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El American changed the names of three of the nine people interviewed for this report.
“Don’t do it. Please don’t do it. I wouldn’t wish this hell on my worst enemy.”
A week ago, Juan arrived in Eagle Pass, Texas. He traveled with his wife and their two small girls. He thought he would not make it, but today, from the U.S., in tears, he says: “We made it. We crossed hell and made it to heaven.”
“But don’t do it,” Juan insists. “It’s not worth it. My girls didn’t deserve this. Don’t cross the Darién.”
But people do, even though the Darién Gap —as it is also known— is one of the thickest jungles in the world and, consequently, the most dangerous. It spans the border regions of Panamá and Colombia, so crossing it is necessary for anyone seeking to travel between the two countries by land.
Thousands continue to cross the Darién, even though they have all heard of the horrors of the jungle and the hell experienced. They cross in droves. Between January and August of this year alone, more than 102,000 people have crossed, according to Colombian authorities. According to a UNHCR report published in July, around 500 people begin the journey daily.
“Thousands are crossing, it’s true, but not as many are leaving as are entering the jungle,” says Juan. He saw it with his own eyes: routes full of corpses—decomposing bodies. Human remains. Some are in plastic bags wrapped by the indigenous people of the area.
“Yes, I saw a woman’s body. She was face down on the bank of a river. I didn’t want to get a good look, but the others in the group told me that she was with a baby, who was also dead,” Iván Pernía tells El American. Today he speaks on the phone from the Houston airport. He has been in the United States for several weeks now, and he, unlike Juan, has no regrets.
“It was worth it,” he insists. “I’m in the best country in the world.”
These are the stories of Juan, Ivan, Isaías, and Sol. They reflect the drama and tragedy that thousands still suffer daily. Motivated by the illusion of the American dream, they put their lives at risk and challenge their bodies and minds to face one of the world’s most dangerous and deadly border crossings.
Not all of them survive. But, they made it, and now they tell their story.
Selling the stolen goods
The journey begins in Necoclí, on the Colombian coast, about 497 miles northwest of Bogotá, the capital. There the migrants crowd together waiting for boats to take them to Capurganá —also in Colombia and the closest town to the Panamanian border.
The boats that leave from Necoclí are legal, unlike those on the rest of the journey. Migrants must buy round-trip tickets, at $50, so that no one is accused of human trafficking. In Capurganá, the tone is different. Corruption is tangible. It is a land without state authority. Instead, everyone says it with full confidence: “The authority there is the Clan del Golfo.”
The Clan, the most important drug trafficking group in Colombia, coordinates absolutely everything in Capurganá. All migrants arriving in the town must pay for unnecessary services at outrageous prices. Everyone is forced to pay for the services of a jungle guide, who is really not of much use. In Capurganá, the migrants, according to their budget, decide where to start their journey. Some start the trek through the thick jungle from the town, and others pay a little more to take a boat to Carreto —a beach in Panama controlled by indigenous people and from where migrants save at least fout days in the jungle. This route was the one Iván took.
“We had to spend several nights in Capurganá, hoping that there were no Panamanian authorities who could stop the boats from reaching Carreto,” Iván tells El American.
The boats, now illegal, have a complete subjective value. “They charge according to nationalities,” says Iván. “They charge us Venezuelans very little. About $250 to take us to Panama.” But Iván was told by a Cuban woman that she had paid $1000 for the trip. And a couple of Russians, who also traveled with him, had to pay $5000. “The Russians already paid for everyone’s trip here,” the boat captain told Iván.
Isaías, 42, has been hearing impaired since he was six years old. He speaks well, considering his condition, and can read lips. For him, the trip involved additional challenges. He worked in a hotel in the scorching city of Maracaibo, in western Venezuela, but was barely making any money. He could not stand it and traveled to Bogotá, Colombia’s capital.
He had no intention of crossing the Darién. From Bogotá, he was going to take a flight to Costa Rica, from where he would travel to the United States by land. But while in Bogotá, he found out that Costa Rica now also requires a visa for Venezuelans.
Until a year ago, most of those who crossed the Darién jungle were Haitians, Cubans, or Africans. Not anymore. The group of trekkers are also Venezuelans. Estimates indicate that more than 70% of those crossing are fleeing the tragedy in Venezuela. The considerable increase in the flow is due to the fact that, for several months now, all Central American countries have been requiring visas for Venezuelans.
