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Darien’s jungle: A deadly pursuit of the American dream

children playing in shabby yard with old clothes

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Panama and Colombia mark the division of South America and Central America. In between their borders “La Selva del Darien”, or Darien’s jungle, extends up to 37 miles into both countries. Known for its hostile conditions, El Darien has been a deadly pit stop for immigrants on their way to the promise of the American dream over the past decade.

As of October, Panama had recorded over 150,000 migrants that crossed Darien’s jungle “​​fleeing poverty and violence with the hope of reaching the United States”. The biggest group of migrants comes from Venezuela. 

In the last few years, Venezuela’s economic and socio-political status has declined because of corruption, poverty and lack of day-to-day resources. With Venezuela facing its biggest humanitarian crisis in their history, it is no surprise why it would lead them to also be responsible for the second biggest migration crisis in the world.

Luis Garcia — whose name was changed to protect his identity — embarked on a journey from Guyana, Venezuela, to find a better life in the U.S. His goal was to go through Colombia and Panama on foot, along with a group of migrants from Venezuela and other South American nations.

“The jungle is worse than you can imagine,” Garcia said. “There are moments where the darkness catches you in the middle of a river or a mountain and you don’t know if you should continue or stay put until the next day.”

Source: Global Conversation

Children are the most affected

While many adults make the decision to leave their home and enter the deadly jungle, it’s the children who suffer the most. Sandie Blanchet, a UNICEF representative in Panama, told CNN that many children and babies are brought to reception centers with no parent or adult present.

“We see a lot of children being separated from their parents during this horrendous trip, so when they arrive, they’ve been picked up by someone who was just walking by,” said Blanche. 

Since she joined UNICEF in September 2021, Blanchet has been an advocate for the rights of children and adolescents, visiting different areas of the country to see first-hand the reality and needs of children and adolescents residing in high risk areas. One of the first places she visited was El Darien.

Blanchet found 20 percent of children who faced abandonment and health issues in rural areas of Panama came from the Darien jungle.

It all came down to gas prices

According to a UNICEF report on the Deterioration Of The Situation Of Migrants In The Framework Of The National Strike, immigrants coming from Colombia did not have to face “Mountains, swamps and dense jungle” in the depths of El Darien earlier this year. Panama closed the usual routes where trucks and buses would transport immigrants across the pavement roads of El Darien safely to migrant reception centers in Panama.

This happened because of gas prices. 

On July 7, protesters flooded the streets in the capital city and other places in the country demanding the Panamanian government lower the price of gas, along with other demands such as lowering food prices and increasing medicine supplies. 

“[Protesters] blocked the main highways and avenues of the capital city and generated a long series of traveling protests that paralyzed schools and obstructed access to services and roads,” the report said.

With the public transportation system’s paralysis and blockades of the main roads, buses that transported immigrants from the Province of Darién on the Colombia-Panama border to the Province of Chiriquí on Costa Rica’s border could not continue their usual service or route. This led to thousands of families continuing their journey to Panama on foot through the hostile jungle. 

The hell within the jungle

Source: World Vision Canada

Luis Garcia began his odyssey with hope and resilience. However, within a few days in the depths of the jungle he quickly realized the biggest enemy was the people around him.

“Out of despair people fought with each other for the little resources we had,” he recalled. “If you go with women and they are pregnant you can last up to 10 days in the jungle. If they are not pregnant, it doesn’t take long until they are raped by gangs that reside in the jungle.”

In Colombian departure centers, authorities encourage migrants to pack lightly, only bring essentials and stay hydrated as much as possible for the difficult hike.

“​​I went in with one backpack, but the truth is that not all of us can carry that much weight anyway,” Garcia said. “You climb many mountains, hills and you get very tired, very fast. It’s important to have plenty of water and coffee candies. Things that give you a lot of energy and are small.”

Source: AP News

Most families and solo travelers decide to go through Darien knowing the consequences and dangers that lie ahead. According to Unicef executive director, Hannan Sulieman, the reality for most immigrants is they are better off facing the jungle’s dangers than staying in their home countries.

“Violence, poverty and the hope of finding better living conditions push families with children to leave their homes and face threats in inhospitable areas such as the Darien Gap,” she said. 

UNICEF has asked the U.S. government and European Union to provide aid to this massive immigration crisis. Their latest report said they’ve begun providing a “humanitarian response with regular water supply services, implementation of the sanitation strategy, delivery of personal hygiene kits differentiated by age and gender, maternal and child health care, support in managing child protection cases” at reception centers both outside and within the Darien region.

El Darien is not the end 

Source: ADN America

Those fortunate enough to make it out of El Darien still find blockades every step of the way through Central America. Garcia spent almost a month in El Darien, and his trip was far from being over. He refers to Mexico as the place that most mistreated immigrants and accused Guatemala of having the most corrupt police force. 

“[Police officers] would get us in buses telling us they were going north and then asked us how much money we had,” he said. “If we didn’t give it to them, they would send us back to El Darien.”

The road to the American dream is one people often take a chance on, but it doesn’t come without the possibility they might not reach the final destination. Garcia managed to reach the U.S. safely with an Asylum Visa.  

When asked if he would do it again, Garcia answered with a definite, “Yes.”

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