In the near-total darkness of the Caribbean Sea just before midnight, a scream pierces the sudden clash of waves and wind.
“This is the Coast Guard. Stop the engines!” shouts an officer. Powerful flashlights reveal a 32-foot single-engine boat full of immigrants — some small children — lying on the floor of the vessel. They are Venezuelan citizens, the Coast Guard later established. The Colombian government released the footage to CNN.
This scene is being repeated regularly around Colombia’s San Andres archipelago, located 775 kilometers (482 miles) northwest of mainland Colombia, where the Colombian Coast Guard routinely intercepts boats full of migrants and pays smugglers to take them across the Caribbean.
When reaching Central American countries such as Nicaragua, the journey allows migrants to avoid the dangerous Darien Gap, a region of Panamanian jungle on the Colombian border, which is also used by migrants traveling north in the hope of eventually reaching the United States.
Colombian Navy Captain Octavio Gutiérrez, who serves in the San Andres archipelago, says the migrants fly to the islands where they spend one or two nights while trying to make contact with the smugglers.
“Originally, [the smugglers] They were charging between $1,000 and $1,500. Now we are receiving testimonies from people who have paid $4,000 per person to smugglers to take them from San Andres to Central America,” said the captain.
Gutiérrez says that during September the Coast Guard confiscated 35 boats, while 29 operations were being carried out against smugglers in the area.
From the beginning of the year to the end of September, the Coast Guard has arrested 14 smugglers transporting 526 migrants, including children. And the number of migrants trying to reach Central America is constantly increasing.
From South America to the United States, trying to stop another wave of migrants appears to be a losing battle. As CNN reported last month, US Customs and Border Protection encounters at the US-Mexico border have already topped 2 million this year, according to agency data, as migration from the authoritarian states of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba has surged.
And the testimonies of many migrants suggest that, more than ever, they are ready to face any risk and pay ever-increasing sums of money to achieve their American dream.
In just one week at the end of September, the Colombian Coast Guard arrested 131 migrants, he told CNN. While there were Cuban, Peruvian and Ecuadorian nationals, most were Venezuelans, he said, according to immigration officials in other transit countries such as Panama and Guatemala.
Many are young men Mario Mosquera and Jefferson Lozada, two cousins from Venezuela who CNN found walking along a highway in eastern Guatemala, told CNN they were driven out by the country’s dire economic conditions.
“Venezuela is unlivable. The economic crisis has been very hard, and it is true that I am making this sacrifice to give my children a better life”, said Mosquera, the married father of three children.
“Minimum wage [in Venezuela] not even enough to eat. I left my country in search of a better future for my mother and my brothers and sisters,” said Lozada.
According to a recent report by the New York-based humanitarian NGO International Rescue Committee, a third of the population – more than 9 million people – suffered from hunger in 2019. “Although the data on Venezuela is often limited or completely missing, this figure. it is probably growing; 14% of Venezuelan children under the age of 5 suffer from acute malnutrition; 57% of pregnant women are malnourished,” he said.
The number of Venezuelans who have fled their country has already exceeded 7.1 million, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. It surpasses countries like Ukraine (6.8 million) and Syria (6.6 million). These figures are striking because, unlike the other two nations, the South American country is not at war.
In Caracas, CNN spoke to another man who says he is desperate to leave Venezuela and has decided to leave his country for the United States. He has not revealed his identity because he works for the Venezuelan government.
His government job pays about five dollars a week, which forces him to hold two other jobs to make ends meet, he said.
“The real question is how did he get to the United States,” the 38-year-old added, adding that he does not have a visa for the United States, Mexico or the Central American countries he would have to cross.
He is well aware of the dangers of travel. “There are guerrillas, criminals and wild animals [Darien Gap]” he says, referring to a treacherous 266-kilometer-long stretch of wilderness that’s deadly for regular migrants, but crossed by thousands every day.
More than 134,000 northern migrants entered Panamanian territory through the Darien Gap between the beginning of the year and the end of September, according to Panama’s Ministry of Security.
However, he stated that he already faces the daily difficulties and dangers of armed violence in his neighborhood. A day before the interview, two of his neighbors were killed in a shooting, he said.