“To give you an estimated idea, previously those who typically crossed the Darién were from Cuba, Haiti, Colombia, or even Africa. Now, for every Cuban crossing the Darién, approximately 12 Venezuelans do so,” David Smolansky, commissioner of the Organization of American States’ (OAS) General Secretariat for the Venezuelan refugee crisis, tells El American.
One of the first countries to join the visa requirement was Mexico. Pressured by the Biden administration to prevent Venezuelans from traveling by plane to Mexico to cross the southern border of the United States. Costa Rica was also pressured by the White House. And finally, in February of this year, other countries joined: Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, and El Salvador. Meanwhile, Biden states in public that he will not deport Venezuelans who enter the United States irregularly.
“The issue of deterring people from coming is part of the systemic problem with the immigration system. Because it lacks meaningful options in the modern world, it creates the black market of smugglers and coyotes to get people here who are desperate and out of other options,” immigration attorney Hassan Ahmad explained to El American.
Isaías says: “When I found out that they were asking for a visa to enter Costa Rica, I already had my ticket. I decided to return to Venezuela, but a friend insisted that I continue. That’s when he told me that some Venezuelans were crossing the Darien jungle.”
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” he says, “I had never heard of the Darien.”
Isaías, like Iván and almost everyone else who makes the journey, traveled from Medellín on a bus to Necoclí, where he took the boat to Capurganá. Unlike Iván, Isaías started the trek from the small Colombian fishing village, controlled by the Gulf Clan.
“We paid the first guide $180 per person. In the group, there were Cubans and Haitians, and from other countries. The trip lasted seven days, I brought canned tuna, candy, and soda crackers, but after 4 days I had no food left. We survived by drinking water from the river for the last 3 days. There is nothing there, no phone signal and nowhere to get food. At 6:30 in the evening, it starts to get dark and we can’t continue. The group was about 30 people and we slept in tents. There was even a young woman who was 5 months pregnant. At 6 am we started walking, so you walk 12 hours a day; it is very hard,” Isaías says.
When Isaías crossed the Darién, the entire journey was improvised and rustic. The jungle will never stop being as deadly as it is today. But, as absurd as it may be, an informal economy has arisen from the exploitation of the migrants’ plight. An economy subjected, of course, to the will of the criminal gangs in the area. Sol, a 36-year-old Venezuelan woman who crossed the Darién, witnessed this economy.
“We were walking and several armed hooded men appeared, shooting in the air. We were a group of more than 100 people. They asked us to kneel down and told us: ‘There is no negotiation here. Whoever wants to leave must pay $100 each.’ We had to give the money to keep walking,” says Sol.
To embellish the tragic experience, some locals, in complicity with irregular groups, market the passage through the Darién as an extreme and exciting experience that Earl Shaffer himself would have loved to enjoy. It is no longer only the American dream that should motivate the migrant, but the adventurous will to live an experience that they can proudly tell their grandchildren about. In the end, it’s all a lie.
Some locals, as if they were running some reputable travel agency, offer ‘packages’ that cost around $3,700 or $4,000 and cover the entire trip, from Venezuela to the United States: the migrants pay for transportation, bribes to the border police of each country, the safe-conduct and the stay in small and discreet hotels for each stage of the trip. The packages also include the services of a guide “committed to the lives of the clients.” An alternative route avoids the Darien: by paying $5000, the migrant can fly to the island of San Andres and, from there, take a boat to the coast of Nicaragua. The journey is no less dangerous.
As one would expect, in the end, it is all a scam. El American spoke to several migrants who reported deception and robbery. They are told that, upon payment, they will be able to camp in the Darién comfortably. They promise them telephone signals, spaces to cook, and bathrooms with privacy.
“It’s all a lie. I paid $3000. When we started, they gave us food utensils and promised us that we were going to have a place to camp. After a few hours of walking, they stole everything. Then the guide got lost,” says a migrant who asked El American not to mention her name.
“Then it was that we realized that what they give you or you can buy at the beginning of the trip, in a place that looks like a Persian market, are really the things stolen from the migrants who also bought before,” she adds.
David Smolansky told El American that he has received sparse reports of some cases of scams. But the thefts are not sparse. “Migrants are robbed of their belongings. And by belongings, I mean everything: their documents, their food, and even their clothes. Some migrants have had to cross the jungle naked.”
People stop being people
Upon arriving in Carreto, Iván began the journey by foot. It was four days of walking through the most brutal jungle imaginable. The weight of nature contrasts, also, with its beauty. Carreto was the most beautiful beach many had ever seen. Virgin, paradisiacal, which serves as a prelude to an unbearable, ferocious jungle, with murderous animals and people.
