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The Darien Gap and Its Impact on Human Trafficking

A lot of attention has recently been paid to human trafficking and the areas where it occurs. One particularly notorious route for human trafficking is the Darien Gap, located between the Colombia-Panama border.

Migrant crossings through the Darien Gap have exponentially increased over the past couple of years. For example, from 2010 through 2014, there was an average of 2,400 crossings per year through the Darien Gap. That number grew from over 100,000 in 2021 to over 500,000 in 2023, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

These migrants have contributed to the overall increase in illegal migration along the southwest border of the U.S. The Migration Policy Institute notes that in fiscal year 2023, there were 2.5 million encounters with migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, a historic high.

Related: Controlling Illegal Immigration at the Southwest Border

What Is the Darien Gap and Why Is It So Dangerous?

People smuggled to the United States typically come from many countries around the world. South American migrants who come to the U.S. by land-based routes use an especially treacherous route called the Darien Gap.

The Darien Gap is a 60-mile jungle between Colombia and Panama. According to AP News, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world use the Darien Gap to cross into Central America en route to the U.S.

Sadly, people who use the Darien Gap face extreme danger. It is prone to flooding, does not have roads and is a haven for human traffickers who target vulnerable migrants.

Also, migrants are exposed to various diseases such as malaria, dengue fever and yellow fever, as well as sicknesses from drinking contaminated water within the Darien Gap. In addition, there are people from violent cartels who use the Darien Gap for drug trafficking.

Related: Stash Houses: Their Role in Human Trafficking and Smuggling

Migrants’ Use of the Darien Gap

According to the Center on Foreign Relations, the most common migrants who use the Darien Gap come from Venezuela, Ecuador and Haiti. Other migrants come as far away as Angola, Bangladesh and Uzbekistan.

The Center on Foreign Relations also notes that migrants pay coyotes to help them traverse the Darien Gap. This area is occupied by Colombia’s largest drug cartel, the Gulf Clan, along with other transnational criminal organizations. During their trip, migrants are commonly raped, robbed, extorted and forced into human trafficking.

Order is maintained in the Darien Gap by the cartels. There is no viable protection for migrants who travel through the Darien Gap.

The Difference Between Human Smuggling and Human Trafficking

Cartels facilitate much of the human smuggling that occurs along the border the U.S. shares with Mexico. Human smuggling is transportation-based and involves migrants paying a fee to illegally come to the United States.

By contrast, human trafficking is labor-based and commonly involves sex trafficking, forced labor, organ trafficking, illicit drug packaging, and domestic servitude. With the increase of people paying coyotes and cartels to cross the southwest border illegally, more people are at risk of human trafficking.

Organ Trafficking of Vulnerable Migrants

Organ traffickers also exploit the Darien Gap. I once interviewed a former human trafficker, who explained that organ traffickers take orders for specific body parts. They wait along the Darien Gap for someone who meets their needs (such as an adult or child) and removes the victim from a migrant group by force.

After their body parts are harvested, these victims are never found. Globally, organ trafficking generates $840 to $1.7 billion annually according to ACAMS Today, and kidneys are the most common organ harvested illegally.

Why Migrants Resort to Using the Darien Gap

Desperate migrants make the dangerous trek through the Darien Gap to escape poverty, violence and instability in their home countries. Often, they hope to create a better life for their families in the United States.

However, the Darien Gap is a lawless stretch of land that presents unspeakable danger for the migrants who trek through it. Ultimately, a collaborative, international approach will be needed to stem the flow of migrants through the Darien Gap.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. For more information on Jarrod and links to his social media and website, check out

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