The journey across Panama’s Darién Gap and dreams of a better life in the U.S. often end in tragedy

Nov 13, 2022 | 4 comments

Ángel García helping Sarah, who lost her mother, over fallen trees in the Darién Gap.

Julie Turkewitz, Federico Rios

In the darkness, the little girl called out for her mother, her tiny form lit by the moon.

The two had left their home in Venezuela a week before, bound for the United States. To get there, though, they would have to cross a brutal jungle called the Darién Gap.

And in the chaos of the trek, the child had lost her only parent.

To contain her fear, Sarah Cuauro, just 6 years old, began to sing.

“The glory of God, giant and sacred,” she croaked through tears. “He carries me in his arms.”

Sarah Cuauro while traveling through the Darién, one of the world’s most dangerous migrant corridors, in an attempt to reach the United States.

Almost three years after a deadly pandemic began ravaging the world, a devastating combination of pandemic fallout, climate change, growing conflict and rising inflation exacerbated by the war in Ukraine is creating a seismic shift in global migration, sending millions of people from their homes.

The United Nations says there are now at least 103 million forcibly displaced people around the world, a record number that is only expected to grow.

In few places is that shift more evident than in the Darién Gap, a hostile, sparsely populated, roadless land bridge connecting South America and Central America that must be traversed to reach the United States on foot.

For decades, the Darién was considered so dangerous only a few thousand dared to cross it each year. Today, it is a traffic jam.

Since January, at least 215,000 people have traveled through the Darién, nearly twice as many as last year, and nearly 20 times the yearly average between 2010 and 2020.

The enormous flood of migrants through the Darién is feeding a growing political problem in the United States, where more than 2.3 million people have been apprehended at the southern border this year, an unprecedented surge that has put intense pressure on President Biden to stem the flow.

The people crossing the Darién this year are overwhelmingly Venezuelan, many of them worn down by years of economic calamity under an authoritarian government.

But they are just part of a diverse movement of migrants through the jungle: Cubans, Haitians, Ecuadorians and Peruvians are also crossing in significant numbers, while Afghans, many escaping the Taliban, are among the fastest growing groups.

At least 33,000 of the people who’ve made the journey this year are children.

Some migrants come from desperately poor families. But many, like Sarah and her mother, Dayry Alexandra Cuauro, were once middle class, and now, thrust into desperation by their homeland’s financial ruin, have decided to risk their lives in the jungle.

“Things have gone from bad to worse,” said Ms. Cuauro, 36, who was a lawyer in Venezuela. “I decided to take this journey for the future of my daughter.”

To understand the journey so many are taking, two New York Times journalists crossed the 70-mile Darién route in September and October, interviewing migrants, guides, law enforcement, community leaders and aid workers.

Once a hidden jungle, the Darién Gap is now a well-worn migrant path.

The route began at a Colombian beach town, passed through several farms and Indigenous communities, crossed over a grueling mountain called the Hill of Death and then wound along several rivers before arriving at a government camp in Panama.

What became clear is that the Darién has grown into a multimillion dollar migrant business increasingly organized to move a maximum number of people — with guides who have assembled into cooperatives, locals who have marked the route with blue flags and trafficking operations that ply their services openly on Facebook and TikTok.

As a result, tens of thousands of people are entering the harrowing jungle knowing the biggest barrier still lies ahead — finding some way into the United States.

Earlier this year, she and Sarah had trekked across the Atacama Desert into Chile, thinking they could build a new life there. But Ms. Cuauro quickly found she could not make ends meet working as a cashier and a taxi driver.

For many, the journey is far more grueling than they had imagined.

Back in Venezuela, she considered applying for a U.S. visa, but discovered that the next available appointment was in 2024.

She thought about flying to Mexico and turning herself in at the U.S. border, but learned that Mexico now requires Venezuelans to have a visa to enter the country, the latest in a string of nations along the path to the United States to impose such regulations.

