This article has been updated on June 9, 2021.
While for some more adventurous travellers trekking through Darién Gap is apparently one of the best possible activities from the crazier bucket list, for the desperate refugees trying to get to North America, it means a nightmare, a place where only the strongest survive. In this post, I’m about to try to describe my experience as well as the darkness I’ve seen when looking through the cracks in Capurganá, an outpost town just south of the Panamanian border. A town that allows you to see only what it wants you to see. Just a few hundred meters inside the jungle, there is however a completely different world. So let’s talk about the unseen, dark side of Darién Gap.
Venezuelan refugee crisis
In 2019, I’ve travelled by the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Except for some tremendous natural beauty, stunning beaches, friendly locals, a lot of lively salsa and pretty colonial towns, there was also a different sight, which was impossible to ignore: l large number of Venezuelan refugees, the subject the whole world is turning a blind eye to unless we count in the 2019 coup-plotting AKA the oil-industry privatization attempt sponsored and orchestrated by Mike Pence.
I would love to go into details about why Venezuela in such bad shape or why some of the poorest Venezuelans still support Maduro but in this post, I’d prefer to talk about the actual impact that situation has on ordinary Venezuelans. I prefer to talk about the things I’ve seen and the things I was told, rather than why it is all so screwed up for Venezuelans right now.
But why is Venezuela so screwed right now?
However, in case you don’t know about that situation, perhaps it would be a good idea to outline the possible reasons for the current state of affairs in Venezuela just a little. With the maximum possible level of simplification, we could narrow those reasons down to few issues, such as the worst of human nature, corruption, unequal distribution of wealth, greed and perhaps also the US policies as well as actions in Latin America over the last 100-odd years.
We could also look further back in history and talk about what went wrong or how could Henry Kissinger get the Nobel Peace Prize, given all the suffering he orchestrated in this part of the world but that would be just yet another pointless article, while the reality for those refugees is real. For them, it’s not an article in the paper or a blog post. For them, it’s real life.
The problem is – that because of the Venezuelan terrific wealth in natural resources – not one single big player that takes part in this complex puzzle honestly prioritises the situation of Venezuelan people. Whatever their slogans or political takes are, it appears that oil is more important than people, no matter which side they are on. You know what I mean, right? Just imagine that you’d owe just 1% of the wealth from Maduro‘s secret overseas bank account for instance…
Past, present and (no) future
So what is the current situation? Let’s start with one important fact, which is that only a few decades ago, Venezuela was the richest country in the region, an economic powerhouse, something like Germany of Latin Americas, if you will. Thousands of migrants from the neighbouring countries were arriving in Venezuela to seek a better life. And now cut and jump to the present time. Jump to the harsh reality…
The current president Nicolás Maduro and his corrupt generals have together with the Western sanctions against his administration managed to turn Venezuela from the richest country in the region into a humanitarian disaster. According to UNHCR, by the end of 2020, there are an estimated 5,4 million Venezuelan immigrants, out of which over 3 million in the Caribbean and Latin America only, with Colombia being the most generous of them all by accepting 1,2 million refugees so far.
As a passerby, I’ve personally seen “only” thousands of them. Never mind how heartbreaking this sight was – it was nothing until I’ve arrived at the town of Necoclí, where I’ve seen an endless field of tents filled with people waiting to start their journey north. Waiting to turn themselves into the mercy of the ruthless people-smugglers, paramilitaries and wild merciless jungle.
The Different World AKA dark side of Darién Gap
The bizarre thing I’ve discovered was that not everyone from those people in Necoclí came from Venezuela. In fact, there were people from India, Cuba, Pakistan and many other countries. Some “just” trying to find a better life and some are escaping the actual war zones or famine.
Many of these people are educated and skilled workers who gave up everything selling their houses back home to scramble the $20thousand or sometimes even $30thousand required to make this trip. Some of them being on the road for months already just to get here. Many paid to be smuggled all the way to the USA, only to be dropped and left in Colombia.
