For a Few Days, Flow of Migrants to U.S. Halted in Key Jungle Corridor

For a Few Days, Flow of Migrants to U.S. Halted in Key Jungle Corridor
For a Few Days, Flow of Migrants to U.S. Halted in Key Jungle Corridor

Summary

A crackdown by Colombia’s government on boats carrying migrants only briefly stopped migration through the Darién Gap.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia—All this week, the news couldn’t have been brighter for Biden administration officials trying to slow migration through the jungle that connects South America with Central America, an essential corridor for would-be immigrants heading to the U.S.

A Colombian crackdown on boats that are indispensable in getting migrants to the Darién Gap had left several hundred migrants stranded and far from its trails, local officials and businesses who cater to migrants said. More than 520,000 people had traversed those footpaths in 2023 to get to Panama—completing a crucial stage en route to the U.S.—but by late this week, the numbers passing through had slowed to a trickle.

“Everything has been stopped for all the travelers," Edilberto Escobar, who makes a living guiding migrants through the Darién, said by phone from the town of Acandí near the Darién. “This affects us a lot because this is a source of work for everyone, from those who sell boots [to migrants] to those who are guides."

The development proved short-lived, though, after Colombian government officials and the owners of the boat companies agreed Thursday to permit the boats to once again transport migrants as of 6 a.m. Friday.

The captains of the boats must now ensure that the migrants—people from as near as Venezuela and as far away as China—have filled out transit documents on a Colombian government online app before boarding for transport across the Gulf of Urabá.

American authorities had said in recent days they wanted to go after bus, plane and boat companies that knowingly transport undocumented migrants in Latin America, to slow the stream of migrants far from the southwestern border.

“It’s very hard for there to be a coordinated action that makes a difference," said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, which researches immigration policies. “There’s a lot of effort to temporarily disrupt [migrants], but not a lot of coordinated efforts to do it in a concerted way."

U.S. officials in the Colombian capital and Washington declined to respond to questions about the fleeting efforts to crack down on the boat captains. Two captains had been detained by Colombia’s navy on Sunday and later charged with trafficking migrants because their passengers didn’t have transit documents.

That led the region’s boat companies, bracing for more arrests, to suspend service from the towns of Necoclí and Turbo to the west side of the Gulf of Urabá, close to the Darién Gap.

“These actions create a lot of chaos, our services end up collapsing," said Mario Bustamante, a representative for Maritima y Fluvial El Caribe SAS, one of the transportation companies whose service was disrupted.

On Thursday, authorities from Necoclí and Turbo announced the resumption of boat operations after a meeting with officials from President Gustavo Petro’s government, a representative from the U.S. Embassy and boat-company executives. Petro’s government agreed to dispatch more migration officials and open temporary lodging for migrants in Necoclí and Turbo.

Trying to slow the arrival of migrants to the southwest border, U.S. officials have pressed authorities in Mexico, Central America, Colombia and other countries to require visas of foreign travelers, prosecute migrant smugglers and accept flights of their deported nationals. The companies that move U.S.-bound migrants have now come under scrutiny.

“We are confronting migrant traffickers that take advantage of vulnerable migrants," Eric Jacobstein, a State Department official who deals with Central America, Cuba and regional migration, said last week. He said the U.S. is implementing a new policy in which visas to the U.S. would be restricted for those operating transport companies that move undocumented migrants to the U.S.

U.S. authorities have focused on charter flight providers to Nicaragua, a key landing point for migrants from all over the world, and on bus drivers and owners in Mexico.

In November, the U.S. government imposed visa restrictions on individuals running charter flights into Nicaragua for thousands of U.S.-bound migrants from Haiti, Cuba and Africa. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s regime had allowed little-known charter airlines and travel agencies to operate flights from Caribbean, African and Eastern European airports to Nicaragua, according to Haitian and Nicaraguan civil-aviation data.

In Mexico, immigration authorities have reported the detention of large groups of migrants traveling on buses, including a group of more than 310 crammed in two buses in January in the Gulf state of Veracruz and another 100 or so in Yucatan state in February. Mexican authorities said bus owners and drivers are often linked to organized crime groups and smugglers.

Bus lines using Mexican federal highways are required to check travel documents and the legal status of migrants heading north or face the risk of fines. But hundreds of private bus operators can quickly arrange travel for large groups managed by human smugglers and skirt enforcement.

Colombia, too, has cracked down on bus companies. But analysts and Petro government officials who work on immigration issues said the number of migrants—from all over the world but the largest group made up of Venezuelans—have taxed migration authorities.

“We have had to learn along the way how to handle this situation of massive migration," said Francisco Coy, vice minister in Colombia’s Foreign Relations Ministry.

While some 2.8 million Venezuelans have settled here, many Venezuelans pass through Colombia en route to the Darién, as do migrants who have come here from countries as divergent as Ecuador, Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam.

In 2010, 559 migrants were recorded traveling through the Darién by Panamanian migration authorities. By 2021, the number had shot up to 133,726. Last year, it was four times as many, with 328,650 of them Venezuelans.

To slow the flow of migrants, U.S. officials said they are looking to increase cooperation with Petro’s government to grant legal status and employment opportunities to more migrants so they would remain in Colombia. American officials said they also want to expand a program permitting would-be migrants who seek refugee status, family reunification and a status called parole in the U.S. to apply from Colombia.

The measures seek to undermine a booming human-trafficking industry, senior Biden adviser Juan Gonzalez told reporters after meeting with Petro last month. “That is really a conversation that we’ve been having with President Petro and the Colombian government," he said.

So far, though, there has been little impact on the movement of migrants. A poll by the Caracas polling firm Consultores 21 in December found that one in three Venezuelans wanted to leave their country, mostly for economic reasons, and that the U.S. was their preferred destination.

Ronal Rodríguez, a scholar at the Venezuela Observatory of Bogota’s Rosario University, said the latest migration trends, coupled with the economic and social crisis in Venezuela, point to increased migration in the months ahead.

In January, 36,001 people crossed the Darién, Panamanian migration data shows, compared with 24,634 in January 2023. And in February, an additional 36,292 crossed, up from 24,657 in February 2023.

“This year is a year of migratory growth," he said. “There’s a dynamic that in the summer we’re going to have a big, important outflow of Venezuelans who are going to take the Darién Gap route."

Already, those who benefit from the movement of migrants—from guides to food vendors to sellers of tents and camping gear—are readying for the arrival of migrants who plan to enter the Darién.

Bustamante, the representative of the boat company, said his firm now sells tickets and manages operations for 12 boat routes used by migrants, compared with three routes five years ago. On a typical day, several of the company’s boats set sail—each one carrying 70 passengers.

Santiago Pérez and Jenny Carolina Gonzalez contributed to this article.

Write to Juan Forero at juan.forero@wsj.com and Kejal Vyas at kejal.vyas@wsj.com

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