Panamanian indigenous provide initial aid to migrants after Darien Gap ordeal

By Moncho Torres

Bajo Chiquito, Panama, Mar 22 (EFE).- When migrants emerge exhausted from the Darien Gap, a treacherous stretch of jungle that separates Colombia and Panama, the first to come to their assistance are not personnel from the United Nations, non-governmental organizations or Panama’s security forces.

Instead, members of the Embera indigenous community wait on the Panamanian side of that 100-160-kilometer (60-100-mile) interruption in the Pan-American Highway with their canoes and offer transportation via the parched Turquesa River to the remote community of Bajo Chiquito, the nearest inhabited town.

“We made it, finally,” Venezuelan migrant Jessenia Perez told Efe after arriving with her family in Quebrada del Leon, a spot that during the dry season is the most extreme end of that waterway reachable by canoe.

One of the most daunting and dangerous challenges for United States-bound migrants, the Darien Gap’s many perils include hunger, thirst, heat, insect bites, raging rivers, steep hills and armed gangs who rob and rape.

“It’s very tough … I was an athlete. I’m 44. I’m still in good physical shape, but for any person suffering from an injury, it’s an extreme challenge: cliffs, strong rivers, a lot of rocks … I don’t recommend that anyone cross this on foot,” Venezuelan Fran Garcia, perspiring heavily and still breathless, told Efe.

People make their way through that road-less no-man’s land without guides, either forging ahead with the help of blue markers that previous groups of migrants placed to show the best routes or following the advice of family members and friends who conquered that jungle before them.

The indigenous people waiting for the migrants on the other side offer food and water as well as transportation, albeit at a price. They are not a humanitarian organization and see the mass arrival of migrants, 70,000 thus far this year, as a business opportunity.

A seat in a canoe for a ride to the town of Bajo Chiquito costs $20, although children under the age of 10 receive free transport.

The population of Bajo Chiquito, located on the banks of the Turquesa, triples daily with the arrival of around 1,000 new migrants. Only accessible by canoe during the rainy season, that small town has now been transformed into a large marketplace filled with stands selling food, clothing and even phone recharge services.

A Venezuelan migrant, Omar Alejandro Barrios, works at the cellphone stand, where he recharges some 200 mobiles per day at a cost of $0.50 or $1.

“I’ve been working here for eight days. I arrived penniless. I arrived with my two children and my wife, but the money isn’t enough to keep going,” he said with emotion in his voice.

The owner of that stand is Vitalino Berrugate, an indigenous man who also sells food to migrants and charges them for laundry service and the use of a bathroom.

“Everyone here sells food for $5. But that’s the price because food is also expensive. If we sell it for $3, what do we earn? We don’t earn anything,” Berrugate, who said he recharges migrants’ cellphones for free when they have no money, told Efe.

When the migrants arrive by canoe in Bajo Chiquito, they are met by members of Panama’s Senafront national border service, who register them before allowing them to set up their tents in any free space they can find.

Shortly after arriving, the migrants are transported once again via canoe to a Migration Reception Station in Lajas Blancas, which is also located in eastern Panama and was set up by authorities there to receive people arriving via the Darien Gap.

The indigenous people charge $25 per person for that journey, although because Senafront does not want any migrants left behind some are able to hitch a ride for free.

Hundreds of migrants start waiting in line in the pre-dawn hours in hopes of finding a seat on a canoe and continuing their journey, while security forces monitor the situation and maintain order.

The logistics are a challenge for members of the Embera community, who at times lack sufficient canoes to meet the high demand.

The chief of mission of the International Organization for Migration in Panama, Italy’s Giuseppe Loprete, told Efe that providing assistance to migrants who emerge from the Darien Gap is difficult because “the routes are changing.”

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