Migrants who crossed into Panama via the treacherous Darien Gap wait on 10 March 2023 to be transported by canoe from Quebrada Leon to the Embera indigenous community of Bajo Chiquito. EFE/Bienvenido Velasco

Panamanian indigenous provide initial aid to migrants after Darien Gap ordeal

By Moncho Torres

A man sells cigarrettes to migrants in the Panamanian indigenous community of Bajo Chiquito on 10 March 2023. EFE/Bienvenido Velasco

Bajo Chiquito, Panama, Mar 22 (EFE).- When migrants emerge exhausted from the Darien Gap, a treacherous stretch of jungle that separates Colombia and Panama, the first to come to their assistance are not personnel from the United Nations, non-governmental organizations or Panama’s security forces.

Several migrants on 11 March 2023 pay for transportation from the Panamanian indigenous community of Bajo Chiquito to the Migration Reception Station in the community of San Vicente. EFE/Bienvenido Velasco

Instead, members of the Embera indigenous community wait on the Panamanian side of that 100-160-kilometer (60-100-mile) interruption in the Pan-American Highway with their canoes and offer transportation via the parched Turquesa River to the remote community of Bajo Chiquito, the nearest inhabited town.

“We made it, finally,” Venezuelan migrant Jessenia Perez told Efe after arriving with her family in Quebrada del Leon, a spot that during the dry season is the most extreme end of that waterway reachable by canoe.

One of the most daunting and dangerous challenges for United States-bound migrants, the Darien Gap’s many perils include hunger, thirst, heat, insect bites, raging rivers, steep hills and armed gangs who rob and rape.

“It’s very tough … I was an athlete. I’m 44. I’m still in good physical shape, but for any person suffering from an injury, it’s an extreme challenge: cliffs, strong rivers, a lot of rocks … I don’t recommend that anyone cross this on foot,” Venezuelan Fran Garcia, perspiring heavily and still breathless, told Efe.

People make their way through that road-less no-man’s land without guides, either forging ahead with the help of blue markers that previous groups of migrants placed to show the best routes or following the advice of family members and friends who conquered that jungle before them.

The indigenous people waiting for the migrants on the other side offer food and water as well as transportation, albeit at a price. They are not a humanitarian organization and see the mass arrival of migrants, 70,000 thus far this year, as a business opportunity.

A seat in a canoe for a ride to the town of Bajo Chiquito costs $20, although children under the age of 10 receive free transport.

The population of Bajo Chiquito, located on the banks of the Turquesa, triples daily with the arrival of around 1,000 new migrants. Only accessible by canoe during the rainy season, that small town has now been transformed into a large marketplace filled with stands selling food, clothing and even phone recharge services.

A Venezuelan migrant, Omar Alejandro Barrios, works at the cellphone stand, where he recharges some 200 mobiles per day at a cost of $0.50 or $1.

“I’ve been working here for eight days. I arrived penniless. I arrived with my two children and my wife, but the money isn’t enough to keep going,” he said with emotion in his voice.

The owner of that stand is Vitalino Berrugate, an indigenous man who also sells food to migrants and charges them for laundry service and the use of a bathroom.

“Everyone here sells food for $5. But that’s the price because food is also expensive. If we sell it for $3, what do we earn? We don’t earn anything,” Berrugate, who said he recharges migrants’ cellphones for free when they have no money, told Efe.

When the migrants arrive by canoe in Bajo Chiquito, they are met by members of Panama’s Senafront national border service, who register them before allowing them to set up their tents in any free space they can find.

Shortly after arriving, the migrants are transported once again via canoe to a Migration Reception Station in Lajas Blancas, which is also located in eastern Panama and was set up by authorities there to receive people arriving via the Darien Gap.

The indigenous people charge $25 per person for that journey, although because Senafront does not want any migrants left behind some are able to hitch a ride for free.

Hundreds of migrants start waiting in line in the pre-dawn hours in hopes of finding a seat on a canoe and continuing their journey, while security forces monitor the situation and maintain order.

The logistics are a challenge for members of the Embera community, who at times lack sufficient canoes to meet the high demand.

The chief of mission of the International Organization for Migration in Panama, Italy’s Giuseppe Loprete, told Efe that providing assistance to migrants who emerge from the Darien Gap is difficult because “the routes are changing.”

“It’s difficult to follow all the changes, and wherever we position ourselves now, it’ll have changed in six months and we’ll have to move our entire operation,” he said.

Panamanian authorities estimate that 400,000 migrants may cross through that Central American country this year, or even more than the 248,000 who did so last year.

In Bajo Chiquito, Dr. Ariel Garibaldo has worked at a small government-run clinic for 15 days a month for more than two years. Accompanied by a nurse, he sees an average of 200 patients a day and is running low on medicine.

“I need a lot right now because the flow (of migrants) has increased in recent days … I’ve run out of medicine for the most frequent (ailments): pain, inflammation, colds,” the physician told Efe while waiting for a new shipment.

Dr. Garibaldo also handles more serious cases such as fractures, wounds and contusions and provides treatment to rape victims.

In the last month alone, he attended to six cases of sexual abuse in the jungle. “They’re threatened with firearms and have no choice but to succumb so as to not suffer more serious harm,” he told Efe, recalling the accounts of victims, whom he said occasionally are “raped by as many as five men.”

“Some arrive in a state of shock, fear, because … they think (the aggressor) is in the community. So they avoid seeking medical attention or avoid telling anyone else about what happened,” despite needing morning-after pills or medicine to treat sexually transmitted diseases such as syphilis or gonorrhea, the physician said.

When night falls in Bajo Chiquito, migrants talk among themselves in small groups.

A Venezuelan man said several teenage girls he knows were raped during the Darien Gap crossing but that their family refuses to go to the clinic or denounce what happened.

He added that they don’t want anyone to know due to fear that they will be stigmatized. EFE