Local politicians have reportedly been charging big bucks per month to help shepherd migrants through a section of the jungle between Colombia and Panama known as the Darien Gap, moving what is estimated to be hundreds of thousands of people so far this year north toward the U.S.-Mexico border.
The New York Times reported Thursday that instead of clandestine human traffickers skirting authorities, politicians, prominent businessmen and elected leaders in Columbia have openly been charging millions of dollars a month on packages promising to transport migrants through the Darien Gap. This is despite the Biden administration and the governments of Columbia and Panama vowing earlier this year to curb the massive migration pattern through that area.
“We have organized everything: the boatmen, the guides, the bag carriers,” Darwin Garcia, an elected community board member and former town councilman in Acandi, a Colombian municipality at the entrance to the jungle, told the Times.
The migration business is run by board members like Garcia elected by the community. It operates through a registered nonprofit started by the board’s president and his family known as the New Light Darien Foundation, which manages the entire route from Acandí to the border with Panama, the Times reported.
The foundation sets prices for the journey, collects fees and runs large campsites in the middle of the jungle. According to the Times, the group has hired more than 2,000 local guides and backpack carriers, organized in teams with numbered T-shirts of varying colors. Migrants pay for tiers of “services,” including the basic $170 guide and security package to the border.
“Like a ticket to Disney,” Renny Montilla, 25, a construction worker from Venezuela, told the Times of when an “adviser” wrapped two bracelets around his wrists as proof of payment.
Garcia described the growing influx of migrants desperate to reach the United States as “the best thing that could have happened” to the impoverished town.
His younger brother, Luis Fernando Martinez, the head of a local tourism association and a leading candidate for mayor of Acandi, defended their business to the Times, billing the industry as the only thing profitable for the town that “didn’t have a defined economy before.”
The Panamanian government estimates that more than 360,000 people have already crossed the jungle in 2023, surpassing last year’s record of nearly 250,000.
In April, the governments of Panama, Colombia and the United States signed an agreement to launch a two-month coordinated campaign to “end the illicit movement of people and goods through the Darien [Gap] by both land and maritime corridors, which leads to death and exploitation of vulnerable people for significant profit.” The agreement, shared by the U.S. Embassy in Columbia, also aimed to “launch a plan to reduce poverty, improve public service delivery, create jobs, and promote economic and sustainable opportunities in border communities in northern Colombia and southern Panama, through international partnerships across financial institutions, civil society, and the private sector.”
Fox News Digital reached out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for comment on the Times report, but they did not immediately respond.
Columbian President Gustavo Petro admitted to the Times that the national government has little control over the Darien Gap region. And the top police official in the region, Col. William Zubieta, said it was not his responsibility to stop migration there, arguing that job was for the national government’s migration authorities.
“This is a beautiful economy,” Fredy Marin, a former town councilman in the municipality of Necocli who manages a boat company that ferries migrants heading to the U.S., told the Times, saying he transports thousands of people a month, charging them $40 a person.
“What was first a problem has become an opportunity,” Marin, who is running for mayor of Necocli on the campaign promise of preserving the migration industry, added of the influx.
The Times, which said staffers have stayed in the region for months, reported that American diplomats have visited the towns around the Darien Gap in recent months, shaking hands with locals running the migration business, but that’s reportedly not done much to curb the lucrative enterprise.