Joe Jackson

Crossing the Darién Gap: US-bound migrants marooned in Panama jungle

Long voyage winds from half a world away in search of economic opportunity in North America

YAVIZA, Panama — As dusk fell on a recent Saturday, a long dugout canoe floated into this remote town in Darién province of Panama, carrying an increasingly frequent cargo of improbable origins.

At a border police base by the Chucunaque River, the human haul — 13 Bangladeshis, seven Nepalese and two Somalis — disembarked to noisy greetings from other migrants on the bank.

Looking tired, nervous and disoriented, the new arrivals assembled in front of border police officers and emptied their small backpacks. Meager collections of clothes, food in plastic bags and water bottles spilled out.

It was just another stop for them on epic, brutal journeys, spanning months and continents, unified by the shared desire to escape poverty, war or other immense challenges for one destination: North America.

“Everybody wants to reach the U.S.,” said a 21-year-old South African, nicknamed Rrahim, who began traveling nine months ago. “It’s the best country in the world.” Like other migrants, he spoke to Al Jazeera on the condition that his real name would not be used, for fear of legal consequences.

Rrahim is part of a small but rapidly increasing number of migrants taking this potentially perilous path through Panama. Their journeys to North America often span continents and pass through the Darién Gap, one of the most dangerous regions of Central America.

The only break in the Pan-American Highway is an undeveloped swath in southern Panama.
Joe Jackson

As the world’s eyes have been drawn to the Mediterranean, on the other side of the planet, migrants are also risking their lives on this risky route. According to the Panama’s immigration service, 2013 saw 3,078 illegal arrivals in the Darién. The next year this more than doubled, to 7,278, with an even bigger spike thus far in 2015.

The largest group of migrants is from Cuba. They are typically wealthier than Asian and African migrants and fly to Ecuador or sail to Colombia’s northern coast and cross into Panama near the Caribbean Sea, according to officials at Panama’s National Border Service, called Senafront.

Other migrants — mostly from Nepal, Bangladesh and Somalia — have less money and travel overland. Many arrive from Brazil or Ecuador, which dropped a visa requirement for all tourists in 2008, said Joel Millman of the International Organization for Migration.

The long route north can be rough, he said. But compared with staying in their home countries or spending years in a refugee camp, “a two-year journey is not such a bad deal.”

But the migrants must still cross the Darién Gap, the only break in the 30,000-mile-Pan-American Highway, which otherwise stretches uninterrupted from Alaska to Argentina.


Panamanian border police search vehicles for contraband and migrants.
Joe Jackson

Spanish colonizers named the gap the Tapón del Darién (Darién Plug) because of its impassable jungles. Home to indigenous groups, it is also a haven for narcotraffickers and paramilitary groups.

A gradual rise in border crossings has forged a path now taken by 95 percent of the inland migrants, said Senafront Commissioner Abdiel Lezcano.

“They can do it with their eyes closed,” he said through an interpreter. “We’re so used to them arriving every day, we already have breakfast, lunch and dinner planned.”

He noted the narcotrafficking runs in parallel. “There is a gentlemen’s agreement not to interfere with each other,” he said.

Edilfonso Ají, 41, chief of Comarca Emberá-Wounaan — a semiautonomous indigenous territory home to about 10,000 people in 41 communities — said they were used to seeing Latin American migrants. But since 2012, groups of 20 or so predominantly South Asian and African migrants began appearing.

He said villagers were sympathetic, giving them food and shelter, until last year's Ebola outbreak. “Then everybody was trying to keep away from them, out of fear of disease,” he explained.

Viseida Guaynora, 35, a community chief, said some would speak a little Spanish and talk of their tough lives back home. "I felt sad because these people need to leave their countries for a life,” she said.

The Western Hemisphere’s political leaders gathered last month for the Summit of the Americas in Panama City, where they agreed to cooperate more to protect migrants’ human rights, according to Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela.

