BAJO CHIQUITO, Panama (AP) — Rain-swollen rivers only briefly slowed the otherwise uninterrupted flow of migrants through this jungle-covered border area separating Colombia and Panama and by midweek another 2,000 bedraggled migrants stumbled out of the Darien jungle.
Pregnant women and men carrying children atop their shoulders waded across the waist-deep Tuquesa river and into the Indigenous outpost of Bajo Chiquito where some fell to the ground in exhaustion and relief as Panamanian officials waited to register their arrival.
Crossing through the dense, lawless jungle not long ago was unthinkable to most people. In recent years, it became a brutal slog of a week or more. But some migrants arriving this week described an organized trek completed in as little as 2 ½ days on trails marked by colored ribbons and assisted by guides and porters, part of what officials say has become a business generating millions of dollars.
That efficiency combined with the unrelenting economic factors pushing migrants to leave countries like Venezuela, whose citizens account for the majority of them, have resulted in more than 400,000 migrants crossing the Darien this year. The dizzying number of 500,000 – double last year’s record total – is now on the horizon.
That figure, and the corresponding number reaching the U.S.-Mexico border, factored into the United States decision to resume deportation flights to Venezuela in the coming days. The new measure announced Thursday is part of what U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas termed “strict consequences” for those who do not avail themselves of expanded legal pathways to enter the U.S.
On Friday, the presidents of Panama and Costa Rica are scheduled to visit the Darien to assess the situation that has strained both their governments.
Kimberly Morales, 34, from Caracas, Venezuela walked the last 30 minutes to Bajo Chiquito with her husband and their sons ages 8 and 16. They made the crossing from Colombia in 2 ½ days, but Morales described it as “horrible.”
“I don’t wish it for anyone. It’s the worst,” she said. They paid guides $320 each in Colombia to take them to Panama “where the desperation began.” While the route on the Colombian side has become organized and lucrative, the Panamanian side remains more risky.
Morales said she saw three dead migrants along the way, including a woman who had apparently drowned in a river.
On Thursday, they donned orange life jackets and boarded one of a hundred waiting long, thin boats waiting to ferry migrants at $25 a head to Lajas Blancas where they would get on buses to whisk them across Panama to Costa Rica to continue their journey north.
“What we want is to at least have a place to sleep, a job, a life that we can give (our children), to be able to buy them medicine if they get sick,” Morales said.
In April, the U.S., Panama and Colombia announced a campaign to slow migration through the Darien jungle, but migrants’ numbers have only grown forcing the Biden administration to seek other options.
Last month, the U.S. Homeland Security Department announced plans to grant Temporary Protected Status to an estimated 472,000 Venezuelans who arrived in the country as of July 31, making it easier for them to get authorization to work in the U.S. That was in addition to about 242,700 Venezuelans who already qualified for temporary status before that announcement.
The Biden administration had also said it would accelerate work authorizations for people who have arrived in the country since January through a mobile app for appointments at land crossings with Mexico, called CBP One, or through parole granted to Cubans, Haitians, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans who have financial sponsors and arrive at an airport. It aimed to give them work permits within 30 days.
But anyone arriving after July 31 would not be eligible. On Thursday, U.S. officials said they had already identified Venezuelans who entered the U.S. illegally after that date who would not be eligible for protections and thus would be flown back to Venezuela.
Venezuela plunged into a political, economic and humanitarian crisis over the last decade, pushing at least 7.3 million people to migrate and making food and other necessities unaffordable for those who remain.
The vast majority who fled settled in neighboring countries in Latin America, but many began coming to the United States in the last three years.
This week, migrants emerging from the jungle for whom the crossing had extended to five days, said they ran out of food because their guides promised a quicker trip.
Gabriela Quijada, 33, who made the trip with a friend, dizzily fell to the ground upon reaching Bajo Chiquito Wednesday. The promised three-day trip she paid $250 for took them five, meaning they went without eating for the final stretch.
“This morning we crossed a river that nearly swept us away, and it was raining,” said Quijada, from Margarita, Venezuela. “I walked and cried.”
She explained that her earnings weren’t enough to support her two teenage daughters who she had left behind in Venezuela. “If I make it and enter the United States I will find a way to bring them legally,” she said.
Carliomar Peña, a 33-year-old vendor from Venezuela’s Merida state travelling with her son, was trying to reunite with her husband who turned himself over to U.S. border agents a year ago and applied for asylum. She paid Colombian guides $320 for herself and $60 for her son, then an additional $100 for a porter to carry their belongings to an infamously difficult climb at the Colombia-Panama border.
On Thursday, her son’s 6th birthday, they waited for a boat to carry them downriver.
She planned to apply for an appointment via the CBP One app as she neared the U.S. border that would allow them to eventually seek asylum too.
“The ideal for all Venezuelans is to request their appointment … to be able to cross as legally as possible, with permission to work,” Peña said. But failing that she said the other option would be to turn themselves over to U.S. authorities at the border.
Reflecting on the journey so far, Peña said the Colombia stretch was tolerable, but in Panama she felt their lives were always at risk. “It’s a life for animals, not for human beings,” she said.