The Dark Side of Darién Gap

While for some more adventurous travellers trekking through Darién Gap is apparently one of the best activities one can do from the most crazy bucket list, for the desperate refugees it means a nightmare, a place where only the strongest survive.

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 Panamanian border. A town that allows you to see only what it wants you to see. Just few hundred meters inside the jungle, there is however a completely different world…

To cut the long story short: I’ve recently travelled by the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Except some natural beauty, great beaches, friendly locals and pretty colonial towns, there was a different sight, which was impossible to ignore: many, many Venezuelan refugees, the subject the whole world is turning a blind eye to, unless we count in the recent 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 the such a bad shape or why some of the poorest Venezuelans still support Maduro but I wanted to talk about the actual impact, the situation that there is now. The things I’ve seen and the things I was told, rather than why it is all like that right now.

With the maximum possible level of simplification, we could narrow down those reasons to the worst of the human nature, corruption, unequal distribution of wealth, greed and the US policies as well as actions in Latin America over the last 100-odd years.

We could talk about what went wrong or how could Henry Kissinger get the Nobel Peace Price, given all the suffering he orchestrated in this part of the world but it 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. Things here are far harsher than a reader from a regular Western country can imagine.

The problem is that because of the Venezuelan wealth in natural resources – not one single big player that takes part in this complex puzzle honestly thinks about the situation of Venezuelan people. Whatever their slogans of political take is – it’s all about the money for them – no matter which side they are…

Darién Gap

Some facts

So what is the current situation? Nicolás Maduro and his corrupt generals have together with the Western sanctions managed to turn Venezuela from the richest country in the region into a humanitarian disaster. According to UNHCR, currently there are estimated 3,4 million Venezuelan immigrants, out of which 2.7 million in the Caribbean and Latin America only, with Colombia being the most generous of them all by accepting 1,1 million refugees so far.

As a passer by, I’ve personally seen “only” thousands of them. Nevermind how heartbreaking this sight was – it was nothing until I’ve arrived to 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

Not everyone from those in Necoclí came from Venezuela. 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 the being on the road for months already just to get here.

Here they are – just south of the last big push they have to make, before crossing to North America. What’s ahead of them? For $200 per person they can be taken over the dense jungle filled with drug traffickers, war criminals and wild predatory animals. The tough walk takes 5 days. It is estimated that currently there are up to 60 thousand people making their way north through Darién Gap.

The most unfortunate ones 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.


Recent incident

Few weeks ago 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 of. Except the four survivors and their families far far away- nobody even know their names..

However, for the paramilitary it’s a loss of their cut of the smuggling fee from the 26 people. Because it was a 3rd flipped boat in a row with dead bodies, the paramilitary’s brutal reaction meant that a member of a local tribe that runs some of the people-smuggling operations was shot dead. Right on the football pitch in front of the whole village. Public execution.

The local women then burned tires in front of the government office in a desperate act to make the officials to react. But will they react? Aren’t they turning the blind eye to all this just because it helps Colombia to get rid some of the refugees if they make it through? And what happens if they get caught in Panama? They are simply shipped back to Colombia to do this all over again.

The ever flexible and intelligent evil

The world is going mad. It’s ever-adapting mechanisms are currently so flexible that this all happens just few hundred years from the beach bars where Western backpackers talk about how the world should change over their happy hour cocktails. The 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 in the jungle.

In Colombia you can even book an “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 thing what’s ahead of them..

If they manage to pass through the jungle, first they’ll be fucked by Panamanian mafia, then by their Costa Rican colleagues, then it’s turn for Nicaraguan mafia to squeeze some more money out of them, after that it’s Salvadorian turn, then Guatemalan and finally Mexican cartels will squeeze the rest of their cash 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 a day, working in 40C, 12 hour days, 7 times a week. The worst of the human nature just surrounds them all the way. And we will then be able to buy some cheap tomatoes when we come back from our adventure holidays to cure our happy hour mojito hangovers. Welcome to the reality.

And those who say to be nicer to each-other? What happens to them?

How to get there

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 the 2800,- for the port tax. It’s a bit of a bumpy ride and you will most likely get wet. From Capurganá to Puerto Obaldía in Panama there’s a 30 minute 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.

Activities and safety

As for your safety – do not worry. We are currently protected by paramilitary. Not because we bring money – no tourism would ever get even to be considered as a comparison to the profits the cocaine trade makes around here.

Just think that almost the large parts of Miami were build on a cocaine money. We make their lives easier by bringing an illusion that nothing is wrong with this part of the world and if you chose not to think at what expense the protection comes, the nature around Capurganá is truly stunning.

There are even two safe treks you can do: 2 hour walk south to the stunning beach and 2 hours north to Panamanian border through a village of Sapzurro. 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 it’s 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. How ever bizarre it sounds, the paramilitary’s greed have helped to introduce the health and safety precaution.

You can’t change the way things are. You can help by doing small things only, like buying food of 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.

Please do not ask the locals about things described above, do not try to seek purchasing drugs or anything that brings the bad fortune to many in this part of the world – you never know who are you speaking to…

The Indian guy I shared the cigarette with to over a little and heavy talk about the current situation of his group later apologised to me for saying that my wishing good luck doesn’t help him. I apologised that I understand and that I didn’t mean it as an empty phrase. I offered him another ciggy, shook his hand and wished him good luck again…


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