ACANDI, Colombia —
The boats started arriving midmorning to this fishing town perched on Colombia’s torrid Caribbean coast. The passengers disembarking were excited to get on the road again, but they were also edgy. They climbed onto a dock and hoisted their suitcases, water bottles, camping gear, and children up wooden steps to a boisterous party of smugglers and motorcycle taxi drivers. A boat company employee sprayed disinfectant all over her body with a plastic tank.
Then the haggling began.
“Thirty dollars per person?” said Ernest Tassi, who is from the African nation of Cameroon, aghast at the fee for a motorcycle jaunt five miles toward the border with Panama. “Too expensive!”
Tassi, 35, a French speaker who picked up Spanish while stranded in Ecuador during the pandemic, was translating for a contingent of Haitians — men, women and children — he had met on his journey north. This remote area of northwest Colombia is now one of the busiest migration routes in the world. It is a requirement that anyone traveling from South America must pass through the area to reach the United States.
The migrant traffic began ramping up about a decade ago, then dropped sharply in 2020 as countries shut borders in response to the pandemic. As travel restrictions have been eased, this year’s rebound has been remarkable. This is a time when incomes and job opportunities have been squeezed.
In the first nine months of this year, authorities in Panama logged a record 91,305 foreigners entering the country overland from Colombia — more than during the seven previous years combined. The migrants are Latin Americans, Africans and Asians. About 75% are Haitians — many of whom had been living in Chile and Brazil. The smugglers, drivers and boatmen at Acandi’s dock are so in high demand that they refused to lower their prices for Tassi.
He spoke with them in Spanish, then relayed the details to his Haitian counterparts in French. They broke it down to the rest of the Haitian Creole. They would ride on motorcycles to the camp where they would spend the night. After grabbing food and drinks from the dockside vendors, the group headed off in a wild, Mad Max-in-the jungle convoy.
They were headed toward the Darien Gap, the narrow strip of rainforest that joins South America and Central America.
It was once considered impenetrable. But migrants and smugglers turned the wilderness into an open area, despite numerous dangers such as poisonous snakes and insects and thieves.
Panamanian authorities have recorded at least 50 migrant deaths this year in the Darien, though the real number is probably much higher, since many bodies are never recovered.
From Panama, the migrants must make their way through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico to the U.S. border — a 2,500-mile grind in which they face ruthless bandits, unscrupulous smugglers, corrupt cops and squalid camps. The staging area for this journey is Necocli in Colombia, where hundreds of migrants are staying on the beaches. Many more people stay in hotels or private homes.
They are all waiting to cross the Gulf of Uraba to Acandi, 90 minutes away, on passenger boats that each carry about 50 people.
The wait is often a month or more because the government — in a bid to ease the bottleneck on the route to Panama — lets carriers sell only 500 tickets a day. Every morning, thousands of migrants crowd the boat berths in an attempt to get last-minute rides or benefit from cancellations.
Kidnappings and assaults of migrants — rampant in Mexican border cities — are unusual in Necocli, where the traffic is well-organized, if sometimes chaotic. This is the place that has been abandoned by tourists, surrounded by endless banana plantations.
Among those camped out recently were Luther Victor, his wife, three children and his brother. An overturned wooden fishing boat on the beach near their tent served as a communal table and place to hang drying clothes.
Victor and his family were among hundreds of thousands of Haitians who sought refuge in Brazil and Chile after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. They were immediately welcomed.
Victor, 46, worked as a welder in southern Brazil. A construction boom failed. After the pandemic, he and his family decided to run for the United States.
In September, they shed their belongings and decamped, taking public buses through Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Victor stated that their aunt in Miami told them life was better there. They could find work and education for their children. “In Brazil you work and work, but hardly earn enough to pay the rent and feed your family.”
The migrants amassed here speak of loved ones and former neighbors now in Miami and New York, place names that roll off their tongues as easily as Port-au-Prince and Lagos, Mumbai, Havana and Caracas. They radiate the determination of people who will never give up.
But for now, they have no choice but to wait in Necocli.
Many will soon run out of money and ask for cash from their relatives in the United States. They queue up at the few ATMs for hours. There are money changers everywhere, grabbing wads upon wads of dollars. Price gouging is rampant. Bars and restaurants charge migrants for using the toilets, even though there are very few public facilities.
