Rescuers search for 26 migrants missing on sea journey from Colombia to Nicaragua

Authorities from three countries continue to search for a boat that disappeared on December 17. Most of the passengers are Venezuelans

Migrants gone missing from Colombia to Nicaragua
At least 18 of the missing migrants are Venezuelans.Armada de Colombia
Lucas Reynoso

The Colombian Navy on Thursday raised to 26 the estimated number of migrants who have gone missing on the route from the island of San Andrés to Nicaragua.

The same sources confirmed that fishermen from Puerto Limón (Costa Rica) found a boat a few days ago with “similar characteristics” to the missing one. Authorities from Colombia, Nicaragua and Costa Rica are working together to locate the migrants, mostly Venezuelans. Personal items, including diapers and documents, have been found along the coast of San Juan del Norte (Nicaragua).

The migrants, who included two infants under the age of one, set sail from San Andrés at dawn on December 17. They were crammed into a boat intended for artisan fishing, which usually has three or four crew members. Every available space was used, and there were no minimum safety conditions to transport that many passengers: the boat had a single engine and did not have navigation or communication instruments. Its gray color, which helped it go unnoticed by the authorities, is now making it difficult to locate.

The migrants were hoping to avoid crossing through the Darién jungle, which is not only very physically demanding but is also known for the robberies, sexual assaults and other types of abuse that migrants face there. However, the danger of traveling by open sea to reach Nicaragua is no less significant, Octavio Gutiérrez, commander of the San Andrés y Providencia Specific Command of the Colombian Navy, explained by telephone. “This time of year is very hazardous for sailing, due to large waves and a strong breeze that make navigation difficult,” he said.

The number of migrants ready to brave the dangers of this route has skyrocketed in the last year.
The number of migrants ready to brave the dangers of this route has skyrocketed in the last year.Armada de Colombia

At least 18 of the missing people are Venezuelans, as reported by the National Organization for Maritime Rescue and Safety (ONSA), a civil association recognized as an auxiliary organization of the National Institute of Aquatic Spaces of Venezuela. The director of Maritime Security, Luis Inciarte Santaella, explained by telephone that the missing migrants’ relatives began to contact the ONSA on December 18. The information was slow coming in though, as some people were afraid to provide information for fear of exposing their loved ones to the immigration authorities.

ONSA eventually managed to compile a list of the missing people, which has grown over the past few days. From an initial estimate of 17, the figure has now reached 26. In addition to Venezuelans, the list includes three Syrians, three Ecuadorians and two Colombian crew members. It is estimated that seven of the passengers were minors.

Inciarte says that the migrants spent a couple of days in San Andrés before the trip. They shared time with another group that left at the same time in another smaller boat. The migrants from that other boat reported that the weather conditions forced them return to the coast once the trip began. But the larger boat had already gone farther and did not turn back.

The number of migrants willing to brave the dangers of this route has skyrocketed over the past year. The Colombian Navy estimates that in 2022 it has rescued more than 700 people. Two shipwrecks have occurred, in August and October. There were around 20 missing people who were never found. Since 2019, Venezuelans have been the main users of this route, which was previously used mostly by Cubans, Haitians and Senegalese nationals.

Migrantes desaparecidos
The naval forces of Colombia, Nicaragua and Costa Rica continue to search for the passengers of a migrant boat.Armada de Colombia

Commander Gutiérrez explained that migrants usually enter the island as tourists, coming from Colombian cities with air connections to the archipelago. They pay a tax, present their hotel reservations and their return tickets. However, later they embark on unauthorized boats managed by organized smuggling networks. The cost of the journey to get to Nicaragua and avoid the Darién jungle, Panama and Costa Rica can be around $2,000, according to Inciarte.

The Colombian Navy said that the rescue effort continues after a 12-day search. According to protocols, the active search will last up to 30 days. ONSA said that the Nicaraguan Naval Forces were not as cooperative. In addition, Inciarte said he feels that there has been less interest in media coverage of the incident because it deals with migrants, and that bureaucratic hurdles hindered the rescue effort. “The search should have been done immediately. Every minute counts at sea; immediacy is essential.”

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