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Lawless and neglected: Local Colombians see Darién influx as economic lifeline

‘The people here are not criminals. They are victims.’

This is a medium shot of a dock in Acandí. We see a boat worker as they transfer bags from migrants who've taken the boat. Tim O’Farrell/TNH
Boat workers unload migrants' bags at the seaport of Acandí, Colombia's gateway to the Darién Gap. Marginalised for years by the Colombian government, local residents are now economically dependent on the migration business.

The small coastal town of Acandí in northwestern Colombia serves as the gateway to the Darién Gap, the dense jungle corridor that separates Colombia from Panama and one of the most dangerous migration routes in the world. But as migrants arrive by boat from the ports of Necoclí or Turbo, there are no migration officials in sight, no police, and no checkpoints. In fact, there is no visible state presence at all.

Hundreds of motorcycle taxi drivers in matching uniforms, however, are neatly lined up, waiting to rush migrants down the narrow jungle road towards camps that have been built to house them before they continue north.

As the new arrivals disembark, a woman calls out numbers, organising passengers into groups beside a large hand-painted sign that reads “Welcome to the Darién, migrant shelter ahead”. They are then whisked away towards a staging area set up nearby: a walled compound with restaurants; shops that sell water, food, beer and coffee; and even a money exchange booth offering banking and international transfer services.

A close up of the border between Panamá and Colombia. The Colombian department of Chocó is highlighted in red. The Darién province in Panamá is highlighted in green. Walking routes to cross the border from Colombia starting from Turbo and Necoclí are marked in blue (boat routes) green (main walking routes) and brown (secondary walking route).

Described as “impenetrable” for years, the Darién Gap is now very much open for business. More than 520,000 people crossed in 2023 and more than 110,000 in the first three months of 2024 –an eightfold increase over the same period in 2022.

An entire economy has sprung up around the migration, employing thousands of local residents in a region that has long been marginalised by the Colombian government, and which now offers services to migrants whose nationalities span the globe.

Visa restrictions in several countries have made the Darién Gap the only overland route from South America into Central America, forcing migrants who want to head north towards the United States to take the nearly 100-kilometre trek despite the dangers.

The largest numbers come from Venezuela, Ecuador, and Haiti, but it has now become a global route with an increasing influx from further afield, especially from China.

Many are migrating for a second time. They often reach Acandí in precarious condition after spending weeks or months stranded in towns en route trying to make enough money to continue their journey. 

Despite that, there is no government response to their needs and only three aid agencies offer some services in Acandí. As a result, the vacuum has been filled by civil society, as well as by Colombia’s largest criminal group: the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AGC) – often called the “Clan del Golfo” by the government.

Criminals or victims?

This informal response has sparked controversy in the region, with some politicians and pundits describing workers from the local community as “human traffickers”, claiming they are employed by the AGC or that they are taking advantage of migrants. Local politicians have also been embroiled in migration-related scandals. The mayor of Acandí, Luis Fernando Martínez, who took office in January, benefitted from campaign financing from groups who profit from the new migration economy — and enjoys at least implicit approval from the AGC.

“AGC controls the region entirely. They determine who is allowed to do business, who is allowed to run for office, and even what infrastructure projects get approved,” said Bram Ebus, consultant for the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Colombia.

“AGC is the group here that controls the region, of course. And they profit from this. But... we can’t do anything about that. We have very few resources, no security forces, and have been completely abandoned by the national government.”

But Ebus stressed that criminalising vulnerable groups who live in a region that has long been plagued by conflict and armed groups does nothing to address the underlying problems left by non-state responses, such as a lack of communication between Colombian and Panamanian authorities, access for aid groups, and ensuring migrants are not exploited or preyed upon.

“Calling these communities ‘traffickers’ isn’t accurate,” he said. “AGC taxes all present economies in the Darién region, be they formal, informal, or criminal. They are defining the rules of the game. That doesn’t mean that people who are adhering to [those rules] are part of AGC.”

The regional authorities said this conflation creates a stigma on residents who live there. “AGC is the group here [that controls the region], of course,” said Somer Carvajal Valayes, an official at the Acandí mayor's office. “And they profit from this. But... we can’t do anything about that. We have very few resources, no security forces, and have been completely abandoned by the national government.”

Most of the Chocó department, in which the Darién region is located, lacks even basic infrastructure such as roads or an electricity grid, and more than 67% of the population lives in poverty, according to government statistics.