Sidewalk vendors hawk an array of camping goods — tents and sleeping mats, hiking boots and portable stoves, insect repellent and a dark liquid in unlabeled amber bottles that supposedly keeps snakes at bay. The stranded legions walk along the Malecon’s seaside, looking at the goods, stopping for refreshment and spending a few pesos on games of chance, including a Haitian entrepreneur’s hand-crafted roulette wheel. A Haitian beat is the constant soundtrack.
“We’ve been here in Necocli 22 days. Darlene Martinez Perez, originally Port au-Prince’s, said, “We can’t wait any more!”
She resided in the Dominican Republic, which borders Haiti, for 11 years before setting off for Colombia.
Like many, she was appalled at the recent images from Del Rio, Texas, where Border Patrol agents on horses pushed back throngs of Haitians who had camped along the Rio Grande. U.S. authorities expelled thousands back to their Caribbean homeland.
“That was very hurtful and sad,” Martinez Perez stated. “I want President Biden to understand that we have suffered a lot to get here. We won’t be held back by horses or beatings at this point. We can’t go backward now.”
The scenes in this swath of Colombia illustrate how illicit migration to the United States is evolving.
Migrants headed for the U.S.-Mexico border once came almost exclusively from Mexico and Central America. The movement now has a multi-national character, with migrants from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Central America attempting to cross the border. These people often travel in sealed containers, and sometimes make long journeys through war zones and dangerous sea crossings.
“There was always this assumption that geography is a deterrent to migration — that’s not true anymore,” said Chris Ramon, an immigration consultant in Washington. “People are willing to take on these really dangerous journeys to make it to the border.”
The migrants entering Panama during the first nine months of this year included 68,763 Haitians — among them 12,087 children born in Chile and Brazil — 12,870 Cubans, 1,529 Venezuelans, 942 Bangladeshis, 543 Senegalese, 436 Ghanaians, 415 Uzbekistanis, 294 Indians and 293 Nepalese. About 1 in 5 of the crossers were children.
“We came here to visit our countrymen,” stated a young man from Nepal, wearing a bespectacle as he walked along the Malecon in Necocli. He said, “Just visiting,” but declined to name himself.
Moraima Zamora, 57, of Havana settled in a tent in what is known as the Cuban stretch of the beach. She hoped to join her husband in Miami. She had been a housekeeper in Guyana and a factory worker in South America, and sent money to her daughter in Cuba and her two grandchildren.
“No way I am going to wait here a month to get a ticket to cross,” Zamora said. “My husband is going to send me some money, and I’ll find a boat and move things forward.”
The protracted delays in catching a boat have spawned a risky clandestine business transporting migrants across rough waters.
Three women from Haiti and one from Cuba were killed in an illegal boat carrying migrants. Their bodies were discovered this month. Six other people were reported missing and believed to have drowned.
These dangers are why many choose to wait in Necocli, despite the boredom that comes with waiting and the drain on resources. A man from Sierra Leone said, “America is a place where you can be free, raise your family, and hope that your kids will advance, so I boarded a legal craft.”
One of a group of 14 Africans who had flown to Brazil and then traveled here overland, he said he was 35 and would give only his first name — Osman.
“We want freedom,” he said. The trip by horse or motorbike from Acandi takes migrants past grazing cattle, along streams and rivers, and up and down hills before reaching the Darien entry point. It’s a two- to seven-day trek through the mountains to Panama from there.
Those fortunate to have some cash left can hire guides to help for at least part of the march.
Makenson Dutreil, 35, who said he was bound for New York, was among a half-dozen Haitians — including a 5-year-old girl wearing plastic sunglasses with a stars-and-stripes motif — embarking on the final thrust to the Darien atop a pair of horse-drawn carriages.
They stopped for a meal of rice and chicken at a riverside stand under the management of Absalon Alvarez, 46, an intrepid entrepreneur who also built a toll bridge of planks from a ceiba tree and began charging each motorcycle and cart about 55 U.S. cents to cross the Acandi Seco river.
Refreshed, Dutreil and others were upbeat.
” “At least we’re moving again,” Dutreil stated as his entourage moved toward the jungle.
Special correspondents Liliana Nieto del Rio and Juan Carlos Zapata in Necocli and Acandi, Colombia, and Cecilia Sanchez in Mexico City contributed to this report.