Victor Rodríguez and Yiliberth Marín stand with heads bowed and sadness in their eyes as they think about the difficult phone call they must make. They have just made it across the perilous jungle of the Darién Gap. The thought of calling home to Bogotá terrifies them. How will they find the words to tell her? “Mom, we lost Ruth in the jungle.” And Mailon, her loyal dog, is also gone. They have weighed their options for a full day now, too distraught to decide whether to doggedly press on, or return to search the jungle for Ruth.
In late May, the morning light is creeping over the horizon as the two migrants make their way to Bajo Chiquito. It’s the first village they come to after trekking through the thick jungle that separates Colombia from Panama. Exhausted, battered and in need of comfort, they recall how the gal with a streak of blue in her hair was swept away with her loyal dog by the unforgiving river current. They share an unbearable burden of grief while carrying the weight of their own narrowly-averted fate. Surviving the jungle is a rare blessing.
Sheltering from the sun under a tattered blue umbrella, Ruth’s husband Victor and her brother Yiliberth remember how the river swelled up late one afternoon and swept away Ruth Marín, who wouldn’t let go of her beloved Shitzu. The three had set out from Colombia on May 19 in search of better lives. The 35-year-old Ruth sold her hardware store in Bogotá to finance the journey, and set out on the route traveled by 377,000 others in the last 12 months. The last photos she posted on social media show Ruth with her hair in braids, on a boat with her loyal pup.
Approaching Victor and Yilberth, one can feel their profound sense of desolation. “At one point, we were both swept away by the river. I was stronger and was able to help her cling to a log,” said Victor, a Venezuelan who lived in Colombia. That was where he met Ruth, the love of his life, and together they embarked on the journey north in search of the elusive American dream. “While we were crossing, the river unexpectedly rose,” he recounted with anguish in his voice. Ruth lost her grip and was swept away by the strong current despite a fellow migrant’s futile attempt to save her.
A day has passed, but they still hope to find her body.
The village where the migrants wait only has one street marked by the faint outlines of an old basketball court. A medical center and a handful of humanitarian organizations like the Red Cross provide some immediate relief and drinking water. Traumatized by what they’ve experienced, the migrants process their losses in silence. But there is no time to grieve — they need to check in with the authorities. Being a migrant means standing in long lines. Some patiently dry their documents in the sun, while others wait to have their belongings searched. Panama’s border officials (SENAFRONT) strip them of anything that could be used as a weapon and send them to wait at the immigration office.
“We saw an injured man lying in a tent. The wife’s name is Guadalupe, I think the last name is Rojas. He told her to keep going,” says a Venezuelan woman who lives in Colombia and is now on her second trip north. She pleads for someone to go rescue the man. “Does anyone know the name of the man who was sick in the tent?” she shouts. “Mario,” said a few people waiting in line. But no one is really sure. Another group said they gave him some water, but the man asked to be left alone.
Their stories are swallowed up by the jungle, lost amid hundreds of other tragic tales, but the village bears witness to all the tragedies. Next to a place where the local community serves food to migrants, a sign displays the photo of a missing migrant over the words, “Missing Indian. Speaks Spanish. Contact [number].” According to the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) Missing Migrants Project, at least 258 people have died or disappeared crossing the Darién Gap between January 2018 and June 2, 2023, 41 of whom were minors. However, t’s widely believed that these incidents are underreported. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, along with the International Committee of the Red Cross, identify these cases and communicate them to the government. An immigration official says they also deploy teams to search for bodies.
That’s what Victor and Yiliberth are hoping for.
Bajo Chiquito is a village of 400 permanent residents overwhelmed by migrants. Every day, up to 2,000 individuals seek refuge here. From January to April 2023 alone, more than 127,687 people trekked through the jungle — an astonishing 600% increase over the same period last year. It’s no wonder that Panamanian authorities and NGOs are swamped by the migrant crisis. As of April 30, 377,000 people had crossed the Darién Gap in the last 12 months, with thousands more expected to follow.
Leaving Bajo Chiquito means traveling by river for four hours downstream to La Peñita, a town just a few miles from the Pan-American Highway leading north. During the dry summer months, migrants can walk from there to seek help at migrant stations in Lajas Blancas and San Vicente. But when the river is swollen during the winter rainy season, travel by foot becomes nearly impossible and migrants must pay $25 for a boat. Today, 32 pirogues floated downstream with migrants aboard, the exhaustion on their faces marked by a sense of surrender. In one boat carrying mostly Haitians, a man with a long, thin nose prays to the heavens with open arms. The travelers silently endured the jungle’s hardships, their stories woven with deep sorrow. And they still have a very long way to go to fulfill their dreams of making it to the United States.