But here they are – just south of the last big push they have to make, before crossing to North America. What’s ahead of them? Well, it’s Trump’s dream. A massive natural “wall” made of the hostile jungle. For $200 per person, they can be taken over the dense jungle of Darién Gap that’s filled with drug traffickers, war criminals and other wild predatory animals. The tough walk takes 5 days. It is estimated that in 2020, there were up to 60 thousand people making their way north through Darién Gap weekly.
The most unfortunate of them will be kidnapped for the prostitution rings, including the worst of them all – the child prostitution ): Some of the rest just don’t make it over the jungle, when the smugglers abandon them at the sight of the smallest trouble, such as twisted ankle or so…
In early March 2019, a boat with around 30 refugees flipped near Capurganá. There were only 4 survivors. The town’s beach was apparently full of dead bodies. I don’t even want to know what happened to those bodies because there weren’t any new graves around. 26 dead, including 7 children and those are the few ones we now know off. Except for the four survivors and their families far far away- nobody even knows their names…
However, for the (officially non-existent) paramilitary, it’s a loss of their cut of the smuggling fee from the 26 people. Because it was a 3rd flipped boat with dead bodies in a space of few months, so the paramilitary leaders decided to demonstrate their power with some brutal disciplinary action. As a result of that, a member of a local tribe that runs some of the people-smuggling operations in the area was shot dead. Shot dead right on the football pitch in the middle of the village. In front of all villagers. A proper hardcore public execution.
The local women then decided to burn some tyres in front of the government office in a desperate act to make the officials react. But will they react? Aren’t they turning the blind eye to all this just because it helps Colombia to get rid of some of the refugees if they make it through?
The ever flexible and intelligent evil
The world is going mad. Its ever-adapting mechanisms are currently so flexible that this all happens just a few hundred years from the beach bars where Western backpackers talk about the better world over their happy hour cocktails. Money-making has always been inventive and flexible. Those two worlds coexist and if you don’t look closer – you wouldn’t even notice what’s going on in the jungle.
In Colombia, you can even book a “tour” where you are transported into a cocaine farm/factory (blindfolded) and where you can make your own cocaine. So why should you not be able to trek the mountains where others suffer or even die just over the hill from where you are? To be honest, this was a bit too much for me to take and I’m not squeamish or anything but when you see those people, many with children and if you think what’s ahead of them.
What happens to the migrants after they cross Darién Gap?
If they manage to pass through the jungle, they can still get caught in Panama. What happens then? Well, they are simply shipped back to Colombia to do this all over again, once they will somehow manage to make another $200,- USD required for the crossing.
And if they won’t get caught? What happens then? Well, first they’ll be fucked over again by the Panamanian mafia, then by their Costa Rican colleagues, then it’s Nicaraguan mafia’s turn to squeeze some more money out of them, after that it’s Salvadorian turn, then Guatemalan and finally Mexican cartels will take the rest of their resources to take them to the USA.
Those refugees who will make it through will be then “lucky” to make it across to California, where they will slave for $3 per day, working in 40°C (104F), 12 hours a day, 7 times per week. The worst of human nature just surrounds them all the way. It’s not the dark side of Darién Gap, it’s the dark side of humanity.
And the rest of us will then be able to buy some cheap vegetables when we come back from our adventure holidays to cure our happy hour mojito hangovers. Welcome to reality.
Tourism: activities and safety
As for your safety as a tourist in the area – you do not have to worry – you are not part of this dark side of Darién Gap. Actually, you are protected by the paramilitary. Not because you spend few bucks on mojitos in a beach bar. I mean imagine what are any tourism money in comparison to the profits of the cocaine and people-smuggling trades? I mean that large parts of Miami were literally built from the cocaine money so how many mojitos would you have to drink to sponsor such profits?
