Although the governments of Panama and Colombia agreed to a controlled flow of migrants through the Darien Gap, the lack of a "humanitarian bridge" forces thousands to take what has been dubbed the "Road of Death" running through the Colombian-Panamanian jungle.
The binational agreement calls for 500 migrants daily, from Monday to Thursday. According to Eduardo Leblanc, Panama's Ombudsman, however, the town of Bajo Chiquito, with 250 inhabitants, is receiving about 1,500 migrants each day.
Government of Panama entities do not agree on the number of irregular migrants who have entered through Darien. According to Samira Gozaine, Director of Panama's National Migration Service, "in 2021 at least 55,000 migrants from Cuba, Haiti and African countries entered, which represents 33% of the migration into Panama since 2013."
Le Blanc stated: "Unfortunately, we do not know the number of people who have died, because there is no fluid exchange of information on that. The Republic of Colombia is supposed to apprise people, in Capurganá, of the dangers awaiting them in the jungle."
This correspondent in Colombia has documented a total of 28 deaths so far in 2021, the last one recorded on August 12. In a video sent from the Darien Jungle the corpse of a man is seen floating in the Tuquesa River. According to the source, the migrant was a Cuban national and died when he fell into an abyss. "We couldn't do anything. The body, like dozens we saw, only matters to the wild beasts and vultures now, " he said.
Another crisis is that of minors who enter Panama without the company of an adult. According to Samira Gozaine, since the beginning of 2021 more than 50 unaccompanied minors have arrived in Bajo Chiquito after crossing the Darien Jungle; some of these minors lost their parents in the crossing, while others dare to take this dangerous step alone, Gozaine said.
Desperate, Cubans take "the Road of Death"
The lack of tickets to travel from Necoclí to Capurganá, due to the daily arrival of about 1,000 migrants, forces migrants to place themselves in the hands of "coyotes." For 800 dollars, these traffickers promise to take them from Necoclí to the indigenous community of Nacho Kuna-Panama.
"We've been stranded here in Necoclí for 8 days, and they only sell us tickets for a week from now. We made the decision to leave tonight. They'll take us to Panama," one of six Cuban migrants told DIARIO DE CUBA, asking that his identity not be revealed. He said they would leave on the night of August 18.
These Cubans would face rough waters, crammed into small boats not apt for the high seas, and without any protection. According to the migrants interviewed, there are more than 100 Cubans willing to undertake the dangerous route.
On August 4 the Colombian National Navy’s Turbo Captaincy rescued Cuban migrants who had ended up on a beach in a jungle area of this municipality; 17 Cubans were saved, including three minors, one of them a Chilean national, of Cuban parents, Lieutenant Girón told the DDC.
In a town near Necoclí five Cuban migrants are under the protection of the Catholic Church, two of them relatives of a renowned Cuban priest in exile; for security reasons, they preferred to use aliases.
"Yasmina" had to leave Havana due to constant harassment by the authorities in response to her criticism of the Cuban government and because of her close relationship with an opponent of the regime. She and her husband sold their house on the island for $8,000. With this money they left Cuba in December 2019, bound for Suriname. There they were caught off guard by the pandemic and the closing of the borders.
"We paid $2,500 for airfare. We left my grandmother and little brother a little money, and the rest we used to spend a few months here. We worked for a year in Suriname. We only ate twice a day, to save money and continue our journey. But most of that money, which we saved with such sacrifice, went in payments to the police, and another part was stolen from us" along the way, she explained.
According to Yasmina, in Ecuador no one gave them work, so they had to ask for money to be able to communicate with their relatives abroad and get them to send funds.
"We had to buy three cell phones, because they were stolen from us. We were saved because I memorized the contact information of my relatives abroad," she added.
"Fidel" was a self-employed worker in Cuba. He left the island, tired of its corrupt inspectors.
"My brother worked for several years on a medical mission. With the money saved he would send us merchandise, and several times the inspectors would show up, and it was 100 or 200 pesos for each. There were weeks that there were two of them. One day, when I no longer had money, my merchandise was seized. Like all Cubans who emigrate, I had to sell off what little I had, which had cost me 20 years of work," he said.
A relative of his residing in the US has had to go into debt with loan sharks to be able to pay for his trip.
"They lend money to the Cuban migrant, but a relative abroad has to back him. You have to pay double, and they give you one year. And woe to he who does not pay. I know cases of Cubans whose mothers puts up their houses in Cuba for the loan sharks. There are people who have up to 10 properties in my country. Cuba is Communist for ordinary people, but for the state, it is capitalist," he said.
The charitable souls that welcome migrants
Monsignor Hugo Torres, bishop of the Catholic Church, perhaps the only entity that really cares about addressing the human drama of migration through Colombia's Urabá and Darién regions, constantly wanders the Necoclí piers providing basic care to migrants. He has become a spokesperson for them in the upper tiers of the Colombian Government.
After years, and some donations, Torres is getting closer to achieving his dream: to build a house to help migrants in Necoclí. According to the cleric, "it will be up and running soon."
"Initially, we will have offices where special cases will be handled, they will be given advice, a small kit of items, and first aid to undertake the journey through the Darien," he told DIARIO DE CUBA.
"Although this help is not much given the drama that these human beings are facing, it is somewhat comforting for them to feel that someone appreciates their reality," he added.
"There are tens of thousands of people who go into the jungle. Some of them lose their lives, are robbed, or cheated, and women are raped on the Panamanian side. Thus, a joint effort by civil society, the State and international organizations to address this crisis is urgent," he stated.
Finally, the bishop recognized that his work has little impact on migrants' suffering.
"I will not rest until we have a humanitarian bridge. Talks are already underway with Panamanian officials, who are very receptive to seeking a humanitarian solution," he said.
Alberto Lopera, a parish priest at the church in Necoclí, also hits the streets asking for help for the migrants. "A long line of migrants looking for help" passes through the rectory, and none of them leaves without a bag of food.
"It is necessary to recognize that Necocli´s merchants and citizens are always willing to offer help. Some of them share what little they have with migrants. People have come who contribute a pound of rice, and I know that, for them, that's a big sacrifice," said the priest.
Almost all of the 15,000 migrants who had been stranded in Necoclí until last week managed to leave. They must be arriving now in Panama City, only to receive the bad news that Costa Rica has closed its borders to migrants.
DIARIO DE CUBA was able to verify that the migration crisis in Darien has not been resolved. Far from it; scores of migrants can be seen walking along the roads leading to Necoclí. According to Alberto Lopera, around 1,000 migrants arrive at the Colombian port every day, and he estimated that, at the time of the interview, around 100 Cubans remained in the town, poised to continue their dangerous journey.