By Sam Colvett
The Darien Gap is “a godforsaken place full of snakes, insects, heat, rain, bandits, jungle, and swamps,” according to British Colonel John Blashford-Snell. He, along with a group of royal engineers, attempted to find a route for vehicle transit through this 10,000 square mile stretch of wilderness that borders Colombia in the south of Panama. Even with their expertise, however, they were unsuccessful. Facing intense hardships along the way reduced them at times to “an exhausted group of mud-babies,” in his words.
Even so, record numbers of migrants are daring to cross this stretch of wilderness by foot in their search for a better life, mainly in the United States. In the past, people from Haiti and Cuba made up the majority of those passing from South America to Central America, though the International Organization for Migration reports that several individuals have also come from as far as Africa and Asia in the effort to migrate north through South America.
This year, however, Venezuelans have surged in their proportion of those making this journey. They are joining millions of others in fleeing the livelihood crisis and economic collapse in their home country, hoping to establish a better life elsewhere. The head of IOM Panama, Giuseppe Loprete, claims that “there has already been an unprecedented number of Venezuelans who have put their lives at risk by crossing the dense jungle between Central and South America,” far surpassing the total numbers of 2021.
The portion of migrants that are women and children has also ballooned in comparison to previous years. According to The Guardian, UN reports show that around 30% of the migrants have been women in recent months, who are increasingly being forced to have sex as a form of payment to the “coyotes” guiding them across the border. Danger lies on the road as well, with reports of sexual assault and robberies having grown in recent months compared to past years.
The number of children crossing the Darien Gap in the first five months has also doubled compared to the same period in 2021, “meaning minors comprised roughly one in five of those attempting to cross.” Joe Shute, writing for the Telegraph, recounts the story of 15-year-old Jesmail Diaz from Venezuela, who carried his younger brother with scoliosis on his back through the gap the whole way.
Young Women (42262098174).jpg" by gailhampshire from Cradley, Malvern, U.K
Shute also reports that the recent wave of women and children might be a secondary wave of migrants intending to be reunited with previous family members who have gone ahead on the journey to the United States.
The Darien Gap is unforgiving. Doctor Castalin Ramirez likens the experience of crossing this wilderness to being in a war zone, as she deals with “appalling cases of sexual violence and traumatised people encountering dead bodies on the road.” Dead bodies, many of which are children, mark the path, having succumbed to the area’s flash floods, ravines, and poisonous snakes.
In response to the perils faced by migrants in this journey, the Panamanian government has established three ERMs (Migrant Reception Centers), where migrants can find lodging, food, and limited access to healthcare. The IOM and other international organizations have provided some technical support to the area as a response to the humanitarian displacement, though funds are very clearly lacking. Doctors lament being unable to provide medical care to all those who need it, as several arrive experiencing medical issues of varying degrees of severity.
Most migrants do not stay in these ERMs long, however. Shute reports that most people spend only one night in the area before continuing their journey by boat northward. Panama has an agreement with Costa Rica that allows it to expedite migrant journeys through Central America. Migrants destined to the United States must further pass through Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico at a minimum in order to arrive. Upon arrival, those seeking protection from Venezuela will face further challenges with Title 42 and the Biden administration’s new parole program for Venezuelan nationals.
As a result, the journey ahead of those that have survived the trek through the perilous Darien Gap is only just beginning.