Marina Daley | Latin America Fellow
Darién National Park with the Emberá, indigenous people of Panama and Colombia. Image credit: Harvey Barrison via Flickr.
There is an emerging humanitarian crisis in the Darién Gap. As the only land path to Central America from South America, it is a crucial route for irregular migration to the United States (US). A treacherous tropical jungle joining Colombia and Panamá, covering 6,000 square kilometres, and taking between four and ten days to navigate, it is the crossroads where US immigration policy connects with the challenging socioeconomic and security conditions in South America.
Over 500,000 migrants are expected to make the precarious journey this year, a surge from nearly 250,000 in 2022 and 150,000 in 2021. Children account for 1 in 5 of the people crossing the gap, a route that is filled with sexual assault, robbery, and murder by organised crime groups. The overall decline in economic conditions, political instability, and rising violence in South America, alongside reactions to changes in US migration policy, explains the upsurge of migrants. The activity in the Darién Gap has become an economy in itself, benefitting organised crime groups and local communities, while the sheer number of migrants puts a strain on local resources. The Darién Gap has become another challenge in regional migration policy in the Americas.
Regional Contexts and Migrant Surges
The significant growth in migrants crossing the Darién Gap is linked to the increasing number of migrants from South America taking land routes to the US. While previously able to fly to Mexico and Central American countries, stricter visa requirements have limited migrants from flying to countries closer to the US.
In 2023, migrants from Venezuela, Ecuador, and Haiti accounted for 84 percent of total crossings of the Darién Gap. The authoritarian rule of President Maduro and linked economic collapse explains the sheer volume of Venezuelans crossing, with 209,000 of them crossing in 2023 to resettle to the US. Ecuador’s homicide rate this year has exceeded that of Mexico and Brazil, due to its emerging role as a ‘cocaine superhighway’, creating an exodus. Many of the Haitians crossing the Darién are migrants who previously lived in Chile and Brazil but migrating north due to limited opportunities and discrimination.
Implication of US Migration Policy on Regional Migration
As the US is the main destination country for migrants, it has sought to deter irregular migration, however, with limited success. Since the end of Title 42 in May, permitting the US to turn away people at the southern border without hearing asylum claims, the Biden administration has sought to maintain strict border restrictions. It created the CBP One app, developed to provide access to US immigration appointments for those applying for asylum but lacks sufficient appointments to match the demand. Without an appointment through the app, asylum seekers face a ban on re-entry for 5 years even if they qualify as asylum seekers. This has meant that asylum seekers must wait in Mexico until their appointment, where they can be victims of crime and extortion.
The US has also restarted removal flights to Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras, and most notably Venezuela, which were resumed in exchange for relief from US energy sanctions. It opened new lawful pathways to immigration, such as Secure Mobility centres in Colombia and Ecuador for refugee settlement in the US. Yet, wait times are long and the program’s website struggles to keep up with demand. Although these new lawful pathways are a step toward regulating migration to the US, they are not sufficiently effective to deter people from using irregular routes. For those in South America seeking to migrate immediately, the Darién Gap is still their preferred option.
In April 2023, the governments of Colombia, Panama, and the US signed a trilateral agreement to address irregular migration through the Darién Gap. Together, they launched a 60-day campaign aiming at halting irregular migration in April, with limited success in reducing migrant numbers. Panama has been committed to this, launching Shield Campaign, to counter transnational criminal organisations that commit crimes against the migrants. However, they are frustrated by Colombia’s inability to stem migrants from coming to the Darién, especially due to their lack of information sharing, further challenging cooperation on regional migration issues. Nonetheless, Colombia has welcomed the largest number of Venezuelan migrants. A recent Latin American summit for migration concluded that waves of migration are largely fuelled by “coercive unilateral measures” imposed by the US, particularly upon Venezuela and Cuba. It is clear that there is appetite for regional cooperation beyond the involvement of the US.
The Economies of Irregular Migration
The increase in demand to cross this route has enriched local communities and organised crime groups alike. Migrant smuggling is a highly profitable enterprise. A guide who makes two trips through the Darién can earn US$450, double the monthly minimum wage. Indigenous communities, such as the Emberá, have also profited from the migrants, selling them goods, in particular water bottles and shoes, and services, such as phone charging and internet access, creating new economies.
However, new challenges have emerged, such as transporting and guiding of migrants supplanting traditional livelihoods, and locals collaborating with organised crime groups. The Gulf Clan, a Colombian organised crime group, controls much of the Colombian side of the Darién, and is involved in moving cocaine through this route. It also regulates migrant smuggling through controlling routes and taxing guides and communities in the Darién. Their estimated annual earnings are US$57 million purely from activities related to migrant smuggling.
The humanitarian crisis unfolding in the Darién Gap is not merely a consequence of the treacherous journey undertaken by migrants but a multifaceted challenge at the intersection of geopolitical, socioeconomic, and security factors. The alarming surge in the number of migrants navigating this perilous route reflects both the deteriorating conditions in South American countries and the repercussions of evolving US immigration policies. The Darién has evolved beyond a migration corridor, becoming a thriving economy for both organized crime groups and local communities, adding to the challenges.
Migration through the Darién is expected to endure despite governmental initiatives. The underlying factors driving individuals to undertake this journey, including political and economic instability, are expected to persist, making a coordinated regional response difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, the continued pressure on Central and South American countries may drive a Latin American-led response, which will likely be more effective in addressing the root causes.
Marina Daley is the Latin America Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.