'Disguised as tourism’: Colombia's 'VIP' migration routes

A surge in migration from Latin America to the US has led to new routes north, billed by human smugglers as ‘VIP’ options.

A Navy official, dressed in a ballcap, a long-sleeved uniform and an orange life vest stands aboard a boat that plies its way through the blue Caribbean waters.
Members of the Colombian Navy carry out surveillance work around the island of San Andrés, a human smuggling hotspot [Charlie Cordero/Al Jazeera]
Members of the Colombian Navy carry out surveillance work around the island of San Andrés, a human smuggling hotspot [Charlie Cordero/Al Jazeera]

San Andrés, Colombia – Under the cover of darkness, a small team from the Colombian Coast Guard climbs on board a speed boat equipped with radar and a high-tech detection system.

It is 11pm, and the group, composed of a half-dozen young marines, is setting off to patrol the tiny coral island of San Andrés in the Caribbean Sea.

As they zip over the waves, sheets of heavy rain begin to hammer their boat, clouding their vision. But the team continues its mission, scanning the island’s east coast in search of a particular target: human smugglers, otherwise known as coyotes.

Coast Guard members, dressed in orange helmets and life vests, stand behind the controls of their boat during a nighttime patrol.
The San Andrés Coast Guard embarks on a patrol at night, when human smuggling activity is most frequent [Charlie Cordero/Al Jazeera]

In recent years, smugglers have been offering asylum seekers and migrants alternative methods of travelling north from South America to the United States.

Those alternatives include what the coyotes bill as “VIP routes”: journeys that bypass dangerous stretches of terrain by traversing the Caribbean waters instead.

But experts warn that these overseas voyages may not be as safe as they are advertised to be.

Wrapped in a waterproof coat to stave off the rain, Lieutenant Commander Santiago Coronado, the head of the San Andrés Coast Guard, explains that the growing popularity of these “VIP routes” has led to a spike in law enforcement activities off Colombia’s coast.

“Realistically, where it’s hardest to catch them [the smugglers] is at sea,” Coronado told Al Jazeera. “We’ve increased our patrols in order to avoid people putting themselves in danger.”

An alternative to the Darién Gap

A Colombian naval officer dressed in olive fatigues looks across a white-sand beach with binoculars.
A member of the Colombian Navy patrols the white sand beaches of Albuquerque Cay, a Colombian military base [Charlie Cordero/Al Jazeera]
A member of the Colombian Navy patrols the white sand beaches of Albuquerque Cay, a Colombian military base [Charlie Cordero/Al Jazeera]

Sold for about $1,400 to $8,000 apiece over social media, trips on the “VIP route” are marketed as a safer option to crossing Central America entirely on foot.

Usually, participants arrive legally in Colombia as tourists and are flown to San Andrés, an isolated archipelago and vacation destination in the Caribbean Sea.

Though San Andrés is part of Colombia, it is geographically closer to Nicaragua, whose eastern coastline is only about 110 kilometres (68 miles) away.

Coyotes and their clients generally cross that distance overnight, using rudimentary fishing boats to navigate the open sea.

Colombian authorities have identified at least five so-called VIP routes departing from San Andrés, with destinations like the coastal towns of Bluefields and Punta de Perlas in Nicaragua.

While migrants and asylum seekers still have to travel thousands of kilometres to reach the US-Mexico border from Nicaragua, the “VIP route” has one notable advantage: It avoids an infamously perilous region known as the Darién Gap.

Two police officers ride together on a green ATV, passing across a touristy beach.
Police in San Andrés, a popular tourist destination, weave their way through the island’s crowded beaches while on patrol [Charlie Cordero/Al Jazeera]

A stretch of thick jungle connecting Colombia to Central America, the Darién Gap has no formal roads, leading hundreds of thousands of migrants and asylum seekers to hike across its treacherous terrain.

Not only do travellers face steep mountains and swollen rivers in the Darién Gap, but they also have to contend with the armed groups that control the area.

Panama’s government estimates that more than 248,901 people entered the gap between January and July of this year — a record total. Some migrants, however, never make it out alive.

That reputation for death and injury, however, has provided a compelling sales pitch for the smugglers who peddle alternate transit options through San Andrés.

“They sell the route to migrants as a safer option,” said Javier Sarmiento, deputy attorney for human rights at Colombia’s Office of the Inspector General.

But Sarmiento warns that “there are an endless number of risks” on the “VIP routes” as well, contrary to popular belief.

A deadly crossing

Seized fishing boats sit abandoned at the Colombian naval base in San Andrés [Charlie Cordero/Al Jazeera]
Seized fishing boats sit abandoned at the Colombian naval base in San Andrés [Charlie Cordero/Al Jazeera]

Colombian authorities reported that at least 59 asylum seekers disappeared in 2022 while crossing the Caribbean. A 25-year-old Venezuelan woman named Francis Nayarit Cuellar Montilla and her one-year-old son Lyhann Andres Colmenares Murcia are among those who vanished.

