Migrants face perilous passage through Panama in hopes of reaching US

Screenshots from videos taken by Antonio V., our Angolan Observer, during migrants' journey through Panama.
Screenshots from videos taken by Antonio V., our Angolan Observer, during migrants' journey through Panama.

Thousands of migrants travel through Central America each year in a bid to reach the United States. Antonio V., who left Angola in February, spoke to the Observers about his journey across Panama, where he encountered armed bandits, venomous snakes and roads littered with the bodies of those who didn’t make it.

More than 10,000 migrants crossed into Panama illegally from Colombia between January and May of this year, according to Panama’s national migration agency. Around 6,100 were from the Caribbean, primarily from Haiti and Cuba, roughly 2,400 hailed from Africa and around 1,800 from Asia.

"We came across a body that had been slashed early into our journey"

Antonio V., a member of the Seventh Day Light of the World church, said he left Angola to escape religious persecution. The Light of the World church, an offshoot of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, is considered a cult by authorities and was targeted by police during a 2015 raid that human rights activists say left 1,000 civilians dead.

Antonio V. and his family crossed into Namibia, where they boarded a plane to Havana, Cuba and then to Quito, Ecuador. He made his way to the Colombian border, which he crossed with the help of smugglers. In the port city of Turbo, he took a boat to Capurganá, located on the Panama border. That was where his journey turned into a nightmare, he said.

In Capurganá, a mafia-like gang run by a woman nicknamed "Mama Africa" charged each of us $125, or around €112, to take us across the Darién Gap and into Panama. [Editor’s note: Authorities have since arrested several members of this gang. Mama Africa appears at 3’42 in this report on the Spanish-language channel of France 24.]

Migrants stopped near Mama Africa’s home in Capurganá, Colombia, near the Panama border. (Video by Antonio V.)

The group resting near Capurganá, Colombia. (Video by Antonio V.)

A group of around 250 people began walking toward the forest. There were people from Mali, Cameroon, Senegal, Nepal and Eritrea. We soon came across a body that had been slashed. The journey was supposed to take three days, but after just a few hours, we reached a sign that said, “Welcome to Panama” and the gang left us there.

We had to continue the journey alone, traveling along forested paths for another two days. At one point, we came across Panamanian forest rangers. They told us how to get to a camp. It was close to the ocean and we were given food there. By that point, some of the travelers were exhausted and they decided to stop there.

The camp that Antonio V. stopped at was in Puerto Obaldía, a small town in Guna Yala province. It is one of many that migrants pass through in the Darien Gap.

A map of Antonio V.’s journey. Red indicates travel by plane, green travel across land and blue travel by boat.

The forest rangers whom Antonio V. met were likely border control agents, said Jorge Luis Ayala, an aid worker with Pastoral de Movilidad Humana, a Catholic organisation that provides aid to migrants.

The National Border Service, or Senafront, is the only agency that has the means to handle the influx of migrants. They are posted in several villages near the Colombian border and provide assistance. Normally, it's the National Migration Service that should handle it, but they don't have the means.

"We came upon four bandits, who killed a Congolese man"

Antonio V. said he left Puerto Obaldía the next morning, after being warned by border control agents that the road ahead was dangerous.

We saw several bodies along the path. One of the dead men was from Cameroon and had clearly been cut down with a machete. The blood from his wounds was still flowing. Then we saw the body of a Cuban man, who still had his papers on him. That scared us.

The next day, we had to climb what locals call the “mountains of the dead”. People told us that five people had died recently along this part of the route, including a pregnant woman. We were climbing for six hours, and there was lots of mud.

We then ran into four bandits carrying machetes and guns. They fired in the air and yelled at us to stop. There were about 40 or 50 of us at that point. They told us to give them everything we had. I gave them $100, or around €88, but they searched me and found $1,200, or around €1,050. A Congolese man tried to run and they shot and killed him. Our group started throwing stones at the bandits so they fired on us again. A Haitian man was hit in the back and two Congolese migrants were also wounded, including a boy who couldn’t have been more than 12 or 13 years old.

"A Congolese man died after being bitten by a snake"

A few hours later, we arrived at Bajo Chiquito in the Darien Gap, and the injured were taken to a hospital. We registered and were able to eat. But the only water we had was from the river, there was no medicine available and there were no showers or toilets so you just had to go out into the jungle. A Congolese man was bitten by a venomous snake while bathing in the river and died soon after.

We each had to pay three dollars, or around €2.60, o sleep in one of the homes on stilts. We ended up staying there for ten days because people told us the towns ahead of us were full.

A Congolese man who died from a snake bite was buried near Bajo Chiquito. (Video by Antonio V.)

"Migrants are traveling in the middle of the jungle"

Migrants often pay local indigenous residents to stay in their homes, Ayala said.

Many migrants say they would never have crossed the Darién Gap jungle if they had known what it would be like. They are traveling in the middle of the jungle, and around 80% of the province of Darién doesn’t have access to running water. Many communities don’t have health centres or schools. The migrants get only the most basic accommodation because that’s how the locals live.

Cuban migrants aboard a truck in Bajo Chiquito. (Video by Antonio V.)

Antonio V. said he and 16 other migrants eventually each paid a driver five dollars, or around €4.40, to take them to the capital. But the driver dropped them off after just 40 minutes in a camp, likely the one in Lajas Blancas.

We traveled another 2.5 hours on foot to Peñita, still in Darién. This time, aid organisations, including HIAS, helped us register and gave us food and sleeping mats. But we had to buy water and there were no toilets. Several children had diarrhea and many of them were pale. There was only one police officer there, who acted as a nurse.

There were already more than 1,000 people in the camp when we arrived and we were told that the camps for migrants in Costa Rica were full.

"Costa Rica only allows 50 to 100 people to cross the border every day"

Panama closed its southern border in 2016, after a sharp increase in the number of migrants entering the country illegally. The government set up camps to provide aid for those who continued to attempt to cross, but they were shuttered as the flow of migrants dwindled. Only the Peñita camp remains open, run by immigration officers and Senafront, said Mayteé Zachrisson, a spokeswoman for the International Organization for Migration in Panama.

People at least have a roof to sleep under there, but there is no access to drinking water, phone networks, internet, health centres or transportation.

Costa Rica only allows 50 to 100 people to cross its border each day. So the migrants are stuck in Panama until they are able to enter Costa Rica.

After two weeks in Peñita , Antonio V. was taken to the Los Planes de Gualaca camp in the neighbouring province of Chiriquí. He said there were more than 400 people there when he arrived.

The Los Planes de Gualaca camp in Chiriquí province. (Video by Antonio V.)

The Los Planes de Gualaca camp. (Video by Antonio V.)

Antonio V. entered Costa Rica two weeks later, after spending more than a month in Panama. He was finally able to enter Costa Rica after more than a month in Panama. He later arrived in Mexico, where he stayed for two months before reaching the United States in early June.

The France 24 Observers contacted Panama’s National Migration Service and the border agency Senafront but did not receive a response.

>> Read more on The Observers: From the Caribbean to the USA, via Brazil: an interminable migration route -- Part 1 and Part 2.

This article was written by Chloé Lauvergnier (@clauvergnier).