Migration in Darien halts after Colombia arrests boat captains


Migration to the United States through the dangerous jungle passage known as the Darien Gap has been halted, at least temporarily, following the arrest of two boat captains who work for companies that play an essential role in transporting migrants into the jungle.

According to the mayor of Necoclí, boat companies suspended migrant crossings from two towns in northern Colombia, Necoclí and Turbo, to the entrance to the Darién forest, leaving some 3,000 migrants stranded in those communities.

Colombian law enforcement action in the region is sure to be closely watched by U.S. officials: The Biden administration has been pressing Colombia for months to do more to stop people from using the Darien as a path to the United States.

The boat route is the main route to the Darien Gap, a strip of land linking South and North America that was once rarely crossed but has become one of the most important migratory routes in recent years. and busy areas of the hemisphere.

Nearly a million people have crossed the Darien since 2021, according to authorities at the end of the route in Panama, helping to fuel a migration crisis in the United States.

Last week, the Colombian Navy seized two boats belonging to the two companies, Katamaranes and Caribe, which were transporting a total of 151 migrants from Necoclí to the jungle, according to the Colombian prosecutor’s office.

Officials determined that the migrants were being transported illegally, arrested the boats’ two captains and took control of both boats.

The arrests mark a major shift in the strategy of Colombian authorities, who for months have allowed boat operators to openly transport migrants from Necoclí across the Gulf of Urabá to the towns of Acandí and Capurganá, where people enter the jungle.

In an interview on Wednesday, the mayor of Necoclí, Guillermo Cardona, said that the boat companies, which operate large fleets and have several captains, had paralyzed their operations in recent days “as a form of protest” against the arrests.

Boat operators have become key players in a multibillion-dollar migration business that has been allowed to flourish in northern Colombia.

In September, The New York Times reported that this business was run by local politicians and economic leaders, including the manager of Katamaranes, who at the time was a candidate for mayor of Necoclí. (The manager did not win and was not among those arrested.)

U.S. officials have been privately asking Colombian officials since at least October to investigate the vessel operators.

In a recent interview, a top Colombian prosecutor, Hugo Tovar, said his office was working “hand in hand” with the United States on the issue of human trafficking through Colombia and the Darien. Two U.S. agencies, Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, were providing training and sharing information to help with investigations, he added.

Necoclí is a coastal town with limited resources and infrastructure, and in recent years it has been overwhelmed by migrants.

It is unclear how long shipping companies will suspend operations. In recent months, migrants have arrived at a rate of hundreds a day, and if the protest continues, the number of people stranded in tents on the city’s beaches is likely to increase rapidly, straining water services and sanitation beyond its limits.

This could put pressure on the Colombian government to relax any future arrests of boat operators, as the government has limited capacity to provide aid to large numbers of people who could become trapped on its northern border.

Still, Tovar said, his office remained committed to investigating human trafficking, calling it “an issue of concern to the entire hemisphere.”

Cardona, the mayor, said he was asking the national government for help for the hundreds of immigrants who now have nowhere to go. “This is an SOS,” he said.

Immigration through the Darien has become a huge challenge for the Biden administration, particularly ahead of the 2024 presidential race.

President Biden and his almost certain Republican rival, Donald J. Trump, are scheduled to make appearances Thursday in different parts of Texas near the southern border.

In 2021, just over 130,000 people crossed the Darién jungle towards the United States. In 2022, almost 250,000 did so. Last year, more than 500,000 people crossed the Darien, helping fuel a record number of arrivals at the U.S. border.

Biden has tried to deter this flow by expanding legal immigration pathways and intensifying deportation efforts at the border.

But these measures have only had a limited effect.

As of February 28, Panamanian authorities said more than 72,000 people had crossed the Darien this year, a 35 percent increase over the number of people who crossed in the first two months of last year.

The largest number of migrants came from Venezuela, where activists’ hopes that the authoritarian government would allow democratic elections this year have faded in recent months. The second largest amount came from Ecuador, where the dire security situation has worsened this year. The next three main countries of origin are Haiti, Colombia and China.

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