the boat. Her cash reserves were dwindling: she had been robbed during her bus ride through Colombia and upon her arrival in Bahía Solano a local official extracted $50 from her.
The boat trip was far from easy. For three hours, the vessel battled heavy rains and a turbulent sea, the waves slapping relentlessly against the hull. We eventually reached Juradó, where I soon lost sight of Yeimy and her sons. She had planned to stay in the small town for just three days, but weeks later she texted me, revealing that she was still stranded there. Her smuggler had turned out not to be as effective as promised. Low on cash and unsure about her next step, Yeimy sounded down, her messages charged with frustration and pain.
Much of the Colombian territory migrants traverse on their way to the Darién is controlled by the Gaitanistas Self-Defence Forces. The Gaitanistas have at least 9,000 members and are present in 24 of Colombia’s 32 departments. They are on the U.S. Treasury Department’s sanctions list due to their involvement in the drug trade. Their role in killings and displacement is widely documented.
The Gaitanistas rose on the Colombian side of the Darién in the wake of the departure of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) from the region after its 2016 peace agreement with the government. The Gaitanistas then fought the largest remaining rebel group, the National Liberation Army (ELN), for control of the area, defeating it in 2020 and assuming undisputed sway. It was a coup for the group, because the region allows for easy access to trafficking routes via both the Pacific and the Caribbean. To consolidate their grip on local communities, the Gaitanistas invested in rural infrastructure, distributed Christmas gifts to children and provided financial support to locals to make home improvements.
Many residents of Bahía Solano and Juradó stopped fishing for a living years ago, turning instead to “white fishing” – the practice of collecting floating packages of cocaine that drug traffickers drop when the seas get too rough or the coast guard draws too close. They are under orders to sell their catch only to the Gaitanistas, who buy it at a fixed price. The cost of disobedience is clear. “Where there is drug trafficking, there will be violence”, observed a local. Large tractors pulling speedboats to and from the bay have transformed the unpaved streets of Bahía Solano into muddy paths and left gaping ruts in the otherwise pristine beaches.
Despite credible allegations that the Gaitanistas are involved in a multitude of illicit activities, local leaders in the organisation claim they are in fact bringing order and peace to the region. The group’s political leader, alias Jerónimo, who is part of the central command, told me that they safeguard migrants who cross the Colombian side of the Darién. I met him in the countryside near the Gulf of Urabá, along Colombia’s north-western coast. We were high up on a hill, but a colossal mango tree shielded us from aerial detection.
Sporting sunglasses, a beige t-shirt, jeans and military-style boots, and brandishing a camo Glock 9mm with a 30-round magazine, Jerónimo said the Gaitanistas “had to come in to control, to oversee, to make sure nothing happened to migrants, that they aren’t robbed, raped, attacked”. The group’s claims are not matched by the reality of many residents. They enforce a crude frontier justice, but they also maintain authoritarian control, punishing those who defy their rules, resorting to violence against those who speak out and coercing locals into collaboration. The walls of towns such as El Valle, near the Pacific, and Unguía, on the Caribbean side, confirm who is in charge: the spray-painted acronym “AGC” remains untouched; according to locals, nobody dares clean the graffiti off.
Jerónimo, political leader of
the Gaitanista Self-Defence Forces,
showing off his gun
In effect, the Gaitanistas are the gatekeepers of the Darién jungle, at least on the Colombian side. “We control which drug traffickers pass through; we control the tourism; we control who crosses any corridor in our territory”, said Jerónimo. He claims their presence is helpful. “Those people who manage the business need to be very aware that if they are going to do it, they need to respect the lives of migrants”, he said. Jerónimo denied direct involvement in human smuggling and distanced his organisation from the coyotes in the region. He asserted, in fact, that the Gaitanistas have meted out severe punishment to coyotes who don’t behave as instructed. Instead, he claimed that most of the Gaitanistas’ income comes from taxing cocaine traffickers and multinational corporations with local operations, including in the mining sector. Colombian officials disputed this account, however; according to them, the Gaitanistas benefit from the multimillion-dollar migrant industry by collecting a percentage of the fees migrants pay to be ferried north.
Maradona and the Guides
On a visit to the Caribbean side of Colombia’s Darién, I found myself sitting with over 70 migrants on a boat departing from the beach town of Necoclí to the Gulf of Urabá. The passengers were mostly Venezuelans, as well as a few Chinese and Haitians. All wore mandatory life jackets. As the vessel approached its destination – the Colombian village of Acandí – small motorised boats zipping around a floating dock greeted us. The migrants retrieved their belongings and were promptly whisked through a back river to the “shelter”, an area where they gathered before venturing into the Darién jungle proper.
