Colombia’s most powerful cartel is making millions ‘helping’ desperate migrants get through a deadly South American jungle

Haiti migrants in Necocli Colombia
stranded migrants from Haiti at a makeshift camp in Necocli, Colombia, September 24, 2021. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images
  • In late October, Colombia captured a powerful kingpin known as “Otoniel,” head of Clan del Golfo.
  • Clan del Golfo has been smuggling migrants to Colombia’s border with Panama, where they continue to the US.
  • Thousands of migrants have made that trek in recent months, and Clan del Golfo continues ferrying them even after Otoniel’s capture.

Necoclí, Colombia – The biggest criminal organization in Colombia, Clan del Golfo, also called Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia (AGC), is making millions of dollars off of desperate migrants trying to make their way to the US.

Although AGC’s main source of revenue is cocaine trafficking, it recently gained control of the migrant routes between Colombia’s borders with Ecuador in the south and Panama in the north, according to a report from Indepaz, a Colombian nongovernmental organization that promotes peace and justice.

As thousands of migrants from the region and from as far away as Africa and the Middle East pass through Colombia in their attempts to reach the US, the AGC have found another criminal gold mine.

AGC is considered by Colombian authorities as a “Class A Organized Armed Group,” and US authorities claim it is the main Colombian ally of Mexico’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel, partnering with it to profit from drug-trafficking and human-smuggling rings worth millions of dollars.

Dairo Antonio Usuga with military personelle who captured him.
Dario Antonio Úsuga with Colombian military personnel after his capture. Reuters

Colombian authorities recently arrested the leader of the AGC, Dario Antonio Úsuga, known as Otoniel, whose capture was “only comparable” to that of Pablo Escobar in the 1990s, Colombia’s president said.

Otoniel was running a smuggling ring from Necoclí, a beach town in northern Colombia where migrants start their trek to the US by heading into the Darien Gap, 66 miles of perilous jungle between Colombia and Panama.

That smuggling ring relies on hundreds of foot soldiers, fishermen, business owners and complicit Colombian authorities, and it profits not only from smuggling migrants but also from providing them housing, transportation, security, and even water to drink.

Colombian and Panamanian authorities reopened their borders this year after more than a year closed due to Covid-19 restrictions. They agreed to let 650 migrants go from Colombia to Panama each day in an effort to relieve the tumultuous bottleneck in Necoclí.

In order to help migrants get to Panama, Colombian authorities authorized a private marine-transportation company to sell 650 tickets to Haitians only, allowing them to cross the Urabá Gulf to Acandí, from where they could head to Panama.

Haiti migrants in Acandi Colombia
Haitian immigrants arrive in Acandi, Colombia, to begin their overland journey through the Darien Gap into Panama, October 4, 2021. John Moore/Getty Images

But Insider witnessed ferries stop in the middle of the sea to knowingly hand the migrants to several small fishing boats owned and operated by AGC smugglers.

Once the migrants reached the other side, hundreds of men, all either members of or hired by AGC, approached the migrants to take them on a two-hour bike ride to the base camp in Las Tecas, at a cost of about $US50 ($AU67) to $US80 ($AU106) each.

“There is no one going to the US and through Colombia that we don’t know of. We have full control of the migrants here,” said Breiner, an AGC operative in Las Tecas, an enclosed base camp where thousands of migrants wait their turn to enter the deadly jungle of the Darien Gap.

Breiner, using a pseudonym to avoid retaliation, told Insider that each migrant pays the cartel about $US1,500 ($AU1,995) to cover transportation from Necoclí to Las Tecas, access to Wi-Fi, and “guides” who take the migrants through the jungle into Panama.

“In early September we would have around 3,000 migrants arriving at this camp, and every single one of them had to pay, with no option” not to, he said.

Migrants in Colombia
Migrants from Haiti, Cuba, and several African nations arrive in Capurgana, north of Acandi, to try to cross into Panama, February 4, 2021. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images

According to Colombian authorities, by late September, around 20,000 migrants were stuck in Necoclí waiting to get through the jungle into Panama. That would mean roughly $US30 ($AU40) million in revenue to the AGC.

“Here they have everything – food, water, internet, cellphones, even machetes and boots to go through the Darien,” Breiner said.

But Leonel, a Haitian traveling with his wife and young daughter, said it is almost impossible to keep paying for everything.

“We don’t bring much money. We don’t have money, so we are asking and asking our family in the US to keep sending more money, and we also borrow from friends who are also migrating, but it is impossible to keep paying,” he said.

The huge migrant population in Necoclí has attracted vendors from all over the country to sell from boots, food, or water, as well as illegal boat trips across the Urabá Gulf in the middle of the night. But they all pay their share to the AGC.

“Everything is extremely expensive. Just to sleep in a little tent we have to pay almost 30 dollars each day,” Leonel said.

Haiti migrants in Necocli Colombia
Stranded migrants from Haiti on the streets of Necocli, September 24, 2021. RAUL ARBOLEDA/AFP via Getty Images

The AGC operative said most of the street vendors and the people working for the organization are over charging for everything, in part due to the high demand but also “because they have to share.”

It is unclear how much each vendor has to pay the AGC to allow them to sell to the migrants, but the operative said it was a “small percentage” of each sale.

“It’s not bad if you really think about it. It is to keep the town safe and at peace. Do you see any violence? No one could steal even a glass of water because we are watching,” he said.

After Otoniel’s arrest, Colombian authorities hope to dismantle his smuggling ring in Necoclí, but the organization has continued “working under a new administration,” the AGC operative said.