Flood of forlorn Venezuelans brave jungle crossing in Panama

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Kanaan Membrillo (Panama) (AFP) – Hundreds of Venezuelan migrants wade through knee-deep mud, some with limp, fighting the fatigue with their eyes on the price: hope for a new life in the United States.

With aching feet, injuries and battered spirits, several days after their ordeal – still far from halfway – they trudge in single file through the infamous Darien Jungle, which connects Colombia to Panama.

With a long journey through Central America and Mexico, the group of men, women and children, some babies, already have many horrors to tell.

And maybe it was all for nothing.

Last week, the United States announced that Venezuelans who arrive by land without travel documents will be returned to Mexico.

A Venezuelan migrant girl is helped by her mother as they arrive at the village of Canaan Membrillo in the Darien jungle
A Venezuelan migrant girl is helped by her mother as they arrive at the village of Canaan Membrillo in the Darien jungle Luis ACOSTA AFP

For Jesus Arias, 45, sometimes you have to “risk your life to have a future”.

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“But to be honest, I wouldn’t advise anyone to come through the jungle. It’s very hard,” he told AFP as he and others arrived at an indigenous settlement in Panama, Canaan Membrillo — one of several border checkpoints in the population of 575,000. hectares (1,420,900 acres) of jungle.

Arias arrived at Canaan Membrillo in a t-shirt and shorts worn by other men in the group after injuring his knee.

“We’re going anyway”

He undertook the journey knowing it was going to be tough because “there is no future in Venezuela. Every day it gets worse.”

He may have no choice but to return to the crisis-stricken country, plagued by violence, insecurity and a lack of essential services. According to the UN refugee agency, 6.8 million refugees and migrants have left Venezuela since 2014.

A Venezuelan migrant lies on the ground in the village of Canaan Membrillo
A Venezuelan migrant lies on the ground in the village of Canaan Membrillo Luis ACOSTA AFP

According to the US decree, only 24,000 Venezuelans applying under a humanitarian program will be granted entry.

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“We’re going anyway,” Arias said. “Even if we are stopped, eventually we will enter.”

The number of Venezuelans crossing the Darien River hit a record high in 2022 — about 133,000 between January and mid-October, according to Panamanian authorities.

For the entire past year it was 2,800.

Venezuelan Nelida Pantoja, 46, saw “a lot of dead people, a lot of mountains, a lot of rivers killing a lot of people… It was terrible,” she told AFP in Canaan Membrillo.

Venezuelan migrants arrive in the village of Canaan Membrillo
Venezuelan migrants arrive in the village of Canaan Membrillo Luis ACOSTA AFP

But like most of her fellow migrants, she vowed to “keep trying” until she gets to the United States.

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Darwin Vidal, 33, said he was struggling to gather the strength for what lay ahead: not only fighting rough terrain, but also being at the mercy of venomous snakes and other wild animals, as well as criminal groups.

“I got lost in the jungle with my family for three days. With my children we were too slow. We couldn’t keep up with the group, we fell behind and got lost for a scary time,” he said.

Rusbelis Serrano, 18, said she thought the worst was over.

A Venezuelan migrant girl's shoes are covered in mud after a journey through the Darien jungle
A Venezuelan migrant girl’s shoes are covered in mud after a journey through the Darien jungle Luis ACOSTA AFP

“My mother, my father, my brothers are waiting for me” in the United States, Serrano told AFP.

“I don’t have much left. I have to keep trying.”

Authorities in Panama say at least 100 people have died crossing the Darien since 2018, about half of them in 2021 — the deadliest year yet.

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