Panama: another dangerous path on the migrant route
PANAMA CITY, Panama — It was a rainy evening on August 1, 2023, when two young men approached a family in the parking lot of a shopping center to kindly and respectfully try to sell them candies.
They seemed ashamed and were also fearful of the mall security personnel because if found on the premises, they would be forced to leave the area.
The pair happened to be brothers, 24 and 20 years old. One of them, carrying a child in his arms, asked: “Ma’am, can you buy a piece of candy from me? We are migrants who came from Venezuela three months ago and we’re fighting hard to get to the United States.”
Immediately, the eldest of the family opened her wallet, handed them money, and said: “Keep the candy and sell it to someone else, I don’t need it.” She then started a small-talk conversation with both and gave them more money to buy dinner.
“Thank you, may God bless you! Although people often help us, we don’t always have the same luck; some of them ignore us because we are foreigners, but we do not harm anyone. We just try to earn what is necessary to have a place to sleep, put a piece of bread in our mouths and save what we can to continue moving north.”
At that moment, the woman understood she had just heard the story of two out of the 1,200 undocumented people who enter the Republic of Panama — on a daily basis — through the dangerous Darien Jungle, on the Colombian border, hoping to find temporary refuge, while they continue their way through Central America and Mexico longing to cross over to the United States.
“Daniel,” “Alberto,” baby “Camilo” and his mother left home full of hope from Los Llanos de Portuguesa, a rural region that, according to them, is about six hours from Caracas.
During this journey, they defied the dangers of “the most inhospitable jungle in the world”, as described by UNICEF in a photo essay by Enrique Patiño (April, 2019), which captures the images of men, women and children –from Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti, Ghana, Cameroon, Nepal, Bangladesh, Yemen and Sri Lanka, among other countries, upon arrival at the first immigration control point in La Peñita (Panama).
The journey through the jungle is mostly done by river, and La Peñita is an Emberá indigenous community, located in the Pinogana district 30 kilometers/18.6 miles from Metetí (the closest city). There, the travelers can find a small area to dock their canoes and rest. However, according to the two young men, “the locals have turned the passage of migrants into a way of life,” and the place lacks basic services such as drinking water.
“You have no idea of all the adversities we faced trying to pass through the jungle on that route. But believe me, any place that welcomes us, where we can sleep and earn something to eat is better than Venezuela at this time,” said “Daniel.”
A report from the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM), published during the COVID-19 pandemic regarding the care response at the Migration Reception Stations of Panama (ERM) — located in Bajo Chiquito, La Peñita and Lajas Blancas in Darién, as well as in Los Planes, in Chiriquí — documented how out of the irregular transit routes, “the vast majority are used by traffickers in charge of the illicit movement of migrants, drug smugglers and for the transportation of other illegal merchandise such as weapons.”
According to the report, “this set of factors exposes migrants to different threats that range from attacks by wild animals, the possibility of suffering physical, sexual or psychological violence, assaults and murders.”
“No one really knows what it means being in the Darién’s Jungle: many stories of theft, armed robbery, rape, mistreatment, and all kinds of abuse must be kept silent there. The saddest thing is that humble people like the indigenous residents take advantage of our situation to get money from us... some were not very friendly,” confessed “Alberto” as he reached out his hand to caress his little nephew’s curly hair.
Alberto is seeing a new light at the end of the tunnel as he found out that since May 17, 2023, the United States Department of Homeland Security loosened the requirements and conditions of the temporary humanitarian permit known as “parole” for Venezuelans, Cubans, Nicaraguans and Haitians.
By July 31, 2023, some 248,901 migrants had crossed the Darién Gap, exceeding the total number of irregular entries in 2022, as confirmed to Panamanian television media by the Deputy Director of Migration, María Saravia, clarifying that this biosphere reserve should not be identified as a “migration route”.
While “Daniel” and “Alberto” have not lost hope in achieving that great “American dream” to reunite their entire family one day, other migrants just like them — but whose stories are unknown — remain resilient and creative in finding ways to earn money by selling various products or demonstrating their artistic skills in the middle of the streets, when a traffic lights turn red.
*A Colombian migrant, with a rolling sound system, jumps into the center of the main avenue in La Villa de Los Santos (Azuero) to entertain the drivers with a musical act. With a big smile, he welcomes the applause from the drivers as he walks between the vehicles collecting a few dollars before the traffic light turns green. (La Mega Nota/Elvia Skeens)