“[We] recognized the link between migration and development and the contribution of migrants to the countries of origin, transit and destination,” a post-summit declaration stated.

While Cubans are the largest group, Asians and Africans travel a much greater distance to reach Panama.

But the migrants in Yaviza spoke of harrowing treatment on their journeys.

A 24 year-old Somali, with his sister, 20 — previously refugees in Yemen — said they spent six days alone in the jungle, four of them without food, after their Colombian guide abandoned them.

“He left us in the jungle,” the young man said, appearing traumatized by the memory. “He told us he get food [and] never came back.” His sister’s leg had swelled with an infection; she is now taking medication given by Senafront.

The pair left Yemen on Jan. 22 — one of few precise details they could recall. They were promised passage to Canada by a Somali smuggler whom their mother paid. But he soon disappeared, and they continued on flights, buses and boats with other traffickers, not knowing where they had been or were headed.

Rrahim and another South African, nicknamed Majeste, 30, worked in the Brazilian city Porto Alegre for nine months to save money before setting off on March 15.

They estimated the journey cost some $4,000 each. The two were repeatedly threatened with knives, robbed of money and documents and forced to pay bribes, from $50 to $200, to Colombian immigration officials, they said. “I’d say it’s not easy,” Majeste reflected.

Crossing the Darién Gap, they saw a dead African whom traffickers claimed to have killed. They saw snakes and other animals and walked swiftly, spending just one night in the jungle next to a fire.

“It’s been very hard,” Rrahim added. “I feel bad, and I miss my family. I lost my weight, [and] I have no energy.”

At the border with Panama, Colombian guides turn back, and then Senafront intercepts the migrants, said Commissioner Yadel Cruz, second in command in Darién. He said that the issues driving the flow of people are beyond the scope of law enforcement. The migrants are largely consensual victims, so the primary police role is to provide humanitarian assistance while gathering information to share with international groups like Interpol, he said.

Cruz said the migrants sometimes suffer medical emergencies that require airlift by helicopter. “This is an important part of our job, to give aid to these people,” he said.

The migrants, who mostly arrive without travel documents, spend a few weeks at Senafront bases to be processed, immigration officials said.

Migrants must wait to be processed at border police bases in Boca de Cupe, Yaviza and Meteti before heading to Panama City.
Joe Jackson

Their embassies are alerted in case of any emergencies, they said, and the U.S. Embassy in Panama interviews anyone suspected of links to terrorism.

The immigration service then releases them in the capital, Panama City, as irregular transitory migrants, with instructions to leave the country. If they remain beyond an unspecified period, they are deported, the immigration officials added.

Over the last two years, many have headed to Hostel Miami, a three-floor, $10-a-night guesthouse in the rundown Santa Ana district.

Mari Valderrama, 41, the manager, said she took pity on the migrants, who often arrived in poor physical condition. Some suffer from malaria or dengue fever, and most left within 10 days, she said.

She said she will no longer accept migrants after the district attorney began applying pressure. Local police made occasional arrests, locking them up in jails reportedly housing 70 inmates to a room in poor conditions.

Meanwhile, local residents filed a lawsuit against the hostel, claiming it participated in people trafficking, Valderrama said. They summoned the media last year, saying people with Ebola were staying there. She added that she was unaware of any migrants with the disease having stayed at any city hostels, and there have been no recorded cases in Panama.

“I feel very horrible about the situation,” she said. “They went through incredibly difficult and adverse circumstances to get here, all in order to pursue their dreams — the American dream, because that’s where all of them are going.”

In Darién, Rrahim said he still wants to head for the Bronx, in New York City, to join a community of other African immigrants. It is not going to be easy. For now he remains thousands of miles from the U.S. and even farther from home. He has no money or travel documents and a still very dangerous journey ahead through Central America.

“It’s still a long way to go,” he acknowledged, not knowing if he would press on. “It depends if my family can send money.”

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