The Daily Telegraph

Migrants risk life and limb in jungle that promises only ‘hell on Earth’

- By Joe Shute in Panama

The Darien Gap is known simply as “hell” to those who survive it. How else to describe this lawless and roadless expanse of dense jungle swamp that creates a border between Colombia and Panama?

Navigating the treacherou­s crossing requires traversing steep mountain passes patrolled by drug trafficker­s and armed bandits looking to rape and rob, walking 12-hours a day in stifling humidity and wading through endless swollen rivers which can rise several metres in an instant, sweeping the unsuspecti­ng into their murky depths.

Then there are the savage insects that bite every inch of bare skin and a multitude of venomous snakes. The jungle paths are lined with the rotting corpses and bones of those who have fallen by the wayside.

The bodies are stacking up, as record numbers pour through one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes to the US. And the numbers are increasing, with some 7.1 million people (a number which far overshadow­s the Syrian refugee crisis) now thought to have fled Venezuela, according to data released this week.

Anna Ramirez (not her real name), 10, lost her mother in “hell” several days ago, and has heard no news from her since making it out of the jungle alive. Sitting in the Saint Vicente migrant camp in Panama’s Darien province following a two-day journey by canoe, she absently colours in a book while describing how she and her 14-year-old sister became separated from their mother after she injured her foot on a branch.

In such an inhospitab­le environmen­t, seemingly innocuous injuries can quickly become serious. Anna recounts how her limping mother soon fell behind and, injured and desperate, entrusted the care of her daughters to a group of Venezuelan­s they were walking with, promising to catch up with them. “I’m worried, very worried,” Anna says, as tears fill her eyes. “I miss her a lot.”

Despite the horrors of the Darien Gap, over recent years it has become one of the most popular routes taken by migrants fleeing to North America. People travel to it from countries such as all Africa, China, South East Asia and the Middle East hoping to pass through it. In 2021, according to the Panamanian government, 133,000 reportedly made the journey and so far this year the figure stands at 150,000. According to Unicef, in the first five months of this year, there were twice as many children in the jungle as in the same period in 2021, with minors comprising roughly one in five of those attempting the journey. The charity said 383 unaccompan­ied children crossed the gap from Jan to Aug this year. In 2021 the figure for that period was 113 and in 2019 it was 69.

The Darien Gap is named after a 60-mile stretch in the 17,000-mile Pan-american Highway, which runs from Alaska in the north to Tierra del Fuego, South America’s southernmo­st tip, and encompasse­s some of the most inhospitab­le terrain on Earth.

In 1972 a team of British explorers, led by Colonel John Blashford-snell, used two Range Rovers to attempt the first vehicle crossing of the gap. The expedition took several months and half the team had to be evacuated as medical casualties, while a support group of 11 Colombian soldiers was killed. Blashford-snell remembers the swamplands as a “godforsake­n place”.

Little has changed in the 50 years since. At Puerto Limon, a makeshift dock on the banks of the Chucunaque River, where a steady stream of canoes drop off exhausted migrants recently-emerged from the jungle, Ivanis Martinez recalls a similar reaction.

The 25-year-old Venezuelan law graduate clutches her four-year-old son, Thiago. She says she is

‘We saw the badly decomposed body of one kid and found the skulls of children’

en route to Orlando, Florida, where her mother has already settled, and has spent seven days trekking through the jungle.

“A lot of people died,” she says. “We saw the badly decomposed body of one kid before crossing the mountains and another woman with her dead child who must have been about four. We also found skulls of children about nine years old. Everyone saw the bodies.”

The Darien Gap has been used as a people-traffickin­g route since around 2010. The rapid increase in the number of children using it is thought to be part of a second wave of migration, as families seek to join relatives who have made the journey and settled in the US. One unaccompan­ied teenager in the camp is Nicole Estefanie, 16, who is hoping to be reunited with her father in the US.

He crossed the Darien Gap five months ago and has been wiring her money as she travels but she was robbed by bandits who also stole her ID. “I had nothing left and spent two days without eating and thought I was going to die,” she said, her eyelids drooping as her fatigue got the better of her.

 ?? ?? ‘Anna Ramirez’, 10, recalled how she and her 14-year-old sister became separated from their mother in the Darien Gap. They have had no news of her since
‘Anna Ramirez’, 10, recalled how she and her 14-year-old sister became separated from their mother in the Darien Gap. They have had no news of her since
 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom