U.S.-bound migrants who attempt the 60-mile trek across the Darien Gap risk death at the hands of ruthless thieves and unforgiving elements in one of the planet's most treacherous jungles.
Murder, robbery, deadly torrential rains, and poisonous snakes abound in the remote pass on the border of Colombia and Panama. Recently, a half-dozen dazed and haggard men from Cuba and Haiti emerged from the gap and shared their experience on dramatic video captured by photojournalist Michael Yon.
Cuban man discusses murders he saw inside the Darien Gap. Michael Yon
“Many people were dead,” one Cuban, who did not give his name, said in halting English. “Sometimes the group sleeps, and the river [rises] up, and the people [die]."
"All glory is fleeting," read a tattoo on his chiseled torso. Just below it, a stallion etched in black ink galloped across his abdomen.
He recounted seeing a woman and her baby fatally shot by bandits and said eight people who set out with him died.
The robbers who prey on migrants working their way north through the Darien Gap overtake their victims on horseback and show no mercy, he said.
Migrants line up for services in a village outside the Darien Gap. Chuck Holton
“They take all the money. Many people say, ‘I don’t have money.’ They look in the bag and [say] ‘You have money!’" the man recalled.
Pointing his index finger like a gun, he grimly demonstrated what came next.
“Boom! That. It’s very bad,” he said with a grimace.
The man said he was robbed twice — once at gunpoint and another time by a knife-wielding thief.
Yon, a veteran war journalist, has documented what may be the most dangerous part of the journey many migrants make on their way to the U.S. border. The Darien Gap is of heightened interest not just because of the dangers that lurk within. It is also a preferred route for terrorists.
Earlier this year, two Yemeni men on the terrorism watchlist were arrested in San Diego. They had crossed through the Darien Gap as part of the record 1 million people surging the U.S. border this year.
Graphic shows the route used by Cubans migrating toward the U.S. through Panama's Darien Gap region. AP Photo
Once the migrants exit the thickest part of the jungle, they find a clearing where the village of Bajo Chiquito has created an industry of caring for the travelers and sending them on a three-hour canoe ride to a government camp.
There, a food kitchen and volunteer medical professionals from Doctors Without Borders await. Those who still have money can purchase clothing and other necessities. The Haitian men interviewed by Yon apparently were able to pick up supplies even though robbers took their money and clothes.
Haitian immigrants recuperate outside Darien Gap Michael Yon
Yon encountered them sitting on a railing. Their trip took 13 days, and two people in their group died, they said. Through an interpreter, one of the men described some of the horrors.
“[Robbers] had handguns and for four days, they were continuously robbed, [bandits] took their clothes, their shoes, whatever jewelry they had, whatever money — they took that," the interpreter said. "They’re only looking for a better life. They want to go to Florida and get jobs.”
Darien Gap terrain is mountainous, overgrown with massive foliage, and filled with poisonous insects and reptiles. Photojournalist Chuck Holton, who often travels with Yon, said part of the journey involves climbing an aptly named barrier on the journey called the “Mountain of Death."
The mountain is 2,000 feet high at a nearly 90-degree angle, and it’s like climbing a “ladder made of mud — people who fall often die,” Holton said. “It's several days into their trek, and many unfit people simply cannot make it. They are too far to turn back, so they die there.”
Sign for the village of Bajo Chiquito, which is next to Darien Gap Michael Yon
Holton recounted one example from talking to a Somali woman who made it into Bajo Chiquito.
“She said, ‘Man, there’s dead people everywhere, I saw all kinds of dead bodies. People fall off things. They drown, they get washed away, they die of dysentery, just everything,'” Holton said. “She said there were several people who couldn’t go any further, couldn’t walk. So they were just out there waiting to die.”
One woman who couldn’t scale the mountain of death was last seen waiting below for weeks, accepting food from other travelers, Holton said. Unable to forge ahead or turn back, "she is just sitting there waiting for God to take her,” Holton said.
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Original Author: Tori Richards