Young ‘warriors’ endure severe hardships in US-bound journey via Darien Gap

By Moncho Torres

Bajo Chiquito, Panama, Mar 21 (EFE).- “Warriors” is a word oft-repeated by the mothers of boys and girls who have made their way through the treacherous Darien Gap, a merciless stretch of jungle that separates Colombia and Panama and is an obligatory route for many migrants trying to cross into Central America and eventually reach the United States-Mexico border.

The perils and tribulations of that notorious 100-160-kilometer (60-100-mile) interruption in the Pan-American Highway include long treks on foot, hunger, thirst, heat, insect bites, raging rivers, steep hills and violent gangs.

After making it to the other end the migrants arrive at Quebrada del Leon, a spot where local indigenous people await them and transport them by canoe via the parched Turquesa River to Bajo Chiquito, an Embera village where they can finally rest.

All passengers 10 and older are charged $20 for the boat trip.

“My two children, total warriors. They’ve put up with rain, cold, sun. They’ve slept on rocks, out in the elements, in the jungle … we’ve faced all the risks you can imagine,” Venezuelan Daiana Ruiz told Efe while waiting in line to board a canoe.

At her side is her husband, who needed to carry their young daughter for much of the route.

“So many climbs, so many cliffs, rivers to cross,” said Ruiz, who added that she left Venezuela to provide a better future and a high-quality education for her children.

Tired and indignant, Ruiz recalled that she and her family were victims of theft by members of an armed gang.

“They pointed guns at the kids and took all the money we had,” she said.

Venezuelan Jessenia Perez, a 30-year-old woman who traveled in a large group that included 10 minors – her own children and other family members -, said they also were targeted by robbers.

She has words of advice for other migrants who will attempt to cross the jungle in the future: “If you’re going in large groups, don’t fall behind because the stragglers suffer the worst – robbery and everything.”

But traveling with children is much slower going and the risks become multiplied.

“The most difficult part was one of the hills we climbed, as we nearly lost our lives,” she said of a steep stretch of terrain in which each child had to be gradually, carefully and slowly led to safety.

“So you’re left alone, and it’s riskier staying behind in a small group. We heard screams, we heard everything at night when we were sleeping outside. It’s a terrible experience. Truly, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone go through the jungle,” Perez said.

But the migrant exodus continues unabated despite the dangers.

Panamanian authorities, citing UNICEF figures, said 45,727 people crossed the Darien Gap between January and February 2023 and that 9,656 of them were children, a seven-fold increase relative to the same period of last year.

UNICEF runs a migrant reception station in San Vicente, in Panama’s Darien province, where health assistance is provided to children and mothers alike and a recreational space is available for young people to play and dance and “become kids again,” Margarita Sanchez, a child protection officer with that UN agency, said.

“Boys and girls must cross a jungle where they see things they shouldn’t see at their young age. They’re exposed to enormous risks.”

She added that the children arrive at the station with numerous emotional and psychological difficulties, in addition to health problems such as respiratory ailments, diarrhea and skin infections.

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