Extreme vulnerability: children crossing the Darién

Darien Jungle

According to figures from Migration Panama, 52,773 children and adolescents have already crossed the inhospitable Darién jungle in the first seven months of 2023, compared to the 10,407 children who passed through in the same period last year.

The majority of these children come from Venezuela, a country that is struggling to recover from one of the worst economic crises in modern history, followed by Haiti, the most unequal country in the Americas, and Ecuador which is experiencing acute levels of violence, among others. reasons, due to the increase in drug trafficking in that country.

Migration flows have changed

“Children and adolescents leave their homes due to a series of factors, ranging from poverty to the socioeconomic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the danger of violence related to criminal gangs, to natural disasters — which climate change aggravates—and the search for reunification with their families,” says Laurent Duvillier, UNICEF regional head of communications for Latin America and the Caribbean, in an exclusive interview with DW.

Migratory flows have changed in recent years, from the profile of the young man who left his country in search of better opportunities and livelihoods, to entire families moving throughout the region, highlights Duvillier. 

Many children do not leave the jungle alive

“Going with children is a pretty serious risk, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Don’t go through that jungle with children!” Marco Antonio Delahoz, a 33-year-old Venezuelan who is traveling with his family to the United States at the moment, tells DW. of the publication of this article. 

He goes with his two children, ages 4 years and 22 months, along with his 26-year-old wife and a brother-in-law. “I saw dead children in the jungle. Every time we advanced I could count the bodies among children, women and elderly people who were lying inside tents,” says Delahoz, who also said that his wife lost her toenails because of the restful humidity. in his rubber boots.

Dead along the way

This Venezuelan and his family passed through the Darien jungle less than a month ago, where, according to what he told DW, criminal groups charge $150 to enter the jungle. 

It took them 4 days to cross the 160 kilometers of jungle, where there is a lot of mud, steep mountains that “make the legs and knees fail,” Delahoz tells DW, while he assures that the worst part is the Panamanian one, because the terrain is downhill, unstable and has many muddy slides. That is where the dead are seen, he points out.

The families that enter the Darién jungle with children, fleeing violence and misery in their countries of origin, seek to first crown that wild and dangerous stretch, and then cross at least 5 countries until they reach the Mexican-American border. where the last part of their American dream almost culminated, making it to the country that, they hope, will give them the opportunities they did not have in their own country. 

The river takes them away

José Antonio Rodríguez, a 33-year-old Cuban, who managed to reach the United States with his family, tells DW that he saw a dead Haitian father with his daughter on the bank of the river that he had to cross in the Darien jungle and that was growing. every time it rains. No one helped them, he said, because there is so much psychological pressure and trauma suffered, “that what you want is to get out of there quickly.”

“That river is not deep, but it is very large, so it carries adults and children,” says Rodríguez with pain, who assures that, if he had to, he would never go through that jungle again, because not only did he experience difficulties and see people dead, but he was also robbed by criminal gangs on the Panamanian side, where he claims they also rape women.

This testimony is corroborated by Oswaldo David Cordero, 28 years old, who survived the jungle and is grateful that he did not have enough money to have taken his wife and two daughters, ages 5 and 3, with him, who stayed in Colombia. 

“I saw girls drowning with their mothers. I saw a mother with a dead nursing baby inside a tent. In fact, on one occasion, during a river flood, I saw a mother and her year-and-a-half-old girl drowning and something made me “He said I had to help them; I managed to get them both out, but I almost drowned too,” this young Venezuelan from Barquisimeto, who has been living in Arizona, United States for a few months, told DW.

Assault en “La Bestia”

Cordero also says that he was shot in the arm when he was on the Mexican train known as “The Beast.” It happened in the middle of an assault by criminal gangs that get on halfway to try to remove the supplies that this train transports. that goes to the border between Mexico and the United States, when suddenly shooting began. “Mexico was the toughest country. It is a very risky trip for the children, they go hungry, I saw too many things that I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” Cordero remarks.

Finally, he tells parents who are looking for a better future not to cross the Darién with their children: even if they want to do it for them, it is very dangerous, concludes Cordero from the United States where he tries to survive irregularly. 

This young father spent 4 and a half months walking from Colombia to Mexico, he felt hungry, he begged on the streets of Central America, because he left Darién with only 100 dollars of the 350 he brought for the entire journey. 

At least 600 children crossed the Darien alone in 2022

Although the majority of children and adolescents move with their families, the number of minors, without parents, who cross different borders in search of opportunities and protection, is increasing, Duvillier tells DW from Unicef. . 

“Children who cross alone may have been separated from their families along the way or may be trying to reunite with their parents or other relatives in the countries of arrival,” the spokesperson for the United Nations Children’s Fund highlights for DW.

For its part, Alianza por la Niñez, a Colombian civil society network, has called on the Colombian Government to coordinate with the Panamanian government institutionally, to address the issue of childhood that crosses this jungle route, where, apart from abandonment, there is presenting child sexual exploitation, says in an exclusive interview with DW Angélica Cuenca, Executive Secretary of the organization, who stated that unfortunately, “there are no binational teams responsible for the issue of childhood, addressing the urgency.” 

Under the control of violent groups

Carlos del Castillo, advisor on early childhood refugee and migrant issues at Sesame Workshop, compliments from Bogotá that the migratory situation exceeds the response capabilities in Necoclí (Colombia’s border with Panama), where early childhood boys and girls are arriving. They are already subjected to high levels of toxic stress and very worrying malnutrition, which, added to the protection risks, leaves them in a condition of extreme vulnerability in the face of crossing a jungle and beginning a transit through Central America.

“The terrifying thing about all this is that a large part of the migratory route is not governed (state), and remains under the control of violent groups, organized crime, human traffickers and corrupt officials,” Adam Isacson, director for the Defense Oversight Office in the Washington Office for Latin American Affairs WOLA, and stressed that he does not see the number of migrants – adults or children – going to decrease in the coming years, since the factors that push people to emigrate in those Conditions, from insecurity, economic needs and climate change, are worsening.