An estimated 16,000 migrants, the majority Haitians, remain stranded in the Colombian fishing village of Necoclí, facing a vast expanse of grey that is the Urabá Gulf. Crossing the strong currents of the Gulf by boat is, under ideal climatic conditions, a dangerous undertaking, compounded by flash tropical storms and waters that are part of extensive drug trafficking routes used by two allied cartels: Gulf Clan and Mexico’s Sinaloa.

The Darien Gap encompasses topographically diverse terrains, from swamps and mangroves along the region’s longest river Atrato, to interconnected lagoons of the Tumaradó and Cacarica watersheds. From the tropical lowlands to the foothills of the Darien mountains, crossing one of the world’s most impenetrable rainforests from Colombia to the first indigenous hamlets on the Panamanian side takes days, and requires experienced local guides to decipher tracks that vanish with each torrential downpour. Few venture through the middle of Darien’s neck given illegal armed groups that have base camps in the foothills from where they control the movement of weapons, narcotics and contraband.

The route the migrants are making to reach a destination that could end in asylum or deportation by U.S immigration authorities involves reaching Acandí in powerful outboards that can skirt fallen trees that end up floating in the Gulf from illegal logging operations. The journey from Haiti to the Colombian coast can take months given that many migrants enter the country from Venezuela. A 2-hour crossing from Necoclí to Acandí in privately owned boats, and with limited seats, can cost upward of COP$400,000 (US$120) per passenger.

Necoclí’s dilapidated wooden bungalows once housed paramilitaries under command of Carlos Castaño as he waged war in the hinterland against ELN and FARC guerrilla. Today, they operate as eco-lodges for school excursions, the majority from Medellín. The lifeline of the region is the Urabá Antioqueño where the AUC’s (United Self-Defense Forces) Castaño owned large ranches and was regarded among locals as the country’s “other Defense Minister.”

With fleets of bullet-proofed Toyota all-terrain vehicles, Castaño’s security belt was tightly wrapped around the Urabá and its extensive banana plantations. With Castaño’s death in 2004, allegedly shot by other AUC commanders, including his brother Vicente, the land grab of the Darien intensified, so too massacres, forced displacement, and other atrocities committed against the civilian population trapped in decades of violence.

A relentless tide of human misery, abandonment, and despair has spilled into the Darien. With each wave of migrants, more come, each laden with a few possessions to reach the sandbanks of Mexico’s Rio Grande. For that, they must still cross six Central American countries. According to government sources, some 80,000 have entered Panama through the Darien Gap this year, leaving in muddy trenches – trochas – a human footprint that is quickly eroding a pristine wilderness.

The governments of Colombia and Panama have agreed to let 500 cross over every day. According to an interview with the CM& television network, Attorney General Francisco Barbosa affirmed that traffickers are exploiting the immigrants as “human mules” – muleros – and “transnational scourge that sponsors other criminal activities, from sexual violence to homicide, theft and extortion.” The Fiscalía has ongoing investigations against 547 persons allegedly involved in migrant smuggling.

International aid organizations have been slow to respond to the humanitarian crisis, while Colombia’s welfare agencies (ICBF, Defensa Civil, Cruz Roja) are attending the needs of stranded women and children. For the 45,000 inhabitants of Necoclí – mix of Antioqueño colonos (colonizers), Embera Katío indians and Afro-Colombians – having the 16,000 migrants camped out in nearby fields means food and other essential supplies are depleting fast. “From softdrinks, to sachets of shampoo, everything is running out,” claims shopkeeper Evaristo Cortés. “What used to cost COP$1,000 now is worth double.”

For Freddy Pastrana, president of the Acandí community council, the arrival of Haitians is generating much needed cash for jungle guides and transporters. “I hear on television that the passage of migrants through some countries is a curse, but for us, in Acandí, it is honestly a blessing, because after the pandemic, commerce, motorcycle taxis, coachmen were reactivated.”

As local women boil cauldrons of fish stew for their visitors, another outboard throttles towards the mist-covered ridges of the Darien. “Why anyone would enter the ‘Green inferno’ is sheer madness,” affirms a Ray Ban spectacled Davinson ‘capi’ Rojas. “There’s nothing there, but lost souls.”

Additional reporting by EFE.