In the Darién people quickly cease to be people. Dehumanization is a gradual process to which one is slowly but surely subjected. Cruelty is born and instinct takes precedence. It is not those who help that succeed, but those who leave behind.
“I was surprised to see a young man with his elderly mother,” says Iván. “At one point, the mother became ill, she was already a burden, and the young man paid someone else to take care of the old woman. Later I found out that this person also abandoned her.”
It is usual to see how couples despise each other while walking through the jungle. They shout at each other and accuse each other. Among the groups, distrust grows. “They stole my wallet,” says Iván. “I was left without my documents.”
Iván carried dollars in cash, but never took them out fearing that others in his group would see how much money he was carrying. Nor did he keep the money in one place, but distributed it among his luggage, his clothes, and his body. So, when his wallet was stolen, he was not left blank.
The sound of children crying and screaming stuns. Before starting the trip, in Capurganá, a loudspeaker tells the families to keep their children quiet, because the wild beasts of the jungle could appear.
“I don’t know if it’s true that an animal could appear and kill a child by listening to him cry. But what I did hear is that once a father strangled his son who had not stopped crying for four days,” Juan tells El American, swallowing hard.
The children of the jungle
How can a child who is subjected to one of the cruelest jungles in the world not cry? How can a child who walks barefoot in mud and garbage not cry? A child who sees dead bodies, who never wished for anything that is happening to him, and who had no voice when his parents, one day, decided that they would cross the Darién.
“That’s why I insist. It’s not worth it. My girls didn’t deserve this,” says Juan, in tears.
Iván saw many children, more than he would have liked to see. “The children’s screams could be heard everywhere,” he recalls. Sometimes you don’t know if there are really children crying or if it’s in your mind, already confused. The screaming is permanent and disturbing.
“I was carrying candy, but I never used it. I gave them to some kids,” Ivan says. “I gave away everything, in fact. I even gave my tent to a family at the end.”
Isaías also saw many children. For example, in his group, there was a lady with her two daughters. They were around 11 and 12 years old.
“Many times, we would hear noises and the guide would tell us to be quiet because you didn’t know if it was an animal, another group of people, or thieves who could rob or kill us. The guide would insist that we walk fast. I remember that they put a lot of pressure on the lady with her two girls. At one point we lost them because they stayed far behind. Then we found out: they raped the two girls and their mother.”
Smolansky, from the OAS, told El American about three terrifying cases involving children: “The first was a couple traveling from Venezuela. They had a baby. They left Venezuela because the father was kidnapped and they couldn’t take it anymore. They decided to cross the Darién. The mother was raped in the jungle and he had to accept it. If he tried to stop it, they would kill him, his wife, and the baby. Just before, the man had witnessed how a Haitian was killed for trying to stop his daughter from being raped.”
The second case Smolansky knows of is the death of a ten-year-old girl. And finally, the murder of a 6-year-old boy by armed groups. The case made the news.
“The Panamanian Ombudsman’s Office and the National Border System reported that a six-year-old minor was murdered in the territory of that country, in the Tres Bocas sector, after crossing the border with Colombia,” reads the newspaper El Tiempo.
“That place smells like death,” says Sol. “I, thank God, didn’t see any dead people, my cousin did, but it reeks of death.”
Since February 2022, when thousands of Venezuelans began to cross the Darién Gap in search of the American dream, the front pages of the newspapers in Venezuela are full of people who have died along the way.
At least 18 Venezuelans have been reported dead in the jungle, while 76 are missing. However, the death toll may be higher, warn authorities, because many bodies have not been identified.
26-year-old Marine Castellano died in February from a blow to the head when she was swept away by a river current. Giovanni Pardo died of cardiac arrest in April, three hours from reaching a campsite towards the end of the journey. Merimar Paola Gomez, 35, took 13 days to cross the Darien but died a couple of days later in Costa Rica of a heart attack.
“She was in my group. She broke her leg on the way,” Isaías tells El American, “she had gone with her husband, her mom, two daughters, and a baby. She stayed with her mom behind while her husband went on with their children. But in Costa Rica, she had a heart attack because she suffered a lot crossing the Darién and was dehydrated.”
“No one in my group died. Thank God,” says Sol. “But my cousin was carried away by the river and had to go with a completely different group and saw many dead people.”
One young man did die from Iván’s group. He was obese and died of a heart attack “climbing a mountain.” “It was the mountain of La Llorona,” said Iván. The young man could not keep up with the group.
