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The Darien gap: paradise for some, hell for the rest

Tents, kitchenware, wellingtons, raincoats, waterproof phone covers, hats, bandanas, machetes, bin bags, camouflage clothing; an interesting array of items for sale at the stalls that line the streets of Necoclí, Colombia.

In 2022, the number of migrants crossing from Colombia to Panama almost tripled compared to the figures from the same period in 2021. The Darien Gap is the border, the dense swath of jungle that separates the two countries and the only place on the American continent where nature and local communities have succeeded in interrupting the Pan-American Highway, making overland transit between the two countries very difficult.

On the Colombian side, the Caribbean Sea dips into the mainland, creating a gulf called the Golfo de Urabá. On one side, the gulf is dotted with coastal towns that are well connected to the rest of the country by road. The other coast of the gulf, the one that borders with Panama, is much more remote. The small villages there have very little infrastructure and practically no roads, and are located only a few kilometres from the border. This short distance is the reason many people trying to reach the United States choose this border as their point of departure from Colombia.

Necoclí is one of the coastal towns on Colombia’s mainland. It is relatively easy to reach by road and, once there, you can catch a boat ride across the gulf and hop off at one of the little towns on the Darien jungle side. I went twice to Capurganá, one of the bigger villages with a large pier for the motorboats that spend their days zipping back and forth across the gulf. From Capurganá, you can easily walk to the Panamanian border in about two hours.

What I found interesting about Necoclí is the double market the town caters to: migrants and tourists. The tourists come for leisure; the migrants are on a northbound mission. Boating companies offer two daily trips from Necoclí to Capurganá. If you are a tourist, a one-way ticket costs 85000 Colombian pesos (about 20€). However, if you are a migrant, the cost of the ticket is higher, and increases exponentially if you come from a country other than Colombia (many of the migrants are Haitian or Venezuelan), as this means you are most likely in Colombia illegally and this can be taken advantage of.

The first time I made this trip, it was the weekend and most of the seats on the boat were occupied by tourists like myself, happily off to visit the beautiful beaches and wildlife of the Darien jungle. The second time, it was a Monday and most of the seats were occupied by Haitians, a large group travelling together, heading for the border.

The Colombian authorities in Necoclí and Capurganá seem to ignore this phenomenon of migration. They are present, as are many international organisations, such as the Red Cross and UNICEF, but seem to have no interest in controlling this flow of migrants. When I was there, the Haitian group ‒comprised mostly of young men, some women and a few young children‒ were being offered information packs, advice and water purification tablets by workers of the Red Cross.

The international organisations are there offering support in order to reduce the number of casualties among the migrants who will inevitably attempt to cross the Darien gap in conditions of high vulnerability. Most of the people I saw were weighed down with luggage, food and water, camping gear and all their belongings. Many had young children and even babies. Seeing them at the temporary camps they set up on the beach of Necoclí while they prepare for the crossing, it struck me how vulnerable they must be as they cross this mountainous stretch of dense jungle, teeming with wildlife and notorious for being populated with armed and criminal groups.

The Colombian authorities’ lax attitude is probably linked to unwillingness on the part of the Colombian state to take responsibility for the migrants. The behaviour of the Panamanian authorities, however, is drastically different. The first time I was in Necoclí, I chatted to a Colombian man selling products at one of the stalls. He said he had recently tried to cross the border with three other men, but had been forced back by the Panamanian authorities. He said Panamanian soldiers chased and shot at them. Apparently, one of his companions was arrested. When I met this man, he was working to save enough money to attempt the crossing a second time. He didn’t want to do it alone, but the people he tried to cross with the first time were not willing to give it a second go. Out of shame or maybe to save his family the worry, he hadn’t told them about his failed attempt to cross the border, so they think he is already in Panama.

During the few days I spent in Necoclí, I slept in my van, La Caracolita, parked right in front of the beach where the migrants set up their temporary camps, so I witnessed some of the dynamics that take place at this hub. One of those days, a young 20-year-old Venezuelan approached me. We chatted; he was curious to know what I thought about Colombia. I told him I liked it and asked him the same question. ‘It’s good, but people don’t always treat me well’, he said. This didn’t surprise me, as during the seven months I spent in Colombia, I heard many racist and discriminatory comments about Venezuelan immigrants. He asked me what my travel plans were, and what it felt like to be able to travel all over the world. I think I said ‘it’s nice’. He told me he was planning to cross the Darien gap and that he expected to reach Mexico in one month. I thought of the huge distances ahead of him, of his vulnerability as an illegal immigrant and of all the dangers he would surely face, but I didn’t dare to contradict him. People achieve incredible feats when they are determined, or desperate.

On election day, the town of Necoclí seems calm, lulled by the intense midday sun and the sea breeze. I have fried fish for lunch at a local restaurant. Sitting at the table opposite me is a large family, two young men who look no more than 19, two women and at least four children, one so young she is in a buggy. They are making plans for when they reach Costa Rica. One of the boys says he will find a job, whatever is available, to gather some money before continuing on to Mexico, because he has heard Costa Rican wages are better than in most of the surrounding countries. They talk about the Mexican border and how the authorities there are notorious for being tough on migrants, quick to deport them and allowing them an ever-decreasing number of days in the country. Despite their awareness of the obstacles they will face, they seem optimistic and excited about their upcoming journey. I am amazed by people’s optimism, determination and hope in the face of hardship.

Sometimes it seems like magical thinking. Nationwide, the atmosphere was tense in the weeks coming up to the presidential elections. Nobody believed the traditional political forces would allow the left-wing candidate, Gustavo Petro, to win. I heard so many people who were hopeful and fearful at the same time: hopeful that Petro (who finally did win) will bring positive change, a new vision of society and definitive peace to the country; fearful that his election could unleash a new wave of violence, a resurgence of the violence that has dominated Colombian society for over 50 years, killing, displacing, silencing, bribing in the margins, while on the surface it was smoothed over, concealed and denied. Maybe the extreme situations experienced by so many is what allows for this magical thinking, for the optimism, hope and resilience that leads so many people to embark on such long journeys and society to finally dare to vote for change.

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