Editor’s note: This note was made by the team as part of the special, an interactive map with five stories of people who risk their lives on the route between Central America and the United States.
The first test faced by those who enter Central America by land from the south of the continent is to cross a dangerous forest plug from which no one leaves intact. This is shown by the stories presented below.
Between January and August of this year, more than 102,000 people have crossed the Darien Gap , a 5,000 square kilometer jungle and swampy area that separates South America from Central America. Most of them have done so by walking the most arduous and insecure route, from Capurganá, Colombia to the Embera indigenous territories of Canáan Membrillo, Panama, which can take between 7 and 10 days. During the journey they are exposed to the many dangers of the terrain and to violence, including sexual violence, from criminal groups present in the area.
This migratory flow is led by people from Haiti and Venezuela, mainly, but also from African and Asian countries such as Senegal, Cameroon, Angola, Bangladesh, Ghana, Somalia, India and Nepal.
The organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) established a point of care at the Migrant Reception Station in San Vicente, Panama, where, so far this year, more than 22,000 medical consultations and more than 1,500 health consultations have been carried out. mental.
These two testimonies give an account of what happens in that place.
Ana Caridad Barrios, 32 years old, Venezuelan, three months pregnant
Taken in San Vicente, Panama.
I left Venezuela 25 days ago because I was starving, sometimes I only ate once a day. Then I began to hear about life in the United States and “the American dream” and I thought: I’m going too and that’s how I help my mother who suffers from her kidneys and doesn’t have to buy her treatment.
When I told my house that I was going to cross the Darién (the jungle that separates Colombia from Panama), they asked me if I was crazy. My baby’s father stayed in Venezuela. I told him: “Let’s go to the United States.” And he: “Wait, wait.” I didn’t want to wait any longer and here I am. I’m going north. When I get there I have to find a way to learn to speak English to look for work, and thus help my family who stayed in Venezuela.
Around my house I used to sell coffee, bread, sweets. They called me “the Turkish one”, because I sold everything. I was saving whatever currency I could, until I completed 30 dollars for the first ticket, which was from Barquisimeto to San Antonio del Táchira. From there I started walking. I walked and walked and went to Cúcuta, in Colombia.
That’s when I started asking for money to get around: they gave me rides, a piece of fruit, any little thing… that’s how it was until I got to Necoclí. There I kept asking and managed to collect 120,000 Colombian pesos (26 dollars) nothing more. I begged the people on the boats to lower my ticket and they helped me get to Capurganá.
In Capurganá, if you have money, pay a guide and start walking with him. I had no money, so I walked for several hours until I reached a shelter where people left for Panama. When I saw that all the groups of migrants were ready to go out with the guides, I went after them.
I spent eight days walking. That jungle is ugly. There were times when we walked and walked and arrived at the same place. We walked for two hours and when we looked again we found the same black bag that was on a pole at the starting point. We arrived at the same place. We were bad. The heat had me desperate, it made me want to vomit. I hurt my foot, but it was due to exhaustion. I did not sleep well there, who is going to sleep well there? That was a nightmare.
That jungle is ugly. That’s horrible. You see many things, you hear many things. There they rape, there they kill. I saw a dead man lying in the river. I saw the body without a head, without skin, it was already falling apart. There are many ugly things that one sees and hears. They wanted to rape some women and then the husband began to fight with the hooded men and they killed him. They killed him and the women were raped anyway. Thank God at that time I was ahead of the road and I found out when they came later and told me.
There the one who cannot, dies. On the way we saw a Chinese who couldn’t take it anymore, his feet were swollen, huge, broken. It was on the river bank. My group came and tried to help him, but they couldn’t handle him, he was too heavy. So what they did was they raised it up and put it higher up in case the river swelled. They left him a tent, a small kitchen, food and medicine so that when he felt well, he could continue.
To someone who wants to cross, I would say that one has to be very brave because this is very ugly. When you walk through the swamp, you think you’re not going to get out. If you despair, it’s worse. Before passing I watched videos, I looked for them on TikTok , a lot of things come out there. I thought that whoever wants can. But the truth is that what one lives there is ugly. When you walk and see a body lying there, you think that your relatives are waiting for you too, you feel a great sadness, your heart shrinks. That’s when you have to be braver.
I came with some clothes and some food, but I didn’t bring so many things. The food was not enough for me all the way, but there is always someone who God sends and who helps you with something, even if it is a packet of sweets. When I managed to cross, the immigration officers gave me food. Later, at the Doctors Without Borders post, the doctors examined me, to see that everything was alright with my baby. Now I will continue on my way.
In Venezuela I felt that I had no future. My money was all spent on food. If I had, for example, 20 dollars, it was to buy food. But one also needed that if for some shoes, for a deodorant or for a medicine. If one does not have to buy a pill at the time, one dies of pain.
I know that in the United States one earns and one spends, but if I have some money left, it will be of great help to send to the family. When I arrive I have to find someone to help me, there is always someone who helps you. Every day I encourage myself and I don’t allow myself to get depressed. As long as one has life and health, one must continue.
Jhon*, 25 years old, Cameroonian
Taken in San Vicente, Panama.
I come from Cameroon and I am crossing America to reach the United States. My family doesn’t know I’m here.
I spent six days in the Darien jungle. For me this has been very painful because I grew up in a system where you have to help people to survive, and now on the way I saw people dying and I couldn’t help. This has been the hardest for me. Sometimes you find someone crying who can’t go on, can’t get up and is so tired they don’t want to keep trying. If I had to give someone advice, I would tell them not to see this jungle as just an adventure.
In the jungle, around me, I saw at least 500 people. I started walking alone and then I joined a group of Haitians who helped me a lot. I went all the way with them. We were a group of almost 100 people, we didn’t walk all the time together because some were faster and others slower, but at certain points we stopped until we saw all the familiar faces and so on. Along the way we helped a Kenyan woman who came from Eritrea and had physical difficulties to follow the path.
I got to spend up to three days without eating well, I only ate peanuts. I knew I wouldn’t die because peanuts give me energy and because I always found someone to share with me, so I also shared what little I had. In my case, I think it was key to have walked in a group and to have supported each other. When we finally managed to cross into Panama, I was happy to know that after so much pain and effort, at least we made it, even the Kenyan woman we helped.
Now I have to continue alone. I came to the Doctors Without Borders health post for a general check-up. I have some mosquito bites and body discomfort, I spent several days with wet clothes and had to drink river water. There is still a long way to go, but I am sure that better times will come.
*fictitious name for privacy reasons