Global Migrants Brave Panama’s Vipers, Bats, Bandits to Reach U.S.
Africans, Asians, Cubans cross the treacherous jungle of the Darien Gap
By Sara Schaefer Muñoz in the Wall Street Journal
METETÍ, Panama—Ahmed Hassan staggered through dense Panamanian jungle, crazy with thirst, his rubber sandals sliding in the mud, fearing he would die thousands of miles from his homeland in Somalia.
“I told my family I would go to the U.S., that was the plan,” said the 26-year-old truck driver, who said he fled late last year when al-Shabaab militants took his village. He flew to Brazil and made a cross-continental bus trip to Colombia.
In March came his biggest test: crossing the Darien Gap that connects South America with Panama and Mr. Hassan’s ultimate goal, the U.S.
“There was no water. There were snakes,” he said in a small holding center in Metetí, north of the jungle, gashes and bites covering his legs under his traditional sarong. “I thought I might die in that jungle.”
Migrants go to extremes for new beginnings. Honduran families put children on northbound trains. Hundreds of Africans recently drowned braving the Mediterranean in an overcrowded boat. People cross the deadly Sonoran Desert to get from Mexico to Arizona.
The untamed Darien Gap has become a new route for travelers from as near as Cuba and as far as Nepal. The surge reflects the difficulty of entering the U.S. by traditional paths like arriving on a visa and overstaying, said Marc Rosenblum, a deputy director at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.
“These people are willing to take this risky and complicated route,” he said, “and they are lining up to take it.”
U.S. justice and immigration officials say they are working to combat human smuggling on such routes. “We will continue using all of our investigative authorities to identify and dismantle these transnational criminal organizations,” said Barbara Gonzalez, Senior Adviser to Latin America at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
The circuitous Panama route has become more attractive, say migration experts, thanks to the easing of visa and asylum requirements in some South American countries and an unwillingness by some governments on the route to carry out mass deportations.
That has opened the door to migrants arriving in South America by plane or cargo ship who head overland toward the isthmus from Brazil. Then, facing miles of dense, roadless jungle, they have a choice: cross on foot or pay gangs to ferry them around it on flimsy coastal-fishing boats.
Boats are quicker but more expensive. And while Panama turns back anyone who disembarks without a passport, it allows in those emerging from the jungle route without documentation because there isn’t a nearby Colombian outpost to return them to. There also aren’t direct flights from Panama to Africa and Asia.
There is still the journey through Central America and Mexico, but migrants say the Darien is the hardest. “I want to get to the U.S.,” said Hawa Bah, 20, who fled Guinea in West Africa. She spoke as she lay weak on a cot in a Panamanian holding center after getting lost in the Darien for more than 10 days.
“I was being forced into marriage, and I was worried about Ebola,” she said. “I’d rather have died in the jungle than go back.”
It isn’t clear how many make the journey, but the numbers recorded by Panama police are rising. In all of 2014, Panama processed 8,435 migrants, three-quarters of whom boarded boats in Colombia and came via the choppy waters along the isthmus, Panamanian authorities say.
In the first three months of 2015 alone, Panama processed about 3,800 migrants on the route, roughly 1,000 of whom came through the jungle.
Most migrants crossing through the jungle turn themselves in, knowing they can receive temporary refuge and be sent on their way if they pass criminal checks. Panama says it releases most, offering paperwork to apply for asylum or refugee status. Most slip away and continue north, police say.
The journey begins
The journey for many begins by paying “agents,” as they call members of international smuggling networks, sometimes thousands of dollars to arrange plane tickets, ground transport and bribes to border guards. Others go alone.
African migrants interviewed in Panama said they head to the U.S., rather than Europe, because they believe they are more likely to get a job and refuge there.
Immigration authorities across the region and United Nations aid workers say such travelers have flooded into countries like Brazil and Ecuador. Asylum requests in Brazil rose to 5,882 in 2013 from 566 in 2010, according to U.N. data. In 2008, Ecuador lifted visa requirements for foreigners who arrive for tourist stays. It later modified its visa policy for some, but many Cubans who pass through Panama still fly to Ecuador first.
Critics like Otto Reich, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, have said Ecuador’s open-door stance may result in a threat to the U.S. And Panamanian officials “know they are coming to the U.S. and then once here they will no longer be Panama’s problem,” said Mr. Reich, who heads a government-relations and trade-consulting firm.
Javier Carillo, director of Panama’s National Migration Service, says it is unfair to blame Panama for the problem, since migrants arrive illegally and pass through some nine other countries on their way to the U.S. A spokesman for Colombia’s immigration authority said it combats human smuggling and offers migrants the opportunity to apply for asylum or safe-conduct papers.
Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it “is not aware of this human trafficking route.” Officials at Ecuador’s immigration authority didn’t respond to requests for comment. Ecuador’s Foreign Ministry has said the country doesn’t support criminal activity.
Cubans, who say crossing the Florida Straits has become too tough, are the biggest group flowing across and around the isthmus. Others from far-off countries are also arriving in growing numbers: Panama processed 210 Somalis crossing the Darien this year through March, up from 60 in the year-earlier period.
The ecologically rich but inhospitable area of roughly 8,000 square miles known as the Darien jungle has long tested those entering.
The Spanish conquered the Inca empire nearly five centuries ago but struggled to dominate the Darien. In the 1690s, a group of Scots created an outpost on the coast but succumbed to disease, malnutrition and Spanish attacks. In 1854, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Isaac Strain led a canal exploration party that was lost there for days, hobbled by parasites and starvation. He declared it impassable, and the canal site was moved farther north.