She made a decision: She and Sarah would head for the jungle. In Venezuela, they sold everything, even their plastic Christmas tree, and left on a bus with their passports, $820 in cash and a blessing from Ms. Cuauro’s mother.

“On the route,” she had promised, “you’re going to find angels.”

A shop set up by locals a day’s walk into the Darién, where migrants can buy food and pay for internet access.

Today, the most common path through the gap begins in the Colombian beach town of Capurganá, where Sarah and her mother clambered from motorboats advertising “responsible tourism” onto a dock crowded with other migrants.

Men from a newly formed cooperative called Asotracap ushered the group into a walled compound where they explained that the migrants would be assigned guides who would take them the first few days into the jungle for a fee of $50 to $150 a person.

Darwin García, an Asotracap representative, said the cooperative was created to replace local tourist revenue lost amid the migrant surge, and to stop people from dying on the trek.

“This isn’t a business,” he insisted. “It’s humanitarian work.”

Guards stood blocking the only exit.

Sarah and her mother had joined a group with nine others. Together, they handed over $1,200.

The first days took them up a half-dozen hills in a part of the forest inhabited by small communities. In recent months, some had built crude camps to serve the migrants, charging them to pitch a tent or buy food.

In one community, locals built a camp and charged migrants $20 each to leave.

Those lucky enough to make it to these camps each night slept amid the relative safety of others, washed their clothes in nearby rivers, nursed the day’s wounds and cooked rice and canned sausages over small fires.

Those who moved slowly, or who got lost on the way, spent the night in tents, or out in the open, on the ground, between the trees.

On the second day of their jungle trip, Sarah and her mother passed a cluster of trees hiding a body, decomposing in a tent, dead of unknown causes. On day three, they reached a river, where locals were charging $10 for a 90-second boat crossing. On day four, they camped in a town where locals encircled the migrant camp with wire, charging $20 a person to leave.

And on that fourth morning, just before reaching the towering mud-slick mountain known as the Hill of Death, Sarah and her mother lost each other.

In the last year alone, Darién-related hashtags on TikTok have received more than a billion views, while Facebook groups with names like “Darién New Route to Panama” have attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.

Thousands are drawn to the dangerous crossing through social media posts.

Sometimes those posting are other migrants, explaining what to bring or where to start the trek.

Other posts are written by swindlers claiming that the route is not that difficult or even that the United States is offering sanctuary to certain nationalities.

Then, they try to sell their guide services.

On TikTok, a company called VeneTours makes the trip sound like a vacation.

“Four days in the jungle with responsible guides,” reads a VeneTours post that was linked to a Colombian phone number. “All of Central America with VIP transport and guides + cell phone chip so you’re always in touch. Lodging, food, safe passage 100% guaranteed.”

Almost the moment they had left Capurganá, Ms. Cuauro’s boots had begun to grind at her skin, and her feet were now so blistered and filled with pus she could barely walk.

Mr. García, who had left his own 6-year-old son at home in Colombia, hoisted Sarah on his shoulders, looking back constantly for her mother.

Eventually, he turned around and she was gone.

Migrants at the top of the Hill of Death.

As Mr. García navigated the mountain with his new charge, the two crawled on all fours, struggling over tree roots, climbing over fallen logs.

Around them, migrants began to collapse from exhaustion.

Another migrant, Arnaldo Villegas, 36, dropped his body into the mud, weak from lack of food and water. He had chosen this route, he said, because Venezuelans like him had run out of options.

“The world shut its doors on us,” he said.

Adriannys Ortega, 8, who is also from Venezuela, traveled with her two sisters, father, stepmother and a pet turtle. The trek, she said, was “the worst nightmare I’ve ever had.”

That night, at a camp strewn with dirty diapers, plastic bottles and discarded clothing, Sarah slept in a tent with Mr. García and two of his friends. The men doted on her, lending her a T-shirt, turning away as she changed. But they seemed terrified by their new responsibility.

