NECOCLÃ, Colombia – For decades the DariÃ©n Gap, an expanse of roadless and lawless jungle connecting South America to the north, was considered so dangerous that only a few thousand people a year were daring or desperate enough to try to cross it.
But the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic in South America has been such that in the first nine months of this year, according to Panamanian officials, around 95,000 migrants, most of them Haitians, attempted passage en route to United States.
They made the trip in shorts and flip-flops, their belongings stuffed in plastic bags, their babies in their arms and their children in their hands. It is not known how many have succeeded – and how many have not. And yet tens of thousands more have gathered in Colombia, eager to try.
The willingness of migrants to try to cross the notoriously dangerous land bridge connecting Colombia and Panama – long an obstacle to the northward march – not only presents a looming humanitarian catastrophe among those making the trip, experts said, but also a potential immigration challenge for President Biden in the coming months.
The thousands of Haitians who crossed the border from Texas last month, rocking the town of Del Rio and plunging the Biden administration into crisis, were just the vanguard of a much larger movement of migrants heading for the jungle and then the United States. People who had fled their struggling Caribbean nation for places as far south as Chile and Brazil started moving north months ago, hoping they would be greeted by President Biden.
“We could very well be on the precipice of a historic displacement of people from the Americas to the United States,” said Dan Restrepo, the former national security adviser for Latin America under President Barack Obama. . “When one of the world’s most impenetrable swaths of jungle no longer stops people, it underscores that political borders, however applied, won’t either.”
The DariÃ©n, also known as the Isthmus of Panama, is a narrow strip of land dividing the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Parts of it are so inaccessible that when engineers built the Pan American Highway in the 1930s, connecting Alaska with Argentina, only one section was left unfinished. This chunk – 66 roadless miles of turbulent rivers, craggy mountains and poisonous snakes – has come to be known as DariÃ©n Gap. Today, the journey across the ditch is made more perilous by a criminal group and human traffickers who control the area, often extorting and sometimes sexually assaulting migrants.
Today, NecoclÃ, a small Colombian tourist town just at the mouth of the passage, has become a stopover for migrants hoping to cross. Thousands of families wait their time in hostels or in tents along the beach. Hungry and short of money, all wait their turn to be transported by boat to the edge of the forest.
“I’m scared,” said Ruth Alix, 30, who was traveling with her husband, their daughter Farline, 3, and their son, Vladensky, 6 months.
The number of migrants who have made the trip so far this year is more than triple the previous annual record set in 2016. At one time, Cubans made up the majority of migrants crossing the divide. Now almost all of the migrants are Haitians who settled in South America during better economic times, but were among the first to lose their jobs and homes when the pandemic struck.
Every day, up to 1,000 migrants enter Panama via DariÃ©n, said Panamanian Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes, an influx that has pushed border infrastructure to the brink. Her government has tried to provide food and medical care for those who survive the jungle crossing, she said, but officials cannot meet the demand.
“We have completely exceeded our capacity to support them, âshe said, adding that she wasâ sounding the alarm âon the need for a regional response to the crisis.
âThere are still many more to come,â she said. âPlease listen to us. ”
Each group that leaves is quickly replaced by 1,000 or more other migrants, creating a bottleneck that transformed NecoclÃ. Sewers overflow into the street. Water has stopped flowing from some taps. The markets now sell kits made for crossing the DariÃ©n; they include boots, knives and baby carriers.
They know the journey ahead is dangerous, they said. They had heard stories of drownings and fatal falls.
At least 50 bodies have been found in the DariÃ©n this year alone, although estimates of the actual death toll are at least four times higher, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Sexual assault is also a risk: Doctors Without Borders has documented 245 cases in DariÃ©n in the past five months, although the group believes the actual number is much higher.
Ms Alix, the mother of Farline and Vladensky, said her family fled Haiti for French Guiana, on the north coast of South America, but found only poverty. Returning to Haiti was not an option, she said. The country is in tatters after a presidential assassination and an earthquake, its economy faltering and its streets haunted by gangs.
The only choice, Ms. Alix said, was the road north.
“We take this risk because we have children, âsaid Vladimy Damier, 29, Ms Alix’s husband.
Many knew that the Biden administration had sent back to Haiti those who made it to the United States – but they were always willing to give it a try.
Henderson Eclesias, 42, also from Haiti, was living in Brazil with his wife and 3-year-old daughter when the pandemic hit. In May, he lost his job, he said. In August, he and his family were on their way to the United States.
“I hope they will change the way they act,” he said of the Americans. âOur lives depend on it. “
In recent years, a growing number of migrants had started to brave the hallway, a journey that may take a week or more on foot. But after the pandemic, which particularly hit South America, this wave has become a flood of desperate families. At least one in five of those who crossed this year were children, Panamanian officials said.
As the number of migrants arriving at the US border increased, the Biden administration has retreated from a more open approach to migration taken in the early days of the president’s term to a tougher stance with a single goal: to deter people even attempt to enter the United States. .
“If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned,” Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, said in september. âYour trip will not be successful and you will endanger your life and that of your family. “
But the warning is unlikely to set back the tens of thousands of Haitians who are already on the road.
Recently there were around 20,000 migrants in NecoclÃ, Colombia. And there are already up to 30,000 Haitian migrants in Mexico, according to a senior official at the Mexican Foreign Ministry who requested anonymity.
âThey’ve already started the journey, they’ve already started thinking about the United States,â said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “It’s not that easy to turn this off.”
One recent morning, Ms. Alix and Mr. Damier woke their children up before dawn in the small house they shared with a dozen other migrants. Their turn had come to board the boat that would take them to the edge of the jungle.
In the dark, Mrs. Alix threw her backpack over her shoulders and tied Vladensky to her chest. In one hand, she carried a pot of spaghetti, meant to support them as long as it lasted. Her other hand reached for her toddler, Farline.
On the beach, the family joined a crowd of others. A dock worker handed Ms. Alix a large life jacket. She draped it over Farline’s small body and climbed into the boat. On board: 47 adults, 13 children, 7 infants, all migrants.
“Bye!” shouted a man from the boat company. “Have a good trip!”
Government officials are largely absent from DariÃ©n. The area is controlled by a criminal group known as Clan del Golfo, whose members see migrants as much as they see drugs: goods they can tax and control.
Once the migrants get off the boats, they are greeted by smugglers – usually poor local men who offer to take them into the jungle, starting at $ 250 per person. For an additional $ 10, they’ll be carrying a backpack. For $ 30 more, a child.
Farline and her family spent the night in a tent on the edge of the jungle. In the morning, they left before sunrise, along with hundreds of others.
“I carry bags,” shouted the smugglers. âI carry children!
Soon a vast plain turned into a towering forest. Farline climbed between the trees, following her parents. Vladensky slept on his mother’s chest. Other children were crying, the first to show signs of exhaustion.
As the group crossed river after river, the tired adults began to drop their bags. They climbed and then descended a steep, muddy slope, to look at the next one. Hopeful, even excited, faces that morning sagged in exhaustion.
A woman in a leopard print dress has passed out. A crowd formed. A man gave him water. Then they all got up, picked up their bags and started walking.
Today, after all, was only the first day in the DariÃ©n, and they had a long journey to travel.
Julie Turkewitz reported from NecoclÃ, Colombia; Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico; and SofÃa Villamil from NecoclÃ and Bajo Chiquito, Panama. Oscar Lopez contributed reporting from Mexico City and Mary Triny Zea from Panama.