So tourists are not protected by paramilitary leaders because of the few bucks they bring to Darién Gap. Tourists make their lives easier by bringing an illusion that there’s nothing wrong with this part of the world. And if you chose not to think at what expense that protection comes, the nature around Capurganá is truly stunning. I mean that it is still stunning, it’s just there’s a horrible bitter aftertaste of a person with privileges, many of us often take for granted ): At the same time, there isn’t anything that you can do about it so it’s something everyone has to deal with on their own.
Anyway. There are even a few treks you can do in the area: here are several treks of light-to-moderate difficulty you can do around Capurganá. Heading south from town, after about a 90-minutes, you should reach a picturesque bay of El Aguacate. Heading the opposite direction (north), a bit more hilly/sweaty 90-minute walk would get you to the next bay with a small settlement of Sazpurro. You can also head inland to hit the El Cielo waterfall.
Be sensible please
Please be careful, do not stick your nose where you shouldn’t. Don’t try to change things that you don’t know how they work – the environment there is so fragile that it is balancing on very thin ice. Any small alterations of this equilibrium can make things worse. This world has its own rules – for example, the public execution of the smuggler was to make sure that in the future they will give safety vests to the migrants. However bizarre it sounds, the paramilitary’s greed has helped to introduce health and safety precaution
Please do not ask the locals about things described above, do not try to seek purchasing drugs or anything that brings bad fortune to many in this part of the world – you never know who are you speaking to. As I’ve mentioned above, you can’t change the way things are. You can however help a wee bit by doing small things only, like buying food or offering a cigarette to the most unfortunate refugees but when it comes to the bigger picture – all you can do is to vote for a person who’s willing to change things, in case you’re lucky to be living in a country that has such a politician.
The Indian guy, I was talking to about his and the general situation back in March 2019 later apologised to me for saying that my wishing good luck doesn’t help him. I apologised back that I understand his cynicism and that I didn’t mean my words just as an empty phrase. I just didn’t know what else to say, when I was freely passing them just north of the Colombian border in Panama.
While I was about to catch the flight to Panama City, because of the situation with the flipped boat, the execution and the consequent anger of the locals, all migration was temporarily halted and these people were stuck halfway through the Darién Gap in a Panamian outpost town of Puerto Obaldía. I offered him another cigarette, shook his hand and (this time in my mind only), I wished him good luck again…
And those who say to be nicer to each-other? What happens to them?
Sources and other related links
- Venezuelan Refugees: UNHCR’s page on the situation of Venezuelan refugees, where you can donate some money to help a little, in case you wanted and had some spare cash
- Venezuelan Humanitarian and Refugee Crisis: Centre For Disaster Philanthropy‘s page on the subject
- Venezuela crisis: How the political situation escalated: a BBC‘s explanatory piece on the subject
- Events of 2020: Human Rights Watch‘s page on the current situation in Venezuela
- Crisis in Venezuela: Tom Phillips and Clavel Rangel write about the subject of schooling in Venezuela for The Guardian
- Venezuelan coup: Edith Lederer writes about Pence‘s intentions with Venezuela for AP News
- Cocaine trade in Miami: Jim Mullin writes about the subject for the Miami New Times
How to get to Capurganá
The 45minute speed boat from Necoclí to Capurganá will cost you 75000,-COP, plus a bit for overweight luggage (I paid 8000,- for my 17kg) and 2800,- for the port tax. It’s a bit of a bumpy ride and you will most likely get wet if you sit at the back. From Capurganá to Puerto Obaldía in Panama there’s a 30 minute (also bumpy) boat ride in even rougher waters. It’s 35000,-CLP + 2000,-tax. You can then catch a 12-seater flight ($100) from there to Panama City or take boats north. Speak to the local fishermen.
Possible destinations to visit in Colombia:
- Southern Colombia: Nariño Province, Popayán, Cali, Guaviare and many more
- Central Colombia: Bogotá, Medellín, Villa de Lleyva, Ráquira, Tatacoa Desert and many more
- Caribbean Colombia: Santa Marta, Cartagena, Rincón del Mar, Necoclí and Capurganá and many more