The Darien is the only section of the Pan American Highway from Alaska to Argentina that has never been completed. The highway ends in the Panamanian hamlet of Yaviza and picks up about 50 miles later in northwestern Colombia. The rain-soaked terrain between is home to hundreds of rare species, including vipers and jaguars, and to bloodsucking bats and mosquitoes that can carry malaria.
“It’s one of the hottest and wettest places on the planet,” said Gen. Frank Abrego, head of Panama’s border police, “and these people who are crossing are not prepared.”
It is also home to the 57th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a rebel group that takes a cut from human-smuggling outfits, locals and Panamanian authorities say. A drug-trafficking gang, the Urabeños, operates along the isthmus’s eastern neck.
For migrants, the roughly 40-mile trek can turn into a dayslong nightmare. Smugglers abandon most on the Colombian side, and they wind up lost and exhausted, say migrants and border police. They gulp turbid river water, triggering skin boils and diarrhea. Decomposing bodies are visible along jungle paths.
“My friend couldn’t walk, he collapsed. I tried to push him to move but he couldn’t,” said Jawed Khan, 42, from Pakistan, who crossed in March. Panamanian border police found his friend and helped him to safety.
The groups usually stumble into Paya, a hamlet of thatched-roof huts about 10 miles from the Colombian border with a Panamanian border-security outpost. The forces offer water, food and basic medical assistance, and they venture in to retrieve those who collapse.
U.S.-bound migrants brave deep jungle, criminal gangs, choppy waters
Many Africans and Asians who make it to Paya have ditched their passports long before, often on the advice of people smugglers in Brazil who warn that they will be deported if they have documents showing their visas have run out; others never had legal travel documents. Authorities transfer them to holding centers like the one in Metetí, fingerprint them and cross-check with U.S. and other databases for criminal history and terrorist links.
Most continue toward America. U.S. policy allows Cubans to seek residency. People who can claim political, religious or other persecution in their home countries—such as Somalis fleeing a militant group—are more likely to be allowed to remain and seek asylum. But many who cross into Panama don’t have clear plans for how they will get into the U.S.
Mr. Hassan said his journey began in November when al-Shabaab, known for attacks on civilians in Somalia and Kenya, demanded a male recruit from every home in his village, Saacow. He deplored the group’s violence and needed to keep working to support his wife, daughter and elderly parents.
His family had heard of a complicated route to the U.S., he said, and his parents urged him to leave that night. They gathered what money they could from friends and relatives as his sobbing wife packed his clothing. “She kept asking, ‘When are you coming back?’ ” Mr. Hassan told her he didn’t know.
At 2 a.m., he kissed his sleeping 2-year-old daughter and jumped onto a cornmeal truck bound for Mogadishu. There, he heard that the militants, finding him gone, severely beat his 74-year-old father.
He traveled to Nairobi, then made his way to Brazil on a tourist visa. He wasn’t prepared for the Darien. “This jungle was too hard,” he said. “I was wishing I hadn’t left Somalia.”
Speaking at the Metetí holding center, Mr. Hassan said he hadn’t spoken with his family in months. He has no family in the U.S. and isn’t sure how he will get in.
Others avoid the jungle, taking wooden motorboats from the Colombian coastal town of Turbo. Migrants say they pay the Urabeños gang $700 each for the five-hour ride.
Robbed and murdered
The water route, too, poses risks. In the coastal town of Acandí lies the tomb of Roberto Tremble, a Cuban who was 33 last year when people smugglers robbed and murdered him, local authorities said. A graveyard worker in Turbo said he has buried a dozen Somalis who were robbed and thrown overboard.
Migrants arrive in Panama mostly penniless. They say police at Colombian checkpoints threaten to deport them unless they hand over cash, watches and cellphones. A Colombian police spokesman said the force doesn’t tolerate corruption and aggressively investigates such allegations. He said criminal gangs have been known to impersonate police.
In Panama, the migrants usually work briefly—as domestics, in construction, at carwashes—or receive wired funds from relatives to keep going.
On a humid March afternoon, Panamanian police in an outpost on a coastal ridge spotted a boat loaded with migrants. It was in Colombian waters, so they couldn’t detain the smugglers who dropped off their human cargo to sneak across the border.
Minutes later, Yamil Gonzales, a Cuban, staggered up an incline above the beach, wheezing. “Agua,” murmured Mr. Gonzales, 45, collapsing against a tree as companions frantically dug through black garbage bags for water.
Soon, he was plowing through underbrush littered with bottles and broken sandals left by prior processions.
“It’s been hard, really hard,” said his wife, Yalile Alfonso, 47. “But in Cuba, there’s nothing. We had to come this way.” The couple was well-prepared, with passports, detailed plans to take buses to the U.S. border and knowledge of U.S. asylum laws.
The Panamanian authorities were waiting, and allowed them in.
But unlike the jungle route, this approach is close to Colombia, so border authorities can easily deport migrants without passports. That was Mohammed Khan’s fate. A father of four from Swat, a Pakistani area plagued by Taliban violence, he had landed with Mr. Gonzales. Months before, people of his village had pitched in $7,000 for his trip, he said.
A small pack on his back, Mr. Khan, 38, looked elated as he scrambled down the slope toward the tiny town of La Miel. People had told him Panama police would be hospitable.
But he had dumped his passport much earlier. The border authorities shook their heads as he pleaded: “Please, please, help me.” They marched him back up the mountain to Colombia.
Early this month, Mr. Khan texted that he re-entered Panama via the jungle, where he had seen “a lot dead.” He was in Guatemala, waiting to head north.
“Go USA,” he texted. “Plz pray.”