They boarded a crammed fishing boat destined for Nicaragua at dawn on December 17, along with 24 other people, most of whom were Venezuelan. Nobody on board was ever seen again.

Twelve days later, the Colombian Navy announced that authorities had found wreckage matching the fishing boat’s description in Costa Rica, with the victims’ personal items and documents scattered nearby.

In a press release, a Navy official, Captain Octavio Gutiérrez Herrera, said that the trip was likely made “without the minimum safety conditions”. He later told the newspaper El País that sailing conditions at the time had been “hazardous”, with high waves and strong winds.

“It’s horrible. It caused me such anguish. It’s completely impossible that 26 people just vanished without a trace,” Yexi Andrea Murcia, Cuellar’s aunt, told Al Jazeera. “I start to think about everything they could have lived through, and it’s quite saddening.”

On the video platform TikTok, one purported migrant described the journey as “tormenting”, adding: “It stank of rotten shrimp.”

Two officials for the Colombian Navy, standing in a larger boat, speak to a fisherperson in a smaller boat next to them, out on the open ocean.
The Colombian Navy performs a routine check on a group of fishermen headed for Fisherman’s Cay as part of their regular patrols of the area [Charlie Cordero/Al Jazeera]

In 2022, the Colombian Navy said it detained a total of 711 migrants and asylum seekers on the waters of the Caribbean, as they made their way to Nicaragua. So far this year, at least 216 migrants have been intercepted. The vast majority of them — 160 people — were Venezuelan.

But other migrants and asylum seekers detained on the “VIP routes” have come from countries like the Dominican Republic, Peru, China, Vietnam, Senegal, Syria and Uzbekistan.

One of the most recent encounters came in late July, when the Colombian military announced it had discovered 41 migrants and asylum seekers on a boat near Fisherman’s Cay, a remote islet approximately 37km (23 miles) from San Andrés, surrounded by a web of coral reef.

Even on a recent visit, the cay’s white-sand beaches were cluttered with discarded clothes, tinned goods, diapers and other goods. A dozen rickety shacks with mattresses inside dot the islet.

A naval officer leans into a small, triangle-shaped hut made of tarp and wood on the beach of a palm-covered island.
Colombian Navy members inspect a hut during a visit to Fisherman’s Cay, a popular stop-off for migrants en route to Nicaragua [Charlie Cordero/Al Jazeera]

Captain Coronado of the San Andrés Coast Guard said small islands like the Fisherman’s Cay often serve as “gathering points” for smugglers, where they can transfer their clients from boat to boat.

But sometimes they abandon the migrants outright. “On occasions they have also scammed migrants, leaving them here, making them believe that they have already arrived in Nicaragua,” Coronado said.

“You cannot have any confidence in a trafficker. You never know when they might abandon you,” said Ligia Bolívar, a migration researcher at the Centre for Human Rights at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello in Venezuela.

Resources stretched thin

Two naval officers, dressed in black uniforms and caps, walk through a small hut. On either side of them are empty mattresses.
Colombian Navy members file past mattresses in a small shelter on Fisherman’s Cay, south of San Andrés [Charlie Cordero/Al Jazeera]
Colombian Navy members file past mattresses in a small shelter on Fisherman’s Cay, south of San Andrés [Charlie Cordero/Al Jazeera]

Fisherman’s Cay is only a stone’s throw away from Albuquerque Cay, a Colombian military base.

And yet, the base has limited ability to police the flow of migration through the islands. There are no ships permanently stationed on Albuquerque Cay, and the military there instead relies on boats from San Andrés for transportation.

When it comes to stemming migration, Sarmiento, the deputy attorney for human rights, explained that Colombia focuses much of its resources on deterring migrants and asylum seekers from entering the Darién Gap.

Less attention, he said, is given to the overseas routes smugglers take, allowing them to operate with relatively little oversight.

“The problem is that we as a state are not even carrying out any preventative campaigns,” Sarmiento said. “Maritime interceptions are not being carried out — despite the Navy’s great efforts — because it does not have the capacity. It does not have enough boats or gasoline.”

A pink shoe sits on the white sand, amid the driftwood of the beach.
A child’s shoe lies discarded on the white sands of Fisherman’s Cay, where personal items from migrants and asylum seekers are sometimes left behind [Charlie Cordero/Al Jazeera]

The smuggling organisations behind the “VIP routes” make efforts to conceal their work as well. They often brand themselves as travel agencies, operating predominantly through social media and word of mouth.

“They are illegal operations disguised as tourism, so no one pays attention to them,” Sarmiento said.

Corruption also allows the smugglers to operate with relative impunity. Sources at both the San Andrés Navy and Migración Colombia, the country’s migration authority, confirmed to Al Jazeera that corrupt officials sometimes collaborate with the smugglers or turn a blind eye.

Captain Coronado fears the problem will only grow. “I don’t know what will change, but people are going to keep migrating. They have their right to do so,” he said.

“Unfortunately this ideal of the American Dream has its causes and its effects.”

Source: Al Jazeera