Global Migrants Brave Panama’s Vipers, Bats, Bandits to Reach U.S.

Sara Schaefer Munoz, Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2015

Ahmed Hassan staggered through dense Panamanian jungle, crazy with thirst, his rubber sandals sliding in the mud, fearing he would die thousands of miles from his homeland in Somalia.

“I told my family I would go to the U.S., that was the plan,” said the 26-year-old truck driver, who said he fled late last year when al-Shabaab militants took his village. He flew to Brazil and made a cross-continental bus trip to Colombia.

In March came his biggest test: crossing the Darien Gap that connects South America with Panama and Mr. Hassan’s ultimate goal, the U.S.

“There was no water. There were snakes,” he said in a small holding center in Metetí, north of the jungle, gashes and bites covering his legs under his traditional sarong. “I thought I might die in that jungle.”

Migrants go to extremes for new beginnings. Honduran families put children on northbound trains. Hundreds of Africans recently drowned braving the Mediterranean in an overcrowded boat. People cross the deadly Sonoran Desert to get from Mexico to Arizona.

The untamed Darien Gap has become a new route for travelers from as near as Cuba and as far as Nepal. The surge reflects the difficulty of entering the U.S. by traditional paths like arriving on a visa and overstaying, said Marc Rosenblum, a deputy director at the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank.

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The circuitous Panama route has become more attractive, say migration experts, thanks to the easing of visa and asylum requirements in some South American countries and an unwillingness by some governments on the route to carry out mass deportations.

That has opened the door to migrants arriving in South America by plane or cargo ship who head overland toward the isthmus from Brazil. Then, facing miles of dense, roadless jungle, they have a choice: cross on foot or pay gangs to ferry them around it on flimsy coastal-fishing boats.

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It isn’t clear how many make the journey, but the numbers recorded by Panama police are rising. In all of 2014, Panama processed 8,435 migrants, three-quarters of whom boarded boats in Colombia and came via the choppy waters along the isthmus, Panamanian authorities say.

In the first three months of 2015 alone, Panama processed about 3,800 migrants on the route, roughly 1,000 of whom came through the jungle.

Most migrants crossing through the jungle turn themselves in, knowing they can receive temporary refuge and be sent on their way if they pass criminal checks. Panama says it releases most, offering paperwork to apply for asylum or refugee status. Most slip away and continue north, police say.

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African migrants interviewed in Panama said they head to the U.S., rather than Europe, because they believe they are more likely to get a job and refuge there.

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Cubans, who say crossing the Florida Straits has become too tough, are the biggest group flowing across and around the isthmus. Others from far-off countries are also arriving in growing numbers: Panama processed 210 Somalis crossing the Darien this year through March, up from 60 in the year-earlier period.

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The ecologically rich but inhospitable area of roughly 8,000 square miles known as the Darien jungle has long tested those entering.

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The Darien is the only section of the Pan American Highway from Alaska to Argentina that has never been completed. The highway ends in the Panamanian hamlet of Yaviza and picks up about 50 miles later in northwestern Colombia. The rain-soaked terrain between is home to hundreds of rare species, including vipers and jaguars, and to bloodsucking bats and mosquitoes that can carry malaria.

“It’s one of the hottest and wettest places on the planet,” said Gen. Frank Abrego, head of Panama’s border police, “and these people who are crossing are not prepared.”

It is also home to the 57th Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a rebel group that takes a cut from human-smuggling outfits, locals and Panamanian authorities say. A drug-trafficking gang, the Urabeños, operates along the isthmus’s eastern neck.

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