ACANDI, Colombia (AP) – It was 5 a.m. and in dozens of small tents, around 500 migrants started showing signs of life, getting up, packing and preparing to cross the Darien Gap, the jungle thick swarming with snakes, bandits and treacherous rivers that separate Colombia from Panama.
Over a fire, Emile and Claude cooked yucca and pasta to undertake the six-day trip, as well as 20 liters of drinking water for which they paid the hefty price of $ 20. The men refused to give their last names because they had entered Colombia illegally and feared being fined.
Emile, 29, said he left his home country of Haiti 13 years ago to work in the Dominican Republic. Then he lived in Chile for four years, and two months ago he decided to go to the United States.
The couple picked up their belongings and began to move away from the meadows surrounding the Colombian town of Acandi towards the rainforest. Residents of Acandi served as guides, charging migrants $ 50 each to show them the way to Panama.
As borders open up around the world after months of closures linked to the pandemic, some illegal migration routes are also seeing an increase in crossings. Muddy paths through the Darien jungle have long been used by smugglers to take migrants from South America to Central America as they made their way to the United States
Panamanian immigration authorities say the number of people crossing the Darien Gap has reached record levels, with 70,000 migrants having made the dangerous journey so far this year and checking into shelters in Panama.
Most of those currently crossing the Darien are Haitians who lived in Brazil and Chile and found themselves with little work due to the pandemic. Visa requirements make it nearly impossible for low-income migrants from Haiti to take flights to Panama, Mexico or the United States. So many people take the dangerous journey through the jungle in hopes of starting a new life in the United States
“The jungle is very harsh, we just walk without having a clear idea of where we are heading,” said Davidson Lafleur, a 24-year-old Haitian.
Lafleur had lived in Chile for three years and was traveling to the United States with his wife and their 11 month old daughter.
“I paid someone $ 120 to carry my luggage to the border (panama),” he said.
In August, Colombia and Panama agreed to limit the number of migrants crossing the Darien each day in an effort to ease pressure on shelters on the Panamanian side of the jungle.
But it created bottlenecks and confusion on the Colombian side. Every day, hundreds of migrants arrive in the town of Necocli, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, where they must take a boat that will take them across the Gulf of Uraba.
The mayor of Necocli, Jorge Tobon, said 1,000 to 1,500 migrants arrive in the city every day, but only 500 are allowed to leave on boats crossing the Gulf and to the Panamanian border due to the recent agreement between the country.
Tobon says more than 14,000 migrants are currently stranded in the city, with boat tickets sold until the end of this month.
Accommodation in hotels and local houses is scarce. Many migrants sleep in tents next to the beach, where they use seawater for swimming and cooking.
Once migrants can leave Necocli, their next stop is the Colombian town of Acandi. There, migrants are sprayed with an alcohol solution in the city’s dilapidated port by locals trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.
The jungle trail begins 10 kilometers from the city center through a green savannah dotted with farms. While some are walking, many pay $ 20 to get to the trailhead on a horse-drawn cart. Others borrow motorcycle taxis that take them for $ 35.
Ones Armonte, a 36-year-old migrant from the Dominican Republic, paid for the ride on a motorbike. In less than an hour he was at the edge of the rainforest where a seven day trek through the jungle awaited him.
“We are depending on the will of God now,” he said. “No one wants to take the risk of going through this jungle, but I need to earn some money to send to my children. ”
After spending a night at the trailhead, Armonte and dozens of others began the trek through the jungle.
They waded down a steep hill and waded across a river where the water was waist level. The current was strong and the sound of the water drowned out the voices of migrants and guides. As they made their way to the rainforest, many migrants exhausted themselves and began to give up some of their belongings to carry less weight.
Wedding portraits, jackets and jeans littered the trail. A woman carried a foam mat in her arms and the guides told her to drop it as it would be of no use in the jungle. She persisted and carried it while swinging a bag over her head.
Behind the group, a 50-year-old woman passed out after crossing a river. She suffered from asthma and obesity.
“Yesterday we had another lady with asthma, her inhaler emptied and we had to turn back,” said one of the local guides, who declined to give her name for fear of being prosecuted for trafficking. ‘Human being.
In the jungle, there are many dangers. Some migrants try to keep snakes away by tying pieces of garlic to their ankles or rubbing disinfectant on their legs.
The greatest danger, however, are other humans. In Darien, armed groups control tracks that are also used for drug trafficking.
Once migrants enter Panama, they are often abandoned by Colombian guides, who do not want to risk being caught abroad for human trafficking. Bandits often target groups of migrants and steal their property.
According to Doctors Without Borders, which runs a health post in the village of Bajo Chiquito, on the Panamanian side of Darien, 96 women were sexually assaulted by bandits during the months of May and July as they tried to cross the river. jungle.
The diseases most frequently reported by migrants crossing the jungle are yeast infection of the feet, gastrointestinal problems and respiratory infections. Yet thousands continue to make the journey.
According to Panamanian officials, more than 20,000 people crossed the Darien jungle on foot in August, representing nearly a third of all crossings this year.
Children are said to have died in the jungle and pregnant women have given birth. Migrants say they saw skulls and corpses along the roads that cross the Darien.
“Fear is always with us,” said Lafleur as he crossed a river. “But we have no choice but to continue. ”