Migrants brave perilous Darien Gap in desperate trek to US
‘Almost turned back before I began’: US-bound refugees and asylum seekers tell of dead bodies, treacherous terrain crossing Colombia-Panama border.
Bogota, Colombia — Manguenlove Bellegarde gazed up in disbelief at the steep mountainside he had to climb at the beginning of his journey through one of the world’s most treacherous frontiers.
Along with his Dominican partner and two young children, the 33-year-old Haitian was attempting to cross the Darien Gap – a lawless stretch of mountainous jungle 160 kilometres (100 miles) long and 50km (30 miles) wide between Colombia and Panama.
It is the main route for refugees and asylum seekers who want to reach the United States border. With no roads, the only way to cross is on foot and by rickety riverboats.
“I almost turned back before I began. It was like climbing up a wall. We had to use the roots of the plants to pull ourselves up,” said Bellegarde. “On the third day, we passed a Panamanian military base, so I thought we were close… Oh my God, it took four more days.”
Heavy rains added more time to the journey – causing rivers to swell dangerously high, making them impossible to cross – and transforming an already dangerous trek into one more hazardous.
The trip was difficult physically and mentally.
“We saw six dead people, one of them in the camp where we slept,” said Bellegarde. “One was in the river, with their head buried in the mud. It looked like the river had carried him away and that’s where he ended up.”
A few weeks earlier, another Haitian, Steeven Pierre, 25, said he saw five dead bodies on the way.
“The journey was really quite hard, especially when the rain came. It was just mud, rivers and going up mountainsides non-stop,” said Pierre. “There were pregnant women, we had to walk in rivers … children were fainting, and even men, at times, who couldn’t continue.”
He decided to brave the Darien Gap knowing that some of his friends who left months before him had been deported back to Haiti upon arrival at the US border.
The Bellegarde family left Chile in August, where they had lived since migrating from Haiti in 2014. Like dozens of others Al Jazeera spoke to, they had been planning to leave Chile for some time citing poor job opportunities and racism. But the global coronavirus pandemic stalled the family, along with thousands of others.
As Latin America’s pandemic border restrictions ease, large groups of refugees and asylum seekers have been on the move again, causing bottlenecks in places like Colombia.
An estimated 19,000 people from Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela and African countries had gathered in the northwestern Colombian coastal town of Necocli, waiting to be allowed to cross the Gulf of Uraba to Acandi by boat, to begin their Darien journey.
In October, Al Jazeera met Bellegarde and his family there. They had been waiting to get to the Darien Gap for a month.
Last month, the soles of Julissa Familia’s feet – Bellegarde’s partner – were raw and blistered after the week-long trek. The 26-year-old Dominican needed a week to recover after arriving in Panama.
After crossing the Darien successfully, they travelled by bus through Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
In Honduras, they paused to wait for money from their family, to allow them to continue their journey northwards to the US border via Mexico.
The Bellegarde family had to fork out on many unexpected costs along the Darien trek, leaving them penniless when they arrived in Panama. The most expensive: a $320 fee to local guides known as “coyotes”. Nineteen guides in total led the Bellegarde family and 100 others through the Darien Gap, helping with luggage.
“I didn’t expect it to be so much. I left Necocli with $400, and I arrived on the other side with $17,” he told Al Jazeera on a phone call in November.
The UN has expressed concern that refugees and asylum seekers face robberies, rape and human trafficking, as well as deaths by wild animals and a lack of drinkable water on the journey through the lawless, roadless territory.
More than 100,000 had crossed the Darien Gap as of early November, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Almost 19,000 were children, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said in October – the highest on record.
“It was tough, but I’m tougher”
In an effort to stem the flow, Colombia and Panama agreed in August to limit the number of migrants who could cross the Darien daily to 650, dropping to 500 in September.
A local boat company working with Colombian authorities ensures only the approved number of boat tickets are issued each day, meaning many refugees and asylum seekers have to wait a month or more in Necocli to cross the Gulf, causing the bottleneck.
When they finally can embark, they face the lawless Darien Gap.
Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America said he was concerned there was no government control.
“When you have 100,000 people going through a place you can’t just leave it completely ungoverned. You see zero evidence of any state agents, and that’s crazy.”
The Colombian and Panamanian foreign ministries did not respond to multiple requests from Al Jazeera on their policies in the Darien Gap.
Haitian St Vil Sanriel carried instant noodles, a small fold-away gas cooker and a bottle of disinfectant believed to ward off snakes when he left Necocli in October. He joined with other solo travellers and said the rains were not extremely heavy and the group was able to cross in three days.
“We were sliding around the whole time, and it was difficult to walk fast,” he told Al Jazeera.
Sanriel saw human corpses on the trek, and he said his group had to leave one exhausted African man behind mid-journey, who he believes may have died.
“It was tough, but I’m tougher,” he told Al Jazeera on a phone call about the journey.
“I saw seven bodies. I just tried to stay motivated to get out of there and not think about it,” he said, quickly changing the subject.
Sanriel had fled Haiti and spent eight months in Brazil before deciding to make the journey north, and try to get to the US.
In late September and early October, the US deported thousands of Haitians who had crossed into the country – some after being outside Haiti for years – sending them by plane back to Port-au-Prince.
Sanriel said that had not dampened his spirits.
“I already knew [about the deportations], I’m not worried about it,” he said.
“The only thing I can do is to keep going.”