The World with David Leask: How death and despair await migrants on Darien route to the USA

They are burying foreign dead in Darien again.

More than three centuries ago this almost impassable stretch of the Panamanian isthmus was where Scots colonists seeking a new and better life perished.

Now the same terrain is killing refugees and other migrants trying to make it to the United States.

There are still, fully 323 years after Scotland’s disastrous Darien Scheme, no metalled roads all the way through this dense, hilly and sometimes lawless jungle, which effectively splits South America from North.

That makes Darien, like the Mediterranean Sea, one of the great obstacles on the migration routes from the poor and dangerous world to the rich and safe one. Those traveling from Colombia to Panama have to risk a perilous riverboat and a treacherous trek through its forests.

Many do not make it.

Last week authorities in Panama carried out their latest mass burial of remains, many unidentified or unidentifiable, found close to jungle trials or washed up on muddy river banks. Fifteen white-shrouded bodies, including those of at least one child, were laid to rest in a common trench. They were put in the ground with little plasticised cards saying what little was known of them. “Unknown #3, Minor,” said one.

About 50 dead have been found so far this year. Far more, everybody agrees, lie undiscovered.

“That number is a minimum quantity of the human remains there are along the whole route,” José Vicente Pachar, director of Panama’s Forensic Sciences Institute, told the Associated Press news agency. “Many of them die of natural causes, for example, a heart attack; they fall and no one attends to them.”

The number of bodies recovered has been rising, though Mr Pachar and his colleagues do not have the resources to go looking for them. Simply more and more people are trying to cross El Tapón del Darién, the Darien Gap. Why the mass burials? Morgues, Pachar explained, need the space.

The scale of the traffic, the exodus through Darien, is epic.

Panamanian authorities told the Spanish-language EFE news agency that 85,000 people had crossed this year, including 25,000 in August alone. The New York Times last week reported a higher number, saying that some 95,000 migrants had attempted the route in the first nine months of 2021. Most are Haitians. The push factor here is simple. Their Caribbean island home has been plagued by political instability and natural disaster in recent years.

First they had fled to countries like Chile and Brazil. Now, thanks to the economic devastation in south America brought by Covid, they are turning north again, heading for the United States. On foot. It is a mass migration.

Americans have warned Haitians they will not get asylum. This does not seem to be a disincentive.

Last month evocative pictures emerged of white US border guards on horses appearing to whip black Haitians. The images, so reminiscent of the racial injustice of slavery, sent a shiver around the world. American authorities denied that the migrants were actually hit by whips. But men with whips on horseback are no deterrent for those willing to brave the Darien.

“We very well could be on the precipice of a historic displacement of people in the Americas toward the United States,” Dan Restrepo, a former national security advisor on Latin America to President Barack Obama, told The New York Times. “When one of the most impenetrable stretches of jungle in the world is no longer stopping people, it underscores that political borders, however enforced, won’t either.”

Darien, as would-be Scottish imperialists discovered at the end of the 17th century, is one of the least hospitable places on the planet.

Back in the 1960s there was a grand plan to build a road from one end of the new world to the other, from Alaska in the north to Patagonia in the south: the pan-American highway. There was one place it could not pass: 67 kilometres of Darien. Now the roadless forest is literally bandit country, controlled by gangs, such as el Clan del Golfo, a right-wing paramilitary group which has turned in to a cartel specialising in smuggling people and cocaine north.

Concerns about just how bad things are in Darien have been growing in recent weeks. Petty criminals as well as organised crime groups prey on migrants but rarely pay a price for doing so.

It takes between five and seven days to cross the “gap”, or the “pass of death” as Colombian paper El Tiempo called the stretch last month.

Local authorities are trying to manage the human traffic. A limit of 500 setting off a day has been set. As a result encampments of migrants waiting to make the crossing have been growing.

The New York Times said some 20,000 people on one recent day were gathered at the main Colombian staging post for the trek, the beach resort of Necoclí, across the Gulf of Urabá from the isthmus.

El Heraldo, a Colombian paper, last week cited a local ombudsman, Carlos Camargo, calling for limits to be lifted, to let people cross, citing the sheer pressure on Necoclí.

“For several weeks we have seem the number of migrants logjammed in Necoclí range from 15,000 to 20,000,” Camargo said. “We need to urgently make entry measures more flexible for those transiting towards Panama.”

This is not the only blockage on the long route to the United States.

Citing anonymous Mexican government sources, the New York Times said another 30,000 Haitians are in Mexico waiting for the final hurdle in their journey, in to the US.

But conditions for those stuck in or close to the Darien are very bad.

The Spanish paper El País this summer reported from Necocli, interviewing Haitians and other migrants before they cross the Gulf in boats to Darien. A make-shift tented community, it said, has formed on the beach, dubbed Villa Haiti. A local doctor told the paper that children there routinely had diarrhoea and that adults suffered from the flu.

