The lucrative business of guiding migrants in the Darién

A million-dollar commercial venture has been established on the border between Colombia and Panama that helps migrants navigate the difficult journey through the jungle

For migrants escaping poverty, war and natural disasters, there are many paths that lead to the American Dream. One of them is the one that passes through the Darién Gap. A 66-mile strip between Turbo, Colombia, and Yaviza, Panama that is populated with jungles, rivers, mountains and all kinds of dangers.

In recent months, the traffic of men, women and children from all over the world is so intense that it has attracted the interest of locals who now no longer see it as a nuisance, but as an opportunity. A business opportunity that provides food, equipment, guides and transportation to migrants who are willing to pay.

The Darién Gap is located between Colombia and Panama. Photo: Wikipedia

Transportation, Guides and Food

As Julie Turkewitz suggests in an article she published in the New York Times, there are all kinds of services. Boat transportation to reach the strait costs about $40. For $170 you can hire a guide for the initial section of the trip that reaches the border with Panama. If you’re looking for a little convenience, a porter can carry your backpack for $100. Of course you can’t miss the food: a plate of chicken with rice, $10.

The initiative is so sophisticated that, for those who have money, they even offer a package with a variety of services, including a tent to sleep in, boots appropriate for the terrain, and other extras. These services are even advertised in the internet.

The interesting thing, although not surprising, is that although the locals contribute their knowledge of the complicated terrain, the necessary logistics, and their work, behind all this business initiative there are  prominent figures from the commercial and political world of the region who are making millions of dollars per month.

As Turkewitz reports, these prominent figures have no problem acknowledging that they are behind the business venture. What’s more, they do not see it as something illegal or contributing to a problem, but as humanitarian assistance to a phenomenon that is beyond their control and in which they contribute their grain of sand to alleviate the difficult situation experienced by migrants.

And of course, this grain of sand also translates into great economic benefits for these communities lost in inhospitable regions that until now did not have any type of economic incentives.

Humanitarian Crisis

Years ago, not many dared to cross the Darién. Stories of skeletons on the path of those who did not arrive dissuaded many. A study indicates that between 2014 and 2021, around 253 people died trying to cross. But political crises in different South American countries and desperation have monumentally increased the number of migrants who have no choice but to face danger.

Although the migrants can hire for guides in the Colombian segment of the trip, they are by themselves in the Panamanian jungle. Photo: NYT

In the first eight months of the year, Panamanian authorities recorded the passage of 360,000 people. A record that surpasses the quarter of a million who crossed the Darién in 2022.

This has alarmed US authorities and in April representatives of the Colombian and Panamanian governments, with the support of the United States, signed a security agreement. The objective was to patrol the region in order to limit the flow of migrants headed to the United States.

But after the photos and the speeches, little or nothing happened. Neither Panama nor Colombia intensified patrols and control of migrants, nor did the United States complain. On the contrary, according to the New York Times investigation, it would seem that local authorities have no interest in intervening. They have stated that it is not their responsibility to deal with the issue, but that of the national immigration authorities. Even the Colombian president himself Gustavo Petro confirmed that the state does not have control of the region and washed his hands of the matter, pointing to US policies, in reference to Venezuela, as the cause of the problem.

The Foundation

And since the Colombian and Panamanian states are conspicuous by their absence, the locals took matters into their own hands and created an entity, the Nueva Luz del Darién Social Foundation, which provides services for migrants arriving in Acandí and bound for the Panamanian border.

With the massive growth of migrants, especially Venezuelans, the Foundation grew and has more than 2,000 guides and backpack carriers who wear numbered t-shirts of different colors.

Services include everything from the basic plate of food to a package with a guide, porter, and even a tent. After the migrants pay for the services, they receive a bracelet that identifies the service they have purchased.

A Legal Business?

The question that many have asked is whether what the Foundation does is legal. Their leaders emphasize that they provide services within Colombia and never cross the border.

Legal or not legal, what is clear is that the authorities do not intervene. And it has been suggested that this inaction would be related to corruption and the fact that they are benefiting from the million-dollar business.

At Las Tecas, Colombia, hundreds of people wait before they start the dangerous trip. Photo: NYT

In addition, it must be taken into account that the region is located in a remote territory that is controlled by the Gaitanista Self-Defense Forces of Colombia. A powerful group of guerrillas connected to drug trafficking who are associated with the Clan del Golfo.

Although the Self-Defense Forces issued a statement ensuring that they do not benefit from the migratory flow, on the other hand, this would seem to be contradicted by the «tax» of $80 that migrants must pay to cross the region. A transaction that is formalized in a receipt that the guerrillas themselves issue.

A New Darién

The region has changed dramatically. From a forgotten jungle area in a corner of the continent, it has become a strategic point with political repercussions in the United States. And for now, it seems that there is no short-term solution in sight. What’s more, it would not be surprising if half a million migrants cross the Darien Gap before the end of the year.

The change that the region is experiencing, of course, is largely connected to the crises impacting countries like Venezuela and Haiti, the economic repercussions of the pandemic, and changes in immigration rules that, for example, prohibit migrants from taking a plane to Mexico or other countries near the US border. Which leaves as the only alternative to have to walk towards the American Dream.

What no one questions is that the introduction of all these services that the Foundation provides has resulted in benefits for the local population in terms of jobs and robust economic activity that no one ever imagined. And, at the same time, an ordering of the migratory flow that has reduced migrant deaths.

But this only occurs up to the border with Panama. Beyond, the jungle continues. A jungle that in the Panamanian portion is even more dangerous. And accidents, dengue, malaria, continue to add victims. According to a United Nations report, in this final segment of Darién, there were 140 deaths last year. Triple the previous year. But for those who seek hope for a better life, far from poverty, far from insecurity, there is nothing that can deter them.

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This article was supported in whole, or in part, by funds provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library and the Latino Media Collaborative.

Perfil del autor

Escritor y periodista de Paysandú, Uruguay, quien actualmente reside en Nueva York, EE.UU., en donde ha trabajado en diversos medios. Su corazón es charrúa y su pluma es latina.

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