Migrants in Darien: They warn you not to go, but you need to

By Irene Escudero

Bogota, Aug 9 (EFE).- They’ve been warned by those who preceded them about the toughest step on the migration route to the United States and they know that they’re facing problems with nature and criminals, but the need to find better economic opportunities and a better life outweighs the risk for hundreds of people who arrive each day in the jungle of Darien, between Colombia and Panama.

“They warn you from the US: ‘Don’t do it, it’s awful.’ But the need is there and so you think, if he’s done it, why shouldn’t I try to do it, too? But the truth is, don’t do it. It’s terrible,” said Juan, a 49-year-old Cuban, who had just crossed the Darien.

He left from Capurgana, the last Colombian town on the border with Panama, with about 20 other people, walking 15 hours a day in the mud and dealing with the dense jungle, high mountains, precipices, ravines and rivers that suddenly swell and swallow people along their banks.

Juan – not his real name to protect his identity, just like all the other migrants in this account – arrived in Bajo Chiquita, on the other side of the jungle in Panamanian territory. “Hungry, thirsty, with wrecked feet and his skin eaten up by insects,” as members of Doctors Without Borders who attended him said.

He left Cuba three years ago to seek a better life in Brazil and Uruguay and now, due to economic need, he decided to make the trek along a route where tens of thousands of people have already risked their lives, most of them Haitians, to traverse all of South and Central America trying to get to the US and/or Canada.

The coronavirus pandemic, criminal groups and the neglect of the authorities have made the Colombian-Panamanian border an area of crisis in a zone where smuggling, drug trafficking and people trafficking are the order of the day.

More than 18,000 migrants arrived in Panama from Colombia in July, according to Doctors Without Borders, the largest monthly figure so far this year, exceeding the more than 11,000 who arrived in June, and these figures are very unusual for the rainy season, when the route is more dangerous and less heavily traveled.

The migrants traveled from Peru or Brazil across Colombia in buses to Nacocli, on the Caribbean Gulf of Uraba, and from there they crossed in boats to Capurgana provided with safe conduct passes issued to them by Colombian authorities to allow them to be in the country legally.

With the pandemic, authorities have stopped issuing safe conduct passes and the borders were closed, a situation that has created a bottleneck that exposes migrants to more expensive and dangerous journeys from which criminal groups profit.

The majority of those who cross the border en route to the US do so motivated by the lack of jobs and the need to provide a better future for their families. That is the situation of Nadine, a 40-year-old Dominican who just arrived in Bajo Chiquito from Chile accompanied by her 6-year-old son.

“We thought that crossing Darien would take four days. But it was 11. You’re left without any strength, you can’t go forward, you see how the rivers carry children and families away. Many people die,” she told Doctors Without Borders.

The number of complete families, with children, babies and pregnant women has skyrocketed in the last five years, with many of them carrying heavy backpacks but without anything to eat.

Oscar, a Colombian who was living in Bolivia, said how he saw a child swept away by the river. “I’ve seen people die, drownings, four of them. I’ve smelled decomposing bodies down along the riverbanks,” he said.

The disagreement between the official figures compiled by Colombia and Panama and the scanty monitoring of the only place in South America that is not traversed by the Pan-American Highway makes it impossible to know how many people are left along the way.

“This shouldn’t be happening. It can’t be that there are people dying here. They have to warn people not to make that trip,” said another migrant from Haiti, a woman six months pregnant.

Panama and Colombia last Friday agreed to create a “safe,” “humanitarian” and progressive route for the migrants, preferably by sea, although the precise method is not yet known.

On the Panamanian side, dozens of organizations are providing attention to the migrants who manage to traverse the Darien, but on the Colombian side the influence of drug traffickers has forced the authorities to admit that they cannot maintain an ongoing presence.

Stories of assaults along the route, multiple rapes of women, threats and even murders are commonplace and sources in the zone complain that with the arrival of so many migrants they have noted the presence of new criminal groups.

“They searched me and touched me, but I was menstruating and they left me alone. It was all very aggressive, very dirty. They raped one young woman 20-25 years old all night,” Nadine said.

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