Darién Gap Migration Is Halted After Colombia Arrests Boat Captains

Darién Gap Migration Is Halted After Colombia Arrests Boat Captains

Migration toward the United States through the dangerous jungle passage known as the Darién Gap has been halted, at least temporarily, following the arrest of two boat captains working for companies that play an essential role in ferrying migrants to the jungle.

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

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

The boat route is the main way into the Darién Gap, a strip of land linking South and North America that was once rarely traversed but has emerged in recent years as one of the hemisphere’s most important and busiest migration routes.

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

The Colombian Navy last week seized two boats belonging to the two companies, Katamaranes and Caribe, carrying a total of 151 migrants from Necoclí toward the jungle, according to the Colombian prosecutor’s office.

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

The arrests mark an important shift in strategy by 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 the boat companies, which operate large fleets and have several captains, had halted operations in recent days “as a form of protest” against the arrests.

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

In September, The New York Times reported that this business was being run by local politicians and economic leaders, including the manager of Katamaranes, who at the time was a mayoral candidate in 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 boat 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 Darién. Two U.S. agencies, Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, were providing training and sharing information to aid with investigations, he added.

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

It’s unclear how long the boat companies will halt 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 town’s beaches is likely to swell quickly, straining water and sanitation services past their breaking points.

This could put pressure on the Colombian government to ease up on any future arrests of boat operators, since the government has limited capacity to provide aid to large numbers of people who could become stuck at its northern border.

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

Mr. Cardona, the mayor, said he was calling on the national government for assistance with the hundreds of migrants who now have nowhere to go. “This is an SOS,” he said.

Immigration through the Darién has emerged as an enormous challenge for the Biden administration, particularly ahead of the 2024 presidential race.

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

In 2021, just over 130,000 people made their way through the Darién jungle on the way to the United States. In 2022, nearly 250,000 did. Last year, more than 500,000 people crossed the Darién, helping drive a record number of arrivals at the U.S. border.

Mr. Biden has tried to deter this flow by expanding legal paths to migration, and by stepping up deportation efforts at the border.

But these measures have had only limited effect.

As of Feb. 28, the Panama authorities said that more than 72,000 people had trekked through the Darién 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 a democratic election this year have withered in recent months. The second most came from Ecuador, where a dire security situation has worsened this year. The next three major countries of origin are Haiti, Colombia and China.