Traffickers of humans provide a “VIP route” from Venezuela as a means of bypassing the risks of traveling through Darién. This alternative route is equally hazardous.
On a morning in October, before dawn, 33-year-old Jancerlin Martínez was getting ready to continue her journey to the United States. She wanted to reunite with family in Florida. Along with her 26-year-old sister Jaerlin and 19-year-old brother Joencer, she had left Venezuela a few days prior with the goal of giving her unborn child a better future.
Martínez had been saving for two years in preparation for her journey. She traveled by land to the Venezuelan border and then flew with her siblings to the Colombian island of San Andrés. Their next plan was to travel by boat across the Caribbean to Nicaragua and then continue their journey by land through Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico.
At approximately 1:30 in the morning, the trio embarked on a small fishing vessel with 10 other individuals from Venezuela and two local staff members. The group also consisted of a seven-year-old boy, another expecting mother, and an elderly woman who was only a few weeks shy of her 73rd birthday.
Just before departing, Martínez sent a brief WhatsApp message to her family: “We discovered more affordable life jackets.”
This would be her final communication. The vessel – along with all 15 individuals on board – perished in the ocean.
Joe Martínez, the uncle of the victim, stated that they were initially unsure of the situation, finding it strange. However, they held onto hope that the missing individuals would return. But it wasn’t long before they realized that it was a case of human trafficking.
Martínez and her companions were preyed upon by smugglers who advertise “VIP routes”, guaranteeing a secure, expedited, and more pleasant voyage by water instead of the perilous trek through the Darién Gap.
The smugglers, referred to as coyotes, pretend to be representatives of authorized travel companies and attract migrants through social media and WhatsApp groups that falsely guarantee a “100% safe” journey.
The truth is quite distinct. Based on the most recent data from Colombian officials, a minimum of 74 migrants have disappeared at sea while the navy has successfully saved 1,102 migrants on the VIP routes between 2022 and 2023.
Martínez stated that if his missing relatives had been aware of the dangers, they would not have embarked on the journey.
Large numbers of migrants are putting their lives in danger by crossing Darién, the lawless area of dense jungle that lies between Colombia and Panama. In this treacherous region, they face the threat of being robbed or raped by ruthless bandits, as well as the dangers of dehydration, animal attacks, and tropical illnesses.
Officials are facing difficulties in managing the land border, causing an increase in the use of maritime routes by migrants traveling north. Five distinct “VIP routes” have been discovered in Colombia’s Caribbean region, although officials claim that the name is highly misleading.
According to Migration Colombia’s director, Fernando García, the routes passing through San Andrés should not be considered VIP since numerous individuals have lost their lives on these paths. These routes are equally perilous as traveling through the Darién.
The cost for crossing with coyotes ranges from $1,400 to $8,000 per individual, which includes transportation expenses such as flights to San Andrés, boat ride to Nicaragua, and bus trips through Central America. Additionally, it covers accommodation, paperwork, food, SIM cards, and reportedly, guaranteed legal entry into the US.
Most of the people migrating by boat are from Venezuela, but there are also individuals from countries like Senegal, Syria, China, and Uzbekistan who have also traveled this way.
The Colombian government is unable to accurately determine the exact number of migrants using the routes. They have labeled the situation as a serious humanitarian crisis, although the focus has mainly been on the Darién region, according to Javier Sarmiento, the deputy attorney responsible for human rights at the inspector general’s office.
He stated that the Colombian government has neglected this issue and there is a complete absence of regulation from the state.
The problem on San Andrés remains unnoticed and unaddressed. The island is a popular tourist destination with tax incentives, attracting visitors from Colombia and beyond for its beautiful beaches and scuba diving. Unfortunately, this also provides a convenient hiding spot for smugglers and their illicit activities.
Visitors come to the island through legal means, pretending to be tourists and advised to maintain a discreet presence.
“Do not mention traveling to the US,” advised coyote Pablo in a WhatsApp conversation with a potential client. “Be discreet and avoid drawing attention. You must be cautious and remain silent.”
Soon, the assurance of comfort and security is replaced by the harsh truths of a secretive voyage by sea, a frequently recorded event through TikTok uploads by migrants.
A migrant captured his journey through the sweltering heat and constant surveillance as they were transported, expressing the fear felt by both children and adults. He filmed himself making his way through thick shrubbery in San Andrés.
The trip to Nicaragua involves traveling between islands on old and crowded fishing boats.
Once departing from San Andrés, the ships make a brief stop at a tiny island called Fisherman’s Cay, which is located over 100 miles away from San Andrés.
After that, the migrants are moved onto a different boat and then embark on a journey to either the Corn Islands or the coastal town of Bluefields on Nicaragua’s mainland.
Unfortunately, not all of these individuals are able to continue their journey past the initial stop. Frequently, the second vessel does not arrive, leaving migrants stranded and their aspirations for a brighter future destroyed, along with the money they worked hard to save.
In the beginning of the year, the Colombian navy saved 41 migrants at Fisherman’s Cay. This small island, which was previously a temporary spot for local fishermen, now shows signs of a increasing number of people leaving, with makeshift huts and worn out mattresses scattered along its beach.
Empty cans of beans and discarded packs of instant coffee can be seen among the white sand. Under the palm trees, there are various items such as used nappies, abandoned clothes, children’s sandals, face masks, and tourist cards needed for entry and exit of San Andrés.
According to Santiago Coronado, leader of the San Andrés coast guard, the fishing community has been impacted by the realization that human trafficking can bring in significantly more profits. The lucrative nature of this illegal activity has enticed many fishermen to engage in criminal behavior, as they possess extensive knowledge of the sea.
Officials in Colombia have implemented stricter measures in the San Andrés region to combat illegal migration. However, both Migration Colombia and the San Andrés coast guard recognize that corruption impedes their efforts to address the problem.
García stated that the officials involved in this project are highly vulnerable to corruption. Due to their close interaction with traffickers, there is evidence of connections between certain members of Migration Colombia and criminal organizations that exploit migration patterns.
Pablo, the coyote, openly acknowledged his connections with the authorities in the area, stating, “We have a working relationship with the navy to avoid any interference and we handle all expenses.”
He stated: “In this industry, it is crucial to form alliances with influential individuals. In order to carry out our work, we must compensate those who allow us to do so. I pay for the well-being and protection of my clients. Our work is conducted lawfully in this manner.”
These words hold no meaning for Joe Martínez, who is still mourning the loss of his family members. “My heart is shattered,” he expressed.