La Llorona, a hostile and very steep hill that requires hours to cross, has claimed the lives of many of the migrants. By the time they cross the mountain, the migrants have been in the jungle for days. It is almost the last stretch. The last test before breathing a sigh of relief for having survived the Darien.
“The section of La Llorona is very difficult. It’s hard to go down. It’s very steep, pure mud. It’s too exhausting. That’s where many people faint or die of heart attacks. There are parts where you go up or down holding on to a jute rope. But if you slip, your hands get burned. That’s why it’s good to wear gloves,” explains Iván.
On the way up the mountain, the young man in Iván’s group fainted. His head fell into the mud and he died of a heart attack.
Just before reaching the ridge, Iván had to cross the edge of a small cliff, several feet high, which is lethal. People cross it in line, carefully, because the fall is fatal —one member of Iván’s group lost a fingernail while trying to catch his child who was about to fall. In fact, some testimonies say that at the bottom of the cliff several corpses can be seen. It was there that Iván saw the body of a woman who, according to his companions, was also with a dead baby.
“And, after crossing the mountain of La Llorona, I went through the most difficult moment of the whole trip. I got lost. It was a horrible four hours. A nightmare. There were several of us who got lost, in fact, and the despair is unbearable,” says Iván.
However, thanks to the fact that Iván traveled by boat from Capurganá to Carreto, he was able to avoid one of the most dangerous points of the entire journey by foot. Its name leaves no room for interpretation. The Mountain of Death (La Loma de la Muerte) is a steep and inclement hill that devours anyone who crosses it. It is the pass that migrants fear the most on their journey through the Darién.
“It’s supposed to take eight hours to cross. But I don’t know. I don’t remember. At one point you lose consciousness and you don’t know how much time has passed. The clock tells you. But I came to distrust the time and day,” Juan told El American.
It was at the Loma de la Muerte where Juan saw two corpses. One, decomposed, exposed the bones of the skull. Although it is rare to find corpses that have been there for days without someone removing them. Usually, the indigenous people of the area cover them with plastic and relocate them, but no one knows where. According to Iván, “the indigenous people hide them. They don’t want people to see them or to know how many people die. It is not convenient for them.”
Over layers of garbage
Sol, who started the journey walking from Capurganá, did have to cross the Mountain of Death. She traveled with her partner, cousin, and nephew. “We almost lost our lives. I saw a huge snake at one point. We stayed behind, the men always went ahead. I was going with knee problems.”
Sol was assured by the guides and those who promised him a controlled trip from Capurganá that the journey would only take three days. But Sol spent almost eight days in the jungle and on the third day while descending the Mountain of Death, she ran out of food.
She became ill. A few days later, she began to have a fever and a stomachache. At night, she was shivering and sweating. Almost everyone got sick.
“These are extreme temperatures. Cold at night, hot and humid during the day. Poisonous reptiles. Pollution. Your life is exposed in many ways,” David Smolansky told El American.
And, as for pollution, Iván specifies: “It’s one of the worst things. The environmental impact must be terrible. There are stretches where you just step on garbage. At one point, we had to camp in an area where most people camp, and the ground was covered with layers of garbage.”
Iván carried water, but when he ran out of it, he had to use purification tablets to hydrate himself. The springs are almost at the end of the trail. Before that, it is pure garbage. People enter the jungle with a lot of luggage and shed it as they go along. It’s not that it’s not necessary —it’s that it’s heavy. Eventually, everything becomes a burden. Iván walked with three backpacks and had to leave two behind as he climbed the mountain of La Llorona. It is an uphill climb and it is necessary to walk as light as possible.
Of course, Iván also got sick. He had a fever, an unyielding cold that would not leave him. “His chest felt too tight. When we made it over the Darién, my body was completely fatigued. I had no strength. In the end I vomited, I spent days without appetite.”
Juan says he saw an old woman on an improvised and rustic stretcher. She was being carried across the river that everyone calls Río Bravo, which sometimes you can walk across and sometimes you can swim across. That day, fortunately, it had not rained. And the old woman was able to pass on the stretcher.
She was sick. She had fainted shortly before, Juan was told. On the improvised stretcher, made of sticks, she was asleep, probably unconscious, says Juan. He doesn’t know what became of her, but she was still at least three days away from the first camp.
El Abuelo (The Grandfather) is not a myth, but it looks like a myth. Migrants talk about it as soon as they start their journey on foot, and seeing it is like a mirage. It is like an oasis in the middle of the desert. After 4, 5, 10 or even 13 days in the jungle, a camp where they sell food and cold drinks is an unbelievable dream.
