Exploring the Dangerous ‘VIP Route’ for Migrants: A Risky Journey to Escape the Darien Jungle

Exploring the Dangerous ‘VIP Route’ for Migrants: A Risky Journey to Escape the Darien Jungle

The plight of migrants seeking a better life has led to the emergence of dangerous routes and practices. One such route, known as the ‘VIP route,’ has gained attention in recent years.

Migrants, predominantly of Chinese nationality, pay smugglers exorbitant sums to embark on a treacherous journey by boat, bypassing the perilous Darien jungle.

Rise of the ‘VIP Route’

The ‘VIP route’ has become an increasingly popular choice for migrants aiming to reach the United States. Instead of braving the dangers of the Darien jungle, migrants opt for a maritime journey that promises speed and relative safety.

This route is facilitated by criminal networks operating from the Colombian archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia, and Santa Catalina. These islands serve as strategic launching points for human trafficking operations due to their geographic location.

According to a report by the Procuraduría General de Colombia, there are at least five distinct ‘VIP routes’ originating from the aforementioned archipelago. These routes act as a bridge for migrants seeking to reach Nicaragua, Mexico, and ultimately the United States.

The report highlights the presence of legally established tourism companies offering “tourist packages” tailored for migrant populations, providing them with a seamless journey towards North America.

Costly and Dangerous Journey

Migrants opting for the ‘VIP route’ face a treacherous and expensive journey. To secure their passage, they must pay coyotes (smugglers) approximately $1,200 per person, a substantial sum compared to the $80 to $180 cost of traversing the Darien jungle.

The allure of a faster and seemingly safer journey prompts migrants to choose the maritime option. However, this decision comes with its own set of risks.

Maritime passage through the Panamanian Caribbean, known as the ‘VIP route,’ has primarily been utilized by Chinese migrants. However, the Procuraduría colombiana has identified migrants from twelve different countries, including Bangladesh, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, Nepal, Belarus, Bosnia, Peru, and Venezuela.

Perils of the ‘VIP Route’

Migrants embarking on the ‘VIP route’ face numerous dangers and challenges. The recent rescue of a group of Chinese migrants in Panamanian waters serves as a stark reminder of the risks involved.

These migrants were abandoned by human traffickers, leaving them adrift and at the mercy of the sea1. The Panamanian Ministry of Public Security stated that two suspects transporting these individuals escaped, leaving the migrants stranded.

Reinel Serrano, the head of the First Eastern Brigade of Panama’s National Border Service, explained that migrants are transported by boat to the coast and then further inland using horses and vehicles.

It is worth noting that all intercepted migrants in Panama have been of Chinese nationality, highlighting the predominance of this demographic in the ‘VIP route’.

Registration and Assistance in Panama

Upon reaching indigenous populations or reception centers in Panama, migrants are registered and provided with shelter and food. From there, the Panamanian government coordinates their onward journey by bus to Costa Rica. However, migrants are responsible for covering the expenses of this displacement themselves.

In the coastal town of Necoclí, Colombia, which is close to the Panamanian border, migrants are received warmly by local traders. The presence of Chinese migrants in Necoclí has been increasing, albeit in smaller numbers compared to Haitians and Venezuelans.

This is due to their preference for using dollars or credit cards, their use of iPhones for translation purposes, and their reserved nature.

Escaping Detection and Facing Piracy

‘VIP route’ poses several challenges for migrants attempting to evade detection. To avoid authorities, migrants spend up to 15 hours at sea, risking exposure and exhaustion. Additionally, they face the threat of encountering pirate vessels that may intercept them and rob them of their belongings.

The limited safety measures of the boats used on this route, such as single engines, small size, and overcrowding, make them highly susceptible to capsizing in the face of two to three-meter waves.

According to a report from the Radio Nacional de Colombia, at least 977 migrants in route to Nicaraguan shores have been rescued at sea between 2022 and 2023. Moreover, six shipwrecks have been recorded on these routes in the current year.


The ‘VIP route’ has emerged as a perilous alternative for migrants seeking entry into the United States. The allure of bypassing the dangerous Darien jungle has led to the rise of maritime journeys facilitated by human traffickers.

Migrants, primarily of Chinese nationality, pay exorbitant sums to embark on a treacherous voyage fraught with risks. From the dangerous waters of the Panamanian Caribbean to the threat of piracy, these migrants face numerous perils.

It is imperative for international authorities and governments to address and combat the human trafficking networks that exploit vulnerable migrants.