Victor and Yiliberth have moved on as well. While they decide what to do, they spend the night at the San Vicente Migrant Reception Station, operated by the Panamanian military and staffed by humanitarian agencies. They wait in yet another line. They have been duly registered and assigned to a dormitory where everyone tries to sleep in the hot haze. The air is thick with human sweat, hot breath and deep frustration. The Red Cross provides medical aid, 30 minutes of free wifi and a place to charge cell phones. The migrants complain about feeling trapped there, but they’re also grateful for a roof over their heads.
The migrant station is designed to house 500 people, but that’s not big enough, so improvised tents accommodate the overflow. Being a migrant means paying for everything, even shade. The migrant road is the most brutal expression of capitalism. “When it’s very sunny, some Haitians who have more money pay for places in the shad,” said a Venezuelan journalist who was assaulted and robbed of all his equipment and money. His compatriots suffer in the burning sun to save for the $40 fare on an official bus that will take them to the next station, on the border with Costa Rica.
All the death migrants see on the road leaves a mark. The on-and-off rains today are reminiscent of the Darién Gap’s volatile weather. Everyone at the migrant station is talking about a ghost. The story, which changes a bit with every telling, is about an old man in his 80s accompanied by a child who appears to migrants in the jungle and warns them of danger in many languages. People say he is the spirit of people who have been swallowed up by the Darién jungle.
Carrying on despite the grief
Painful stories are told in every corner of the migrant stations. They are haunting tales: one where a woman, recovering from a C-section, ruptured her wound in the jungle and, in her agony, leaped off a cliff with her newborn. Another in which a Haitian child slipped away from his helpless mother’s grasp. Santiago Carpio, an 11-year-old Venezuelan boy, tells his story of survival after seeing his father and brother plunge into a deep ravine. He was too exhausted to speak or move, and could only utter a faint plea to prevent his mother from jumping in after them. The family had been hiking for six days, and when Miguel and Matias Carpio fell into the ravine, Santiago was resting under a tree, emaciated and covered in mud.
The family had departed from Lima, Peru, where they had lived for five years after leaving Venezuela. Santiago and Matías attended school there, but money was tight after one parent lost a job. They paid a coyote who deceived them about the danger, says Miguel angrily. After they fell into the ravine, no one up above could see if they were still alive. He doesn’t know how they survived and were rescued, but instead of being taken to a migrant station, they were transported to a hospital in Panama City. Matías is now awaiting a CAT scan to see if he suffered any other injuries from the fall.
Ten days after Victor and Yiliberth emerged from the Darién Gap, they received news that was both sad and somewhat encouraging. In a brief statement, SENAFRONT said they had recovered the bodies of 10 drowned migrants, and that it intended to increase its military presence in the jungle. They also said that it is now deporting Colombians, and three thieves accused of assaulting migrants had been killed. Victor and Yiliberth still have hopes of finding Ruth.
The “perfect storm” of the Darién Gap
“There’s a perfect storm in the Darién Gap. Besides all the jungle hardships — insect bites, snakes, falls and drowning — there are criminal groups there,” said Edwin Viales, the Americas regional monitor for the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project. The area is a bottleneck for diverse, ever-changing migratory flows: Spanish- and Creole-speaking Latin Americans and Haitians, as well as migrants from other countries who speak English, Mandarin, and Hindi. Lately, there has been an increase in migrants from China, India and Afghanistan.
Viales says there is an enormous underreporting of migrant deaths. He has received reports of dead people left behind in the jungle and burials by other migrants. Videos and images of death in the jungle abound on TikTok, Facebook and Whatsapp groups where relatives desperately seek information about their loved ones. These same platforms are full of scammers who demand money in exchange for often false information.
Most migrants do not know who to turn to if they lose a family member in the jungle. The Panamanian Ombudsman’s Office gets some information in the mail and the Red Cross reports all the cases it knows about, but many grief-stricken migrants are left in limbo with no information. After Victor got some guidance from the Red Cross and the Colombian consulate, he decided to send El PAÍS a message.
“We’re going to identify bodies on Monday,” Victor wrote on Whatsapp. A day later, he told us about the wall of bureaucracy he ran into. Just to enter and see if his wife’s body had been recovered, he had to bring Ruth’s birth certificate. Someone sent him a photo of Ruth’s birth certificate from Soacha, her hometown in Colombia. The officials wouldn’t accept it — it’s too blurry. They needed a paper copy of the birth certificate. Victor and Yiliberth decided to stay and keep trying.
But not everyone does this — some keep going north, shouldering the pain of their loss with visions of the American dream. The Red Cross established 100 places for migrants in the El Real cemetery where recovered bodies are taken. A few migrants have the bodies of their relatives repatriated after wrangling with bureaucratic procedures for months.
Victor and Yiliberth want to do that for Ruth and her family. But in her honor, they will continue on the journey north after finding her body. “That’s all we can do,” they say.
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