In the morning, they held a meeting. They had no idea where Sarah’s mother was, or if she was injured — or worse.

They had very little left to eat, and several days more to hike. They needed to get Sarah as quickly as possible to the end of the route, where they believed there were officials who could help her.

They packed up their tent. “And my mom?” Sarah asked Mr. García.

Mr. García and his friends Gerardo Amesty and Luis Martínez protected Sarah in the jungle.

“We’ll see her on the route,” he told her.

Next came two days of river crossings, the water rising rapidly during the jungle’s many flash storms.

Mr. García, who had lost his clothes, money and passport while crossing another river, held Sarah’s hand, then hoisted her on his shoulders. When the water reached his chin, she began to panic.

“Be calm, mami,” he told her, “be calm.”

Panamanian officials had set up a migration checkpoint in an effort to count the number of people crossing through the forest. They separated Sarah from Mr. García, putting her in a back room with other children who had also lost their parents.

Sarah had now been separated from her mother for three days. Hours went by.

And then, suddenly, Ms. Cuauro appeared, rushing into the room. All along, she had been just a few hours behind, trying desperately to keep up.

Other families had not been so lucky. Just a few days before, a 10-year-old girl named Helen drowned in a fast-running river as she slipped from her mother’s arms.

A few days later, a 6-year-old boy named Alexander was also presumed dead after a river carried him away.

Sarah waiting at a camp in the Darién after becoming separated from her mother.

Ms. Cuauro’s feet were so badly wounded that she struggled to stand. “Forgive me,” she cried, kissing Sarah’s face, her arms.

“I didn’t abandon you,” she insisted. “I came to find you.”

Like many Venezuelans, Ms. Cuauro left for the Darién believing that if she managed to cross the jungle and make it through Central America and Mexico, the United States would let her in.

Because Washington has no relationship with Caracas, it had no way of deporting Venezuelans back home. And in recent months, the United States had allowed thousands of Venezuelans to enter the country and ask for asylum.

Word of this had spread rapidly, helping to drive a massive surge to the border. Now, the Biden administration was struggling to deal with a widening humanitarian and political crisis.

Sarah and her mother exited the Darién on Oct. 10. Two days later, the Department of Homeland Security announced that Venezuelans who arrived at the U.S. southern border would no longer be allowed to enter the United States.

Instead, citing a Trump-era pandemic health order, officials said they would be sent back to Mexico. At the same time, a small number of Venezuelans — 24,000 people — would be given legal entry if they applied from abroad, and if they had a U.S. sponsor.

Sponsors had to be U.S. citizens, or meet other residency requirements, and demonstrate an ability to financially support an immigrant for up to two years.

Ms. Cuauro was devastated. She had no sponsor. By this point she and Sarah had taken a series of buses to Honduras. They had used all their money.

Now in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, she considered her options, weighing in her mind the trauma of trying to get to a country where they would almost surely be rejected. “I write this to you with tears in my eyes,” she said in a text message.

She was going to a migration office to beg for a flight home. “It pains me to abandon the dream of living in a safe place,” she wrote. “But the situation has forced my hand.”

Mr. García helping Sarah into a life jacket before boarding a boat that would take them out of the Darién.

Immediately after the announcement of the new entry rule, migrants were still emerging from the Darién at a rate of more than 4,000 a day, a record. Since then, the number has tumbled to about 600 — still 20 times the daily average just a few years ago.

Ms. Cuauro and her daughter wound up in a shelter in Honduras with a dozen other Venezuelan migrants. There, she waited for her family to gather enough money to buy them flights home.

A sister had arrived in Florida a few months before, after turning herself in at the border, and told Ms. Cuauro that she was racing to find someone who would sponsor them under the new entry program, before all the slots were filled.

Sarah, struggling with a cold, roamed listlessly around the shelter.

Of the journey that had ended there — the mud, the rivers, the terrifying nights without her mother — she said, she remembered “everything.”

Credit: New York Times


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