Right after crossing the daunting Darien jungle, Gabriela takes a break at the San Vicente Migrant Reception Station on the Panamanian end of the perilous trek. Gabriela, a young Ecuadorian mother of four, unhurriedly explains she has to reach the United States to secure a better future for her three-year-old son Lucas, who suffers from a complex medical condition.
My son is special. I decided to leave Ecuador for him. I needed to look for an alternative for his well-being for when he is older, said Gabriela.
While Lucas remains in Ecuador with his father, Gabriela decided to migrate with her fifteen-year-old son and three Venezuelan friends. She saw on social networks that crossing from South to North America through the Darien gap wasn't so complicated. Believing this to be true, she packed her bags and took buses to Cali, Colombia, and then to Medellín and Necoclí, the last step before entering the jungle.
"We watched videos that made it look easy to get through the Darien jungle in just one day. Some friends had told me that I would get help, that there was no problem. When I was there (in the jungle) I cried, screamed, and regretted having come," says Gabriela with tears in her eyes as she repeats that she would never do it again.
Her dream soon turned into a horrible nightmare. In the middle of the jungle, her eldest son fell ill from lack of food and drinking water, with no choice but to continue on her way. Overcome with despair, she recounts that she entrusted herself to God, and with her song clinging, they crossed raging rivers and muddy ravines where countless migrants have died seeking a better life. When she raised turn around, she discovered she and her son had been left behind and were alone in the middle of the jungle.
"I was just praying for our lives. Amid my desperation, I heard voices calling my name. The friends with whom I had started the journey had sent people to look for me. We were close to reaching the other side," Gabriela recalls with a cracked voice.
With a thoughtful gesture, as if the jungle memories were invading her mind, Gabriela says she is alive by miracle and is thankful that her son is feeling better. She has not heard from her family in Ecuador since she went into the jungle.
Gabriela is one of the 15,000 Ecuadorians who have crossed the Panama-Colombia border irregularly between January and October 2022, forty times the number registered in 2021, according to information from the Panamanian government. The Ecuadorian is the second nationality crossing the Darien, only surpassed by the Venezuelan, which grew by an astonishing 5,160% (2,819 - 148,285) from 2021 to October 2022.
Gustavo Bejarano, his wife, and their three children are part of the thousands of Venezuelans who have decided to leave their country due to the complex social and economic situation.
We left there for the children. I want to see my children studying and going to bed with three meals daily. We don't have that now, said Gustavo.
After a month of traveling from Venezuela, and just a few days after crossing the Darien Gap, Gustavo and his family arrived in San José, Costa Rica, where they resorted to the goodwill of the peasants to get some money to allow them to continue on their way since in Darien they were robbed of the little resources they had.
Returning to Venezuela is not an option for Gustavo. "Over there, we have nothing, we have no one. The only person I had was my brother, but they killed him for not paying an extortion".
After risking their lives in the Darien, it is difficult to imagine anyone wanting to return, but this is not the case for Alejandra Mejías, a 28-year-old Venezuelan. She left Colombia, where she lived for four years, with her youngest son and her Colombian partner, with the idea of getting a better job in the United States to buy a house.
After crossing the Darien gap, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua and arriving in the municipality of Trojes in Honduras, Alejandra received the news that she could lose custody of two of her children who were in Medellin, Colombia, under the care of a friend. Now, without enough money to buy a plane ticket, this young mother desperately tries to return to avoid losing her children.
"I must return to Colombia no matter what. I can't lose my two children. Even if I have to cross the jungle again, I have to go back," insists Alejandra.
Likewise, Alejandra says she doesn't want to continue "because the entrance to that country is complicated," referring to the US announcement of a program that would allow 24,000 Venezuelans to enter the country if they request it remotely but closed the passage to those who try to irregularly enter the US by land. This decision left thousands of Venezuelan migrants, like Alejandra, adrift in Mexico and other Central American countries.
Recently, a federal judge prohibited the United States from continuing to expel migrants and asylum seekers to Mexico, a decision that may result in a significant increase in the number of irregular migrants crossing the Darien Gap, which, by October 2022, had already surpassed the total records of 2021 (211,355 and 133,726, respectively), reaching a new record.
Between uncertainty and hope, everything seems to indicate that migrants like Gabriela, Gustavo, and Alejandra will continue to risk their lives in the Darien jungle seeking to reach North America, in a tireless search to offer their loved ones opportunities and decent living conditions, which have proved elusive in their countries of origin.