The first time I spoke with survivors of the Darién Gap – the infamous deadly stretch of jungle on the border between Colombia and Panama – was in 2021 during my brief imprisonment in Siglo XXI, Mexico’s largest immigrant detention center, located in the Mexican state of Chiapas. near the border with Guatemala.
I was the only inmate to come from the United States – the country primarily responsible for Mexico’s migration policy – and I had ended up in the migrant prison purely because of my own stupidity and laziness in extending my tourist visa. My fellow inmates faced more existential problems, and many of them – from Haiti, Cuba, Bangladesh and beyond – were forced to traverse the Darién Gap as they fled political and economic calamity in hopes of eventually finding refuge in the US. .
Within the walls of Siglo XXI, where dreams of refuge had been put on indefinite hold, the Darién was a recurring topic of conversation—a sort of spontaneous exercise in group therapy, it seemed. Women told of the countless cadavers they had encountered on their travels. It was clear that rape was rampant in the jungle—to the extent that even those who were not personally assaulted were vicariously traumatized.
In these densest and most impenetrable forests, sexual violence against refugee seekers is institutionalized. This violence can be perpetrated by local residents, paramilitaries or a range of criminal actors whose activities are allowed to continue with impunity in the general context of criminalized migration.
In February of this year I traveled to the Darién region of Panama. Of course, I didn’t have to risk my life or physical integrity to do so – such as the obscene and arbitrary privilege conferred by the passport of the US, a country known for wreaking havoc around the world and then pushing its borders to militarize against anyone who so desires. to escape the mess.
In the town of Metetí in Darién province, I spoke with Tamara Guillermo, MSF field coordinator (Doctors Without Borders, or Doctors Without Borders), who expressed her horror at the “level of cruelty” and extreme “cruelty” currently on display being in the jungle – where sexual aggression, including against men, was common.
According to Guillermo, there had been a recent increase in reports of people being held up by armed assailants in the Darién and forced to remove all their clothing for a manual inspection of body orifices to make sure nothing of value was found tucked away. away. Often the women were then separated from the group and raped.
In Metetí, I also spoke with a young Venezuelan woman—we’ll call her Alicia—whose two-year-old son threw a foam ball at me and pinched my nose during our conversation, distracted by a cartoon about velociraptors.
Alicia had been crossing the Darién for 10 days, she told me, and every night she had cried. She hadn’t been raped, but she had heard of many rapes and seen many deaths – such as the hunched body of an old man under a tree who “looked like he was cold.” She had met a Haitian woman whose six-month-old baby had just drowned. She had been robbed of her puppy and then of any valuables not hidden in her son’s diapers when a group of 10 hooded men descended on her group.
In Spanish, the verb “violar” can mean either “violation” – as in human rights – or “to rape”. And while Alicia may not have been physically violated in the last sentence, the DariénGap pretty much qualifies as one continuous violation.
But the Darién Gap is not the only stretch where refugees endure the brutal and often sexual violation of their dignity. Globally, we humans have shown a sadistic knack for exploiting vulnerable people on the move – people whose status as “migrants” usually has a lot to do with the fact that they have already suffered greatly in life.
Take Libya, an important point of departure for refugees on their way to Europe, fleeing war and economic misery, where rape, slavery and torture of all kinds have taken place – including of children seeking refuge. As much as the West tries to shift responsibility for the entire sinister scheme onto the ever-handy fantasy of African brutality, the reality is that the blame lies at the foot of Fortress Europe.
Meanwhile, bipartisan xenophobic US policies in northern Mexico have put countless asylum seekers directly into the hands of rapists and kidnappers. And on the island of Nauru, the site of Australia’s favored offshore asylum processing center, a 2020 report published jointly by the Refugee Council of Australia and the Asylum Seeker Resource Center noted: “For many years there have been tragic reports of rape and sexual abuse of women in Nauru, including by those who are paid to protect them”.
Speaking of supposed “protection”, Panamanian authorities have now come under fire over allegations of sexual and other abuse at migrant detention centers in Darién province. Forgive my pessimism about the prospects for justice.
During my stay in the Darién region, I also spoke with Marilen Osinalde, MSF’s mental health manager in Metetí, who regularly cares for patients who have been victims of sexual and other violence. She noted to me that while there is a persistent Western stereotype of rapists as “psychopaths grabbing you in the street at night,” the phenomenon is more complex.
In the case of the Darién Gap and other migratory pathways, she explained, the landscape of sexual aggression against people crossing it is about asserting power, status and impunity — as well as marking territory. The use of rape as a “weapon” in the Darién also objectifies and dehumanizes the migrant “Other,” she said, further cementing power structures.
Zoom out from the Darién and we find ourselves in a world of borders that dehumanize and criminalize refugee seekers and other have-nots, all in the interest of demarcating territory and strengthening power structures. The US is invading international borders at will while fortifying its own – turning spaces like the Darién Gap into physical and psychological weapons.
From Panama to Libya to Nauru, a war is being waged against people who are being deprived of not only the right to cross borders, but also the right to control the boundaries of their bodies. And that is indeed a violation of humanity.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial view of Al Jazeera.