MSF reports that 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, by abducting and sexually assaulting vulnerable migrants.
The organization reported providing care for 397 individuals who experienced sexual violence this year, including many children who had safely arrived in Panama. There have been reports of multiple instances of rape occurring in tents specifically set up for that purpose in the rainforests and swamplands.
The amount greatly surpasses the 172 documented in 2022, and the organization states that it is another instance of how the hardships faced by migrants in the Darién are becoming accepted as the norm. MSF is calling on the governments of Panama and Colombia to send a strong security presence to the jungle in order to safeguard migrants.
Some of the distressing accounts shared with MSF included migrants being forced into tents and sexually assaulted by armed individuals in the presence of other migrants.
“I witnessed numerous individuals being sexually assaulted. They were then left unclothed and physically harmed,” recounted a Venezuelan woman to MSF. “One, two, or three individuals would forcibly rape me, and then the next would do the same. If I tried to cry out, they would beat me.”
In certain situations, individuals who attempted to protect the affected individuals were physically assaulted or murdered, including a juvenile 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 dealing with 107 instances of sexual violence in just October. Among the recent victims of rape, three were 11, 12, and 16 years old.
Carmenza Gálvez, the medical coordinator for MSF, stated that many individuals who are victims of sexual violence do not receive prompt assistance. This is often due to the negative attitudes towards victims of this type of violence, fear of retaliation from the perpetrators, lack of recognition of certain forms of sexual violence, and reluctance to seek help due to feelings of insecurity.
Moreover, there is concern that reporting the offenses committed against them could potentially hinder their progress towards the north.
The Darién’s swampy jungles have long deterred people due to their hostility. With limited infrastructure and minimal government presence, armed drug-trafficking groups hold the power in the region.
Last year, a minimum of 36 individuals lost their lives in the hilly forests, with numerous succumbing to the treacherous cliffs and powerful rivers of the jungle.
Nevertheless, it is still the sole overland route linking South America and Central America. Approximately 460,000 individuals, including 100,000 minors, have traversed the Darién so far this year – a significant increase from the 133,000 who made the trip in 2021. The majority of these individuals are headed to the United States or other destinations in the north.
The MSF is encouraging local authorities to boost their presence in the deserted forests in order to protect human rights and provide further assistance to those affected.
According to Bram Ebus, a consultant for the International Crisis Group thinktank, the majority of the violence takes place in the less regulated area of the Darién on the Panamanian side. The Colombian side is heavily monitored by the Gulf Clan, the country’s biggest drug cartel, which uses brutal tactics to discourage rapists and protect their profits from human trafficking.
Ebus mentioned that increased collaboration between Colombia and Panama, as well as strengthened government presence and improved accessibility for humanitarian aid groups, has the potential to greatly improve the safety of migrants in the Darién region.