It was 5:05 a.m., and around 500 migrants were already showing signs of life in small tents. They began to rise, pack their bags, and prepare to cross the Darien Gap. This thick jungle, teeming and bandits, separates Colombia and Panama.
Emile and Claude made yucca and pasta over a fire to fuel their six-day trip. They also bought 20 liters worth of water, which cost $20. Because they were illegally entering Colombia, the men refused to give their last names for fear of being fined.
Emile, 29 years old, said that he had left Haiti 13 years ago in order to work for the Dominican Republic. He then lived in Chile for four more years and decided two months ago to move to the United States.
They got up and began walking towards the rainforest from Acandi, Colombia. Acandi residents charged $50 each for the assistance of migrants to find their way to Panama.
After months of quarantines, borders around the globe are opening after illegal migration routes are experiencing an increase in crossings. Smugglers have used the Darien jungle’s muddy paths to transport migrants from South America to Central America, as they travel to the U.S.
Officials from Panama say that the number of migrants crossing the Darien Gap is at an all-time high. 70,000 migrants have made the risky trek to Panama this year, and are now registered at shelters in Panama.
The majority of people crossing the Darien today are Haitians who have been living in Brazil or Chile for a while and were left without work because of the pandemic. Low-income Haitians cannot fly to Panama, Mexico, or the United States without a visa. Many trek through the jungle to start a new life in America.
“The jungle can be very difficult, so we just walk with no idea where we are going,” stated Davidson Lafleur (24-year-old Haitian).
Lafleur, who had been living in Chile for three decades, was currently traveling to the United States with his wife and their 11 month old daughter.
He said that he had paid $120 for someone to transport my bags to the Panama border.
Panama and Colombia agreed in August to reduce the number of migrants crossing Darien every day, as a way to relieve pressure on shelters on Panama’s side of the jungle.
This created confusion and bottlenecks on the Colombian side. Each day, hundreds of migrants arrive at Necocli, Colombia’s Caribbean coast. They need to get a boat to cross the Gulf of Uraba.
Jorge Tobon, Necocli’s mayor says that between 1,000 and 1,500 migrants arrive in the town every day. However, only 500 can leave the port on boats going across the gulf to reach the Panamanian border because of the recent agreement between the two countries.
Tobon claims that more than 14,000 migrants are stuck in the town at the moment, and boat tickets have been sold out up to the end of the month.
It is difficult to find accommodation in hotels or local homes. Many migrants live in tents on the beaches, where they bathe and cook with seawater.
Once the migrants have been able to sail from Necocli, their next stop will be Acandi in Colombia. Locals spray the migrants with alcohol at Acandi’s port, in an attempt to stop COVID-19 spreading.
The trail to the jungle starts 6 miles (10 km) from the town’s centre, across a green savannah with many farms. Some walk, but many choose to ride a horse-drawn cart to reach the trail’s beginning. Some riders take a motorcycle taxi for $35.
Ones Armonte, a Dominican Republic migrant aged 36, paid for the ride. He was within an hour at the edge the rainforest, where a seven-day trek through the jungle awaited.
He said, “We depend on God’s will now.” “No one wants to take the risk of crossing this jungle. But I have to make enough money to send my children.”
Armonte, along with dozens of others, spent a night at trail’s beginning and began their trek through the jungle.
They climbed a steep hill to cross a river that reached their waists. The current was strong, and the sounds of the water drowned out guides and migrants. Many of the migrants felt exhausted as they made their way into the rainforest. They decided to lose some of their possessions to be lighter.
Along the trail, you could find jackets, jeans and wedding portraits. Guides told a woman to throw her foam mat away because it wouldn’t work in the jungle. She refused to give up and carried the mat while carrying a bag on top of her head.
A 50-year old woman fell after crossing a river and was left trailing the group. She was obese and suffered from asthma.
“Yesterday, we had another lady asthma, her inhalator was empty and we had to return,” stated one of the local guides. He declined to name his client out of fear of being charged with human trafficking.
There are many dangers in the jungle. Many migrants use garlic to repel snakes. They also rub a disinfectant on their legs and tie garlic pieces to their ankles.
Humans are the greatest threat. Trails that are used for drug trafficking are controlled by armed groups in Darien.
Many migrants who cross into Panama are abandoned by Colombian guide, who don’t want to risk being taken abroad for human trafficking. Bandits are known to target migrants and take their belongings.
Doctors Without Borders, which has a post at Bajo Chiquito, on the Panamanian side, reports that 96 women were sex assaulted by bandits while trying to cross the jungle.
Migrants who cross the jungle most often report foot funguses and gastrointestinal problems, as well as respiratory infections. Yet, thousands continue to trek.
Officials from Panama claim that more than 20,000 people crossed Darien jungle by foot in August. This accounts for nearly a third all crossings this year.
According to some reports, children have died in the jungle and pregnant women have given birth. According to migrants, they have seen skulls along the Darien-bound routes.
As he crossed a river, Lafleur stated that “fear is always with” him. “But we can’t help but keep going.”