Migrants wait in the Panamanian town of Bajo Chiquito, from where they will be transported to the Panamanian government's Immigration Reception Station in Meteti, Panama, on March 11, 2023. EFE/ Bienvenido Velasco

Darien jungle: A nightmare of death, rape for migrants

By Moncho Torres

Migrants wait in the Panamanian town of Bajo Chiquito, from where they will be transported to the Panamanian government's Immigration Reception Station in Meteti, Panama, on March 11, 2023. EFE/ Bienvenido Velasco

Bajo Chiquito, Panama, Mar 20 (EFE).- Having just come through the Darien jungle, they are exhausted, dragging their feet, sweaty, desperate for water.

A Panamanian border security agent speaks with migrants near the town of Bajo Chiquito, from where they will be transported to the Panamanian government's Immigration Reception Station in Meteti, Panama, on March 10, 2023. EFE/ Bienvenido Velasco

“Terrible, terrible, it was the worst,” they gasp. They are migrants who can’t believe that after their several-day trek they have managed to get through the nightmare of death, robbery and rape.

Venezuelan Diana Medina, 20, falls to the ground at the spot known as Quebrada del Leon (Puma Ravine), the first point beyond the edge of the jungle that the local indigenous people’s canoes can get to during the dry season. The canoe operators will take them along the Tuquesa River to the village of Bajo Chiquito, in southern Panama.

“I had to jump into a river … I couldn’t feel the bottom, and so I panicked. The current almost carried me away. It was terrible, it was terrible,” the young woman, who is traveling with two cousins, told EFE.

Three days walking for 12 hours a day during which they saw “ugly things, very ugly.” Diana says that “We saw a (body) that had a gunshot wound (in the forehead), face down. There was another in a tent and there was a man, a girl and … I guess it was a family,” she said, trying not to lose her relieved smile.

The trickle of migrants is constant, whole families, babes in arms, riding piggyback, groups of young people. All of them repeat having had basically the same experiences in the jungle, climbing down rocky defiles, being thirsty without being able to drink the water from the river, which is contaminated by excrement and cadavers, and the regular holdups.

“The threats they use, the weapons, it’s scary. One said ‘Try to hide your money and I’ll see you do it.’ One guy tried to hide it, as much as he could, but they intimidated him, saying ‘If you’re traveling with kids, point them out.’ When you see two or three dead people, you get scared,” Jonathan, a 32-year-old Venezuelan told EFE.

He is standing in line to get into one of the canoes, and each adult must pay $20 for the ride, despite having been robbed in the jungle. “You come with your dream, with all the money you earned, trying as hard as you can because of the bad stuff there is in Venezuela and in 15 minutes you lose your money. They grab anyone who goes into the jungle.”

Upon camping for the night, someone in the group remains on guard, but few people sleep. “The noises,” they say. Most of them are made by animals, “but you also know when it’s a human noise,” and also “they shine a light on you to see if you’re awake,” Jonathan said.

“It’s really difficult, lots of insecurity. You camp and you hear a racket, they’re stealing, they’re raping, and there in those areas we don’t know who they are. For me, it was very tough. Wherever you try to go, you’re going to find danger. Your food doesn’t last you long enough. We’re here practically two nights without food. They hit you and they rob you, with weapons and in full view,” he said.

Many try to go back, crying, but there’s no way to do so. “It’s like an ax, like a guillotine. If you go on, it closes behind you. If you return it’s going to cut you. There’s no way to go back. Because there are ropes that you have to go down, and to climb back up them you have to be a professional … The truth is that it’s terrible. You really regret it.”

But despite these difficulties, the flow of migrants who cross the Darien on their trek to the United States continues. It’s not stopping. And in fact it’s increasing.

So far this year alone, more than 70,000 people have crossed the Darien, according to official figures gathered by Panama’s National Immigration Service, a figure five times that registered in 2022 during the same period.

This disproportionate increase is surprising because it was precisely last year when a record was set for migrants traversing the Darien, with more than 248,000 people moving through the area in all, and that was almost double the number that passed through in 2021.

After they get out of the jungle and get to Bajo Chiquito by canoe, the migrants still have to buy things they need and then they are transported to one of the Panamanian authorities’ reception centers, where they are provided with shelter and various kinds of help before they are sent by bus further northwards.

There, at the Immigration Reception Stations, humanitarian organizations like Doctors Without Borders also examine them, providing first aid treatment the migrants who have been most affected by their jungle journey, having developed sores, gotten insect bites, developed diarrhea and vomiting.

“And the journey through the jungle is also very traumatic psychologically due to the terrain, the geographical and weather conditions, because there are no roads, they’re just narrow muddy paths, at different levels, where you have to climb, where you slide down, where you can fall off cliffs,” the Doctors Without Borders coordinator, Tamara Guillermo, told EFE.

In addition, she said, the migrants are affected “by having been victims … of violence and of sexual violence, and also due to the large number of bodies they see along the route.”

The rape victims, the Argentine coordinator said, have all told similar tales during recent weeks, saying that the attack always begins with a robbery.

Then “they take the whole group up a hill, they strip everyone, men and women, they make you lie down face down, they examine all your belongings, then they start looking for items inside your anatomical cavities. There’s also the threat and the perpetration of rape,” she said.

Doctors Without Borders requested permission to set up an emergency post as close to the jungle as possible to be able to attend right away to those victims, who in the case of sexual violence have a narrow margin of time within which they can avoid becoming pregnant.

In Bajo Chiquito, night falls, the stories of abuse in the jungle are repeated. Everyone is talking, pouring their hearts out to each other. You only have to approach a newly arrived group to hear new stories, and everyone has one. On the day EFE was on the scene, about 1,000 new migrants arrived in the small village.

Engelbert Useche, a young Venezuelan, talks about “the three kids” who robbed many of them and also about the dead bodies they kept running across on their route.

“When I saw the first body, everyone saw it. It was in a tent on some rocks. I said, ‘It’ll get worse.’ After that, we found another body, one of his feet was rotting … About the third day of the trip, there was a body in a tree, it was fresh, perhaps five days old. And in front of that tree, in a little waterfall, there was another,” he said.

“And we smelled others, but we didn’t see them,” he added.

EFE mt/bp