According to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), armed criminals are taking advantage of the high number of individuals crossing the Darién Gap, a 100km area of dense forest that links Colombia and Panama. These criminals are using this opportunity to abduct and sexually assault vulnerable migrants.
The organization reported that they provided care for 397 individuals who experienced sexual assault this year, including many children who were brought to safety in Panama. There have been allegations of multiple individuals being raped in tents specifically designated for that purpose in the mountainous rainforest and swampland.
The amount vastly surpasses the 172 documented in 2022, and the organization states that it showcases the increasing normalization of migrant hardship in the Darién. MSF is calling on the Panama and Colombian governments to establish a strong security presence in the jungle to safeguard migrants.
MSF received distressing accounts from migrants who shared their experiences of being brought to tents and sexually assaulted by armed groups while other migrants were forced to witness.
A Venezuelan woman shared with MSF that she witnessed multiple instances of rape where victims were left naked and physically abused. She described how several perpetrators would take turns assaulting her and if she tried to call out for help, she was beaten.
In certain instances, individuals who attempted to protect the victims were physically attacked or even died, such as a young boy who suffered a gunshot wound to the head.
In the past few months, there has been a significant increase in the number of accounts that are similar, with MSF providing medical treatment for 107 cases of sexual violence in just the month of October. Among these cases, three survivors of rape were 11, 12, and 16 years old.
According to MSF medical coordinator Carmenza Gálvez, individuals who are subjected to sexual violence may not receive prompt assistance due to the negative perception surrounding victims, intimidation from perpetrators, types of sexual violence that are not acknowledged, and reluctance to seek help out of fear for their safety.
Furthermore, there is concern that reporting the offenses committed against them could potentially hinder their progress towards their destination to the north.
The Darién’s marshy rainforests have long been a deterrent for people. Due to limited infrastructure and minimal government control, armed drug cartels hold the power in the region.
Last year, 36 individuals lost their lives in the rugged landscapes of the mountain forests, with a significant number succumbing to the treacherous ravines and powerful currents of the jungle.
Unfortunately, it continues to serve as the sole overland route connecting South America and Central America. This year alone, approximately 460,000 individuals, including 100,000 minors, have traversed the Darién Gap, a significant increase from the 133,000 who made the trip in 2021. The majority of these migrants are en route to the United States or other northern locations.
The MSF is calling on local authorities to boost their presence in deserted jungles in order to protect human rights and provide greater aid to those affected.
According to Bram Ebus, a consultant at the International Crisis Group thinktank, the majority of the violence takes place in the less regulated area of the Darién on the Panamanian side. However, the Colombian side is heavily monitored by the Gulf Clan, the biggest drug cartel in the country, which enforces violent punishments on rapists to protect their profits from people smuggling and avoid any human rights concerns.
Ebus stated that by strengthening collaboration between Colombia and Panama, regulating the movement of migrants, and increasing government presence, there is a possibility of greatly improving the safety of migrants in the Darién region. This can also lead to better accessibility for humanitarian aid groups.