But El Abuelo is not only a camp. It’s also “el abuelo,” a very short, skeletal old indigenous man. He runs the first camp that all migrants encounter after surviving the hell of the Darién. There are just a few tents and some indigenous huts. A small bodega and a kitchen, where some indigenous women sell, at absurd prices, some drinks and food.
“Coca-Cola at 10 dollars,” says the indigenous woman to a migrant. “Bread at 2 dollars each.”
“El abuelo” doesn’t talk to anyone, but walks among the tents and huts, checking that everything is in order. He is a little old man, but the nickname of “grandfather”, does not succeed in softening him. His gaze is stern, and he directs the operations of the oasis that notifies the migrants that they made it.
“I cried, all I did was start crying,” Juan says. “I hugged my two girls and told them that we had overcome the hardest part of the journey.”
When Isaías got through the jungle, the first thing he did was call his sister. “After seven days, I arrived in Panama,” he says, “I called and we cried.”
Isabel, Isaías’ sister, asks him, in the videocall with El American, if he would do it again. If it was worth it. “Never. No. I wouldn’t cross again,” replied Isaías firmly. “I’m still traumatized.”
El American spoke with Isabel, who recounted the moment: “He didn’t communicate. What he did was cry and cry. I saw him very skinny and burned. He had a wound on his forehead, from when he slipped. He was full of blisters.”
“I don’t know how I made it,” says Isaías, “I only thought about my mom and dad, who are in Heaven, and I asked God to get me out of there.”
The Darién, although it lasts more than a week, is only the first stage of a journey that can last for more than a month. Of course, the goal is not an indigenous camp in the Panamanian jungle, but, after what they experienced, overcoming it is a triumph. A triumph impossible to measure or calculate.
In the end, not everyone achieves it. And those who do will bear the scars for the rest of their lives.
“I will never forget what I lived through,” insists Juan.
Smolansky draws the conclusion from most of the testimonies he has heard: “Everyone describes the Darién as hell on earth. I think there is no more accurate denomination.”
What Isaías, Iván, Sol, and Juan experienced marked them. They survived, and they do not recommend the trip.
“I think the same. After all the stories I have heard, my responsible call to each migrant is to avoid it. Because afterward, they may not tell their story,” Smolansky said.
Smolansky specifies that he understands that sometimes the migrant cannot choose. “Most of those who flee a regime like the Venezuelan one cannot decide when or how to do it. They don’t have many options and must take risks for their family. But, honestly, I recommend that they avoid this.”
And the authorities are not doing enough. El American tried to talk to officials in the governor’s office of Antioquia, where Necoclí is located, and most were elusive or referred to the public information that is available.
Iván Pernía did denounce to El American the mistreatment by Panamanian authorities: “In El Abuelo camp there are several Panamanian policemen and I saw how they beat and insulted some migrants.”
“They beat them and insulted them and tried to get them to fight,” says Iván. It was like a circus. The police were trying to get the migrants to hit each other, for their own amusement. Laughter from the suffering of those who are fleeing and just want to live well.
In this regard, Smolansky said: “I believe that much more effort can be made between the Panamanian and Colombian governments to improve the situation and promote safe, regular, and orderly migration. There can be more efforts in combating criminal gangs engaged in human trafficking.”
But no. One migrant, who requested anonymity, told El American that it is impossible for all the corruption not to be backed by local governments. In the end, the amount of money flowing in is massive. For some, the trip costs less than a thousand dollars, but others end up leaving thousands of dollars in the jungle. Some are getting rich and depend on the drama remaining intact. They depend on thousands continuing to flee. On thousands chasing the American dream.
After being registered at the El Abuelo camp, the migrants must take motorized canoes in which they travel to the United Nations camp in Panamá. From there, they will begin their journey through Central America to the northern border of Mexico. On the way, many will go through something more threatening than what they experienced in the Darién.
The journey has just begun in Panama. There is still a lot of corruption and humiliation to be experienced. But it is worth it, some think. Others, bluntly and without thinking, say: “Don’t even try.”
The Darién, meanwhile, is still there. Fixed before the dilemma of those who aspire to be free and prosperous, but attentive to receive the thousands who try every week. To receive them and, for others, to devour them.
This article is the first part of a two-part series on the journey of Venezuelans seeking the American dream from the hell of the Darien to cross the Rio Grande.