West African Migrants Perish in Boat Accident off Colombia

Village on the Gulf of Uraba (file image courtesy Fredy Gomez / WordPress)

By The Maritime Executive 03-01-2019 07:24:11

Casualties involving migrants from Africa are all too common in the central and western Mediterranean, where tens of thousands of people attempt to reach Europe on overloaded boats every year. On Friday, authorities arrested seven suspected smugglers in connection with a similar accident off the northern coast of Colombia - half a world away from the Mediterranean migration crisis, but little different in its circumstances. 

According to the Colombian Attorney General's office, 19 irregular migrants perished last month when the small boat transporting them sank off Capurganá, Colombia, a small village on the Gulf of Urabá. The majority of the victims had begun their long journey in Congo and Angola, West Africa, and they were bound for Panama. 

In a joint operation with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Colombian authorities investigated the band of smugglers who allegedly provided the victims with transportation. On Friday they announced seven successful arrests, including the alleged leader of the gang. The suspects face charges of fraud, conspiracy and trafficking of migrants. 

According to prosecutors, the scheme was not limited to just one voyage. "These [migrants] were housed in Capurganá and Bahía Solano where they remained locked for a few days, and after grouping a large number of migrants, they were moved to different coastal points to ship them in boats to Panama," said the Office of the Prosecutor of Colombia in a statement. The transits occurred late at night in order to reduce the chance of interdiction. 

The prosecutors described a long journey for the migrants: by one way or another, they would make their way to Ecuador, then travel north through the Colombian cities of Pasto, Cali, Medellin and Turbo, where they would stay in housing organized by the smugglers. From there, they would be transferred to Capurganá, then on to Panama, then head up through Central America to attempt to enter the United States. According to prosecutors, the price they paid for lodging, food and transportation for the Colombian leg of this journey was about $300.

The route is large enough that Colombia keeps statistics. The Colombian Navy says that it has interdicted over 700 irregular migrants over the course of the past year, including more than 50 children. Local media outlet Noticias Caracol reports that the estimated number of migrant departures from the Gulf of Urabá region is in the range of 150 people per day.