We welcome José Guarnizo, a journalist who has carried out different investigations on migration. At this moment, in Necoclí, Antioquia, located in western Colombia, where a critical situation is being experienced because more than 10,000 migrants have arrived. People from Haiti, Africa and Asia.
These people hope to pass through the Serranía del Darién and Capurganá, a route of around 66 kilometres, and then reach Central America to go to the United States.
José, tell us a little about the situation of these people who are trying to reach the United States by crossing the Colombian-Panamanian border.
Well, there are many reasons for this, depending on the country of origin. In the Gulf of Urabá, which is an area in the far north, in the northwest of the country, on the border with Panama, they have been coming together for several years, this is not new. I went there for the first time in 2009 to try to cover what was happening, but this has been going on more or less since the 1970s. What has happened is that in recent times, in the last decade, it has increased, and it is what we can call transcontinental migrants, that is to say migrants coming from Asia, from Africa, as you were saying.
They also come in waves, there was a period in 2012 and 2013 when many Cubans arrived, and Haitians have been arriving for some years now, many of whom were working in Chile, but there was a turnaround in the labour needs there, and I have seen many going there.
What’s the problem, what’s going on? The migrant who crosses through this area is being a victim of migrant trafficking, that is to say, there are people who are profiting from them as a business. They charge them a certain amount of money to transport them by boat from a place called Necoclí to Capurganá, a journey of about an hour and a half. And then, with some supposed guides who are not guides, because they are migrant traffickers, they take them to Panama on infamous treks that can last eight days. In this part of the country, in Colombia, there is not much of a state. That is to say, there is only one office of Migration Colombia, there are only a few officials of the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) and the IOM (International Organisation for Migration). In this case, migrants are left at the mercy of those who run this business. Bearing in mind that this area of Urabá also has a very complex situation due to the armed groups. In this case, there is a hegemonic armed group in this area that manages drug trafficking. It is one of the groups in this part of the Caribbean coast and they are the ones who control drug trafficking, the Gulf Clan, and this group manages the daily life of the people who not only live in Necoclí, Apartadó, Turbo, which are like nearby cities, or nearby towns. So, they collect extortion money from businesses. This is not to say that there is no presence, let’s say, of authorities, of course there we find the Navy, the Army, the Police, but it is not enough and these are groups that are also profiting from the trafficking of migrants.
That is more or less the situation at the moment, because as you said, there are 10,000 migrants. This situation was being denied by Migration Colombia. A few days ago, we published a video, which generated a lot of commotion, but it had already been happening.
You have been in the area for several years, how is the national government dealing with this situation?
Well, to be honest, I have to say that it does nothing or not much. The only thing that the Colombian and Panamanian governments do is to give them a transit document, which is like a safe-conduct, which indicates that you can transit freely for a few days in Colombian territory, but that’s all. There are no humanitarian crossings, because we have to take into account that these migrants come with women, with children, with elderly people, and even with disabled people. You see all sorts of things. So, there is no legal or regular way to cross the border because Colombia has not sat down with Panama, nor has Panama sat down with Costa Rica, nor have any of these countries sat down to talk about what they are going to do about this issue. And of course, the biggest blockade is by the United States, because it does not want to let any migrant through without documents. For this reason, Colombia does not dare to propose a scenario where there is a humanitarian crossing, and what the countries do is close their eyes and let them pass. Closing their eyes, that is, they do nothing. In other words, they simply let them pass through, and letting them pass through means that in the end the traffickers profit by smuggling these people across the illegal borders.
We have known that several people have died because the boats in which they are taken, apart from not having in many cases the necessary measures to carry out this activity, and in other cases the boatmen are drunk. Among these facts, we know that one of your investigations consisted of reconstructing the story of some migrants who fell into the sea and only some of them survived. Among them, a woman who managed to reach the United States, tell us about the reconstruction process of this investigation.
Well, unfortunately, these are the tragedies that usually happen in this area. So, on the route between Necoclí and Capurganá, let’s say that the coyotes are those people who transport migrants at night, without any security measures, and what they do is charge them a lot of money, much more than what a Colombian would pay for a boat ticket from Necoclí to Capurganá, which is about an hour and a half and can cost 15 or 20 dollars, while for the migrants it can cost up to 100 dollars. So, these people do it at night or in the early hours of the morning, when the sea is rough, they go out hiding from the authorities. And then tragedies happen. I had the responsibility of covering and writing about a shipwreck that had occurred near a small town called Acandí, where one of these boats with migrants was shipwrecked, 21 bodies were found in the sea, 12 children and 10 adults. This is a terrible tragedy that should never have happened, and what we did was to try to find the traces of those people who had been buried there as NN, because our mission was to try to find the names of those who were there. At the end of nine months of investigating, we found the names of 11 survivors and 11 people possibly buried there, in the cemetery of Acandí. However, this is something that has been repeated for a long time, because migrants can lose their lives, not only at sea, in the conditions in which the coyotes subject them, but also in the Darién jungle, which is one of the rainiest places in the world, with a broken geography, with animals, with wild animals. I have heard migrants say that death is also an option for freedom, when you start, it doesn’t matter if you die because looking back can be worse and it is also a limiting situation. To cross the Darién jungle, you have to be physically prepared, but the migrants come tired from travelling for several months, from eating little, and add to that the enormous difficulty of being in a jungle that you are not used to.
Finally, after reconstructing this shipwreck, what are the chances of a person who crosses the Darién mountain range, and then Central America, of reaching the United States?
Well, look, I have been in contact with people who reach the United States, but imagine all the dangers there are to reach Colombia and then those that follow from there upwards. Another source of danger is Mexico, where you see organised crime and then crossing to the United States, it is an inhumane journey. And in these times, we should not be talking about this, because migration is not a crime and migration is a fact or a phenomenon that is repeating itself, all over the planet Earth, and let’s say that we have not managed to understand what is, not only a solution, but how to humanise migration. It is not conceivable that you are forced to leave your country because you are going to be killed or for multiple reasons and that the only option is to die on the way, in the 21st century. So, this is nothing more than the failure of politics, of multilateral organisations, the failure of human rights, because this is a human rights issue.
José, I would like to take advantage of your knowledge of the reality you are telling us about to ask you about this phenomenon, and as you were telling us about the total absence of states for various reasons, are there collectives, organisations, associations, groups of people who show solidarity with migrants and in some way try to help them, are there actions of this type in Colombia?
Well, the migrant generates different reactions in different parts of the world, in some cases xenophobia and in others solidarity, and there are always both. If we talk about this area of Urabá, there is only one organisation, the Catholic Church, which is currently setting up a kind of shelter, together with the Archdiocese of Apartadó and the Bishop, Mr Torres, who is the person who knows the most about the issue and who we understand is working from a human point of view, not from the point of view of repression, persecution of migrants. Last year in a project we did, we won a journalism prize in Russia and we donated a percentage of the prize to them, because they are the only ones who are there rowing to help in the humanitarian point of view. What generally happens is that migrants arrive in bad conditions, because a migrant needs a lot of help, but the first is food, water and a place to sleep. That is the minimum that a human being needs. So, they are trying to make a real effort and it is like ploughing in the desert because this does not solve the problem. Because of this the Social Foundation is going to start to see how they can coordinate with them to do something, but it is really very complex.
Well José, we thank you for giving us a broader explanation of the problems that these people have to face when they try to cross the Colombian-Panamanian border. Thank you for joining us today.