Migration Through Darien – The New York Times

Migration toward the United States through the perilous jungle known as the Darién Gap returned to normal on Friday, with hundreds of people from Venezuela, Ecuador and beyond entering the jungle following a roughly five-day pause in which migrants could not begin the trek.

The pause in this increasingly large migration flow was the result of an arrest operation led by the Colombian prosecutor’s office, in which two captains driving boats full of migrants headed to the jungle were taken into custody, where they remain, according to the prosecutor’s office. The office said that the captains had been transporting the individuals illegally, in part because the migrants did not carry proper documentation.

The captains worked for two boat companies — Katamaranes and Caribe — that for years have been playing an essential role in carrying migrants from the northern Colombia community of Necoclí about two hours across a gulf to the entrance to the jungle, which they must then cross to get to Central America and eventually the United States. The boat companies have been doing this openly — something documented extensively by The New York Times — and the arrests seemed to signal a shift in policy by Colombian authorities.

But in retaliation for the arrests, the boat companies paused transport, and the number of migrants waiting around in Necoclí and another exit town, Turbo, swelled quickly to several thousand people. That posed an enormous challenge to both towns, which do not have the resources or infrastructure to house and feed so many people for an extended amount of time.

The arrests of the boat operators came after months of pressure by the United States on the Colombian government to do more to limit or stop migration through the Darién. In a recent interview, Hugo Tovar, a Colombian prosecutor, said his office was working diligently, with the help of the United States, to investigate and arrest human traffickers.

On Friday, Johann Wachter, secretary of the Necoclí municipal government, said that the boat companies decided to restart operations after a meeting between representatives from the boat companies, local governments, the Colombian national migration office and other agencies, including someone from the U.S. Embassy in Colombia.

In the meeting, said Mr. Wachter, representatives of Colombia’s migration office assured the boat companies that “there would be no problem” as long as the migrants they transported “fulfill the requirements.” In this case, Mr. Wachter said, each person seeking to cross into the jungle would have to fill out a form on a mobile phone application called Secure Transit.

(Officials from the U.S. Embassy and Colombia’s migration office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.)

The Darién jungle is the strip of land connecting South and North America. It must be traversed to get to the United States from South America by foot. Once rarely crossed, it has become a major migrant thoroughfare in the last three years, with nearly a million people risking the journey since 2021. This has posed an enormous challenge to President Biden, who has seen a record number of arrivals at the United States’ southern border during his presidency.

The fallout in Necoclí from the decision by the boat companies to shut down operations after just two arrests shows just how difficult it is for U.S. and Colombian officials to stop the multimillion-dollar people-moving business that operates in the open in northern Colombia. Any efforts to halt it using the law are likely to have unintended consequences, including the agglomeration of thousands of people in poor Colombian towns that do not have the ability to care for them.

Mr. Wachter, for his part, called the restart of migrant transport a positive move. “Our capacity is limited,” he said, “so this gives us a good deal of peace.”