It costs $55 to be taken to Capurganá, on the Colombian side of Darien where, El País said, guides charge another $120 in protection money to protect migrants from the Clan del Golfo.

To get an illegal vessel all the way to the other side of Panama is $450. The sea trip is far from safe. A boat was lost in January, three passengers, including a six-year-old girl, were washed up dead. Four others are missing.

Colombian authorities are patrolling the gulf. The countries navy last week rescued three boats carrying 47 migrants from Haiti, Cuba, Uruguay, Nepal and Nigeria, El Heraldo reported.

Reports from Darien talk of desperation. And not just for the refugees. Covid-related economic strife has forced locals to get in to the people-trafficking game.

El Tiempo last month ran a gripping and distressing excerpt from a new book, Migrants from Another World. Juan Arturo Gómez, the Colombia correspondent of Diario de Cuba, wrote the chapter on Darien. It is grim.

“The settlers who see the migrants pass through this region tell dreadful stories of bodies piled on rocks on the beach, of a woman who died suddenly in the middle of the path; of a girl raped by attackers; of a mother who threw herself in to a chasm when she realised the baby she carried in her arms no longer lived,” wrote Gómez.

The reporter tells the story of one gay man, who he called Mohammed, and why he made the journey across Darien. He does not say where Mohammed is from, just somewhere in Africa where homosexuality is not tolerated.

“My family does not accept me. They say that, from the time of our ancestors right up till today, nobody has done the kind of things I have done, that I am the first. I feel bad because my family does not understand that I did not want to be this kind of person. I did not choose to be like this, I was worn this way,” he is quoted as saying.

“Only Allah knows how many times I have had to leave a place to find somewhere where I am accepted for who I am, where I can be myself.”

Mohammed was one of those ferried across the gulf Capurganá and it is through him, keeping in touch by mobile phone, that we learn of how the journey went.

The only formality: a medical official took his temperature before he started the long walk.

It is not just the refugees who are desperate. So are some of those who help them – or even exploit them – on their way.

Mohammed meets a Colombian boy, just 13, who explains why he now takes money to help migrants carry their belongings through Darien.

“I was a porter for tourists and granny sold them traditional sweets,” he was quoted as saying in the paper. “Without tourists, we went hungry. I was forced to do this.” A day carrying children or luggage through the jungle pays more than the Covid monthly welfare his grandmother gets.

The boy used the word “coyote” to describe his job. He had two other choices. One, be a paraco, join a paramilitary group. The other: be a raspachín, cut coca for cocaine.

The boys mother is a servant in the big city. His father was killed by an armed gang when he was took.

Mohammed’s multinational group, which files through the narrow overgrown path one by one, includes a Cuban family. At their first break, one of the children sees a gourd. “ ook,” it says, “a dinosaur egg”. Mohammed laughs, but then a a baby cries. “I don’t think that child will make it,” the guide tells the African. “Those are tears of agony.”

Gómez takes up his story. “They climbed mountains crossed banana plantations, slept next to rivers,” he wrote. “They endured terror when the cayotes drew their arms and fired in the area. They helped each other with loans and gave moral support to those who had been left with nothing. They went days without eatring. They left four hours a night They got lost, But they met generous locals.”

Back at the end of the 17th century the people of Darien tried to help would-be Scottish settlers. These are some of the poorest people of Panama. There is not much they can do to stop the marches through their forest.

Authorities in Panama and Colombia admit they cannot deal with the migrant crisis in Darien themselves. This problem, they stress, needs a pan-American solution. The people-trafficking gangs are international. So, goes the argument, must be the law enforcement and humanitarian response.

Last week Panamanian authorities announced the results of three major operations to take on trafficking gangs – and those robbing migrants.

Darien’s chief prosecutor, Julio Vergara Castillo, focused on those robbing migrants. He said 20 people had been charged and the belongings of robbed migrants found, including thousands in cash, phones and jewellery

According to La Estrella de Panamá, investigators are looking at how traffickers use social media to contact clients, promising to move them from Colombia through the Darien jungle and Panama and on to Costa Rica and the border with Nicaragua.

Emeldo Márquez, a prosecutor specialising in organised crime, on Thursday told the paper there were 22 investigations under way specifically in to trafficking, both by sea and land. A joint operation with police in Costa Rica had secured the arrest of 45 gang members.

“We are building links and exchanging information with other prosecution services because we are trying to find another way of combating the criminal structures exploiting the vulnerability of migrants,” he said.

People do make it. El Tiempo records that the journalist Gómez initially lost touch with Mohammed. But then he gets a call. The African had made it to a country where he could be who he was.

Coming to Darien, it seems, feels like a risk worth taking, just as it did for Scots three centuries ago. Gómez asked an octogenarian Cuban before he set off across jungle why this was so.

“Death,” the old man replied, “is also an option for freedom.”

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992