“The people here are not criminals. They are victims,” Carvajal added.

A makeshift camp becomes a frontier town in just two years

Once in Acandí, migrants who have paid for “travel packages” in advance, or those who bring the cash to do so, are given bracelets and spirited off to a second larger camp near the Panamanian border. Those who do not must wait in the first camp, prohibited from leaving the premises to seek work or to beg for money in nearby communities.

At the mouth of the Darién Gap, Las Tecas, the second camp, is much larger. A dozen restaurants line the main dirt path entrance to the jungle trek, offering regional cuisine from Venezuela and Colombia. There are two billiard halls, shops that sell camping gear, foodstuffs, hammocks, satellite internet time, and virtually anything else a traveller might need – but prices are high, similar to some of the tourist resorts on the Colombian beaches east of this lawless area.

The ambience is festive. Migrants spending the night here send messages to family and loved ones from their phones. Those who can spare the money dine before sleeping, while others shower in provided facilities or bathe in the nearby river. Hundreds of mochileros, employees who will carry baggage for migrants – or even their children – keep a keen eye out for new customers.

Migrants who spoke to The New Humanitarian paid between $150 and $400 in total, including a “local tax”, for permission and guides to take them north through the Darién Gap.

“Everything costs money, and those prices are high,” said Andrés, a migrant from Venezuela who declined to give his last name. Andrés and his group were trapped in the first encampment, unable to raise the money to continue. “And every day we stay, we have to buy food to survive. I don’t know how we will continue.”

Las Tecas, which did not exist in 2022, grew into a privately built, bustling mini frontier town in a record time.

Humanitarian organisations had no presence there until December 2023 and it is still minimal. The Colombian Red Cross and Action Against Hunger have small stations set up in the first camp, while Doctors of the World run a small aid station at Las Tecas that provides general medical care.

Many of the restaurant owners told The New Humanitarian they opened late last year, as numbers crossing reached record levels. Most residents have given up whatever they used to do for a living and are now economically dependent on the migration business.

“Journalists come here looking for sensationalist gangster stories. They don’t care about the whole picture.”

The new industry was mostly organised and built by local groups, the largest of which refers to itself as the Community Action Committee of Acandí. It is led by Darwin García Pérez, known as “Maradona”, a former councillor and social leader.

“Maradona” has been attacked by the Colombian press for allegedly working with the AGC and donating to a political campaign that profits from the migrant economy.

“Journalists come here looking for sensationalist gangster stories,” he told The New Humanitarian. “They don’t care about the whole picture.”

Complex dynamics

The vast majority of reported violence and crime against migrants on the Darién route occurs not in Colombia but across the border in Panama.

Control by the AGC has kept the Colombian side safer for migrants, even if their motives to manage migration arise from self-interest – both for profit and to keep the migration flows away from their smuggling routes further inland.

Some migrants who are unable to pay are recruited by the AGC to transport cocaine along smuggling trails further inland as payment for passage.

“The response from communities has been helpful in some respects,” said Cristián García, who works for GIFMM, the UN body coordinating the humanitarian aid response in the Urabá region, south of the Darién. “But there are other needs that aren’t being addressed, and access [for aid groups] can be limited.”

The community-driven response has also lowered the numbers of accidental injuries on the Colombian side of the border, with migrants offered transportation and professional guides for the trail north, according to locals near Acandí.

But that’s only when they can pay.

One resident of Acandí, who asked to speak anonymously for safety reasons, told The New Humanitarian that some migrants who are unable to pay are recruited by the AGC to transport cocaine along smuggling trails further inland as payment for passage – an accusation also made by Colombia’s rights-monitoring Ombudsman’s Office.

The ICG documented one instance of migrants who tried to cross without paying but were turned away by armed men and sent back across the bay to Necoclí.

Faced with these complex dynamics, some experts have suggested an approach similar to the one taken towards communities who lived in rebel-controlled areas during the country’s 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

In those regions, many residents had also been forced to turn to illegal economies to survive, but they were viewed as victims of the civil war rather than part of criminal structures. Although promises to incorporate them into the regular economy have gone largely unfulfilled, they have not been prosecuted under criminal law.

More fundamentally, Colombia’s national government needs to start tackling the underlying causes that are driving the controversial economy in Chocó, but the political will seems to be lacking. As Ebus put it: “Colombia does not control the region, and we have seen very little efforts from the capital to change this.”

Edited by Daniela Mohor.

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