The shelter was run by self-described “humanitarian guides” wearing distinctive fluorescent vests. Within the premises, which resembled a compound, some migrants found accommodation in tents, while others received medical attention from a doctor and a nurse, whose salaries were covered by payments the “guides” collected from migrants. Still other travellers prepared their backpacks in anticipation of the journey into the jungle. The man who runs the compound called himself Maradona; he walked around the compound wearing swim shorts and flip-flops.
When I met Maradona in April, more than a thousand migrants were crossing Acandí each day, the majority stopping by his shelter. “Given that tourism has been reduced because of the migrant issue, we saw this as an opportunity to create employment”, he told me. “The number one economic activity in Acandí is called the migrant”. Indeed, almost the whole village depends on the migrant economy. There are approximately 300 “guides” in rotating shifts who accompany migrants on the walk between the town and a campsite situated near the border, a service that costs around $160. Another estimated 900 men work as bag carriers on the same route. Near the border, Panamanian “guides”, mostly from local Indigenous communities, take charge of the migrants.
Officials and humanitarian agency employees have criticised these so-called guides for charging the migrants. When I bring up these complaints, Maradona becomes agitated. “If they don’t want us to charge [the migrants] for our services, they can come and pay for it; or they can come and do it themselves”, he said. “We are not the problem here”, he continued. “The problem is the Colombian government. All these international institutions have visited, and no one has done a damn thing about what is happening”. Nor, he added, has the Colombian state offered much in the way of job opportunities. Acandí, a village long deprived of decent health and education services and lacking road access and stable internet connections, is seeing its young people abandon school to work with migrants.
Maradona introduced me to a 30-year-old who was in charge of a group of “guides”. He told me he used to work as a bag carrier for migrants, whom he helped scramble through the jungle. “I was a guide, and now thank God I have the opportunity to work in coordination”, he said. The employment created by the migrant industry meant he could now provide for his two-year-old son. Every week, he trekked up to Las Tecas, near the border, to assess conditions on the trail and in the camp, looking for potential difficulties. He maintained communication with the shelter and the camp through a walkie-talkie. Typically, migrants were able to complete the hike to the first camp near the border in a single day. Migrants were occasionally ferried by horse for the first part of the journey.
As much as this work had improved this young man’s life, witnessing the migrants’ suffering burdened him. He described instances where wounded migrants had to be carried out of the jungle in hammocks. He also worried about the migrants’ fate after he delivered them to his Panamanian counterparts.
When I left Acandí, the boat back to Necoclí was nearly empty, aside from two young Venezuelans. The boys – aged sixteen and twenty – had been turned away as they tried to enter the Darién jungle without making the required payment. They didn’t have the money. The “guides” had told me discounts were available for penniless migrants, but the two Venezuelans were offered no such support.
Against All Odds
In early 2023, I was able to reconnect with Yeimy. She had finally been able to cross the border and we arranged to meet in Panama City. Her journey, however, had been harrowing. “It was very hard, feeling one way or another you are going to die”, she said. In Juradó, Yeimy had decided to break with her handler after he sent her messages that made her uncomfortable. She managed to find another human smuggler, connected to the Gaitanistas, who set up a new trip for her for a fee of $450.
Before daybreak one December morning, Yeimy – along with her children and another Venezuelan migrant – had embarked on a speedboat. As they approached the border, Yeimy recognised the Panamanian flag and was filled with hope. To her dismay, however, the boat captain abruptly accelerated when he spotted a coast guard vessel. Not being able to reach the port, the coyotes dropped the migrants off on a nearby island, promising they would return to retrieve them soon.
Bahía Solano, department of Chocó,
They never did. Yeimy tearfully recounted the events of the first night, when monkeys shrieked and launched small coconuts at them. Then, a jaguar emerged onto the beach. “This is not how we will die”, she thought. “I would rather drown”. Determined that the jaguar would not kill her kids, she waded into the sea with them in her arms, evading the animal.
A man Yeimy had met online was expecting her in Panama City, and it was this connection that saved her and the children’s lives. Alarmed by the lack of news, the man began making phone calls and managed to get in touch with members of a nearby Indigenous tribe. They promptly set off on their motorised canoes in search of the missing migrants. “When I saw [them], I thought I was seeing God”, Yeimy said with a laugh. The rescue, naturally, was not free of charge; but this time she handed over the $200 they requested with no complaint.
Over coffee in Panama City, Yeimy recounted the rest of her odyssey. She spoke about how the Panamanian border guard officers had treated her disparagingly. She told me how she twice escaped the clutches of Panamanian migration officials. Finally, a kind-hearted truck driver heading toward the capital allowed her and her children to hide in the sleeping cabin. When she arrived in Panama City to start her life as an undocumented immigrant, Yeimy was holding only $50 of the $3,910 she had in her pocket when left Venezuela. “You have to be brave to migrate”, she said.