BAJO CHIQUITO, Panama -- The long wooden boats packed with migrants in orange life jackets arrived one after another, pushed down the Tuquesa river by outboard motors. By day’s end, authorities had registered some 2,000 migrants at this remote riverside outpost on the edge of the Darien jungle that links Panama and Colombia.
Some had vague information — from relatives, social media, smugglers — about coming border policy changes by the United States government and were hustling to make it to that distant border.
On May 11, the United States government will end pandemic-related restrictions on people requesting asylum at the border — also known as Title 42, under which migrants have been expelled from the U.S. more than 2.8 million times since March 2020.
The uncertainty around what happens after the end of the restrictions, as well as the prospect of new limits on asylum, was fodder for migrant smugglers to create an unnecessary sense of urgency for people making decisions with imperfect information.
Fearing a rush of arrivals, U.S. officials have expanded legal pathways, urged would-be migrants to register before making the journey and proposed severely restricting asylum for people who travel through Mexico. They will deport those deemed not qualified with a five-year ban on reentry.
As migrants made the Darien crossing, there were no visible signs on either side that efforts the U.S., Panama and Colombia promised a month ago would stem migration at this bottleneck between regions. If anything, the flow seemed to have increased during a year already on a record pace.
María Chirino Sánchez, 34, left Venezuela one month earlier in a group of 10 relatives, including her husband, four children and dog Toby. Despite her job with a transportation company and her husband’s as a dental technician, they could not make ends meet.
At the urging of relatives in the U.S., they sold their house for $4,000 and set out, having heard that “they are not going to let us enter after (May) 11,” she said. They ran out of food and had to beg for crackers to feed their children before exiting the jungle. Like others, she said if she were sent back, she would not try this route again.
Chirino’s sentiment was nearly universal despite signs the well-trod route from Colombia has become more established than ever before. Venezuelans make up the largest group of those crossing Darien now, but AP journalists also saw Haitians, Chinese and Ecuadorians among others.
In Necocli, Colombia, between 1,000 and 1,200 migrants a day board boats that ferry them across a gulf to Acandi on the Colombian side of the Darien, according to local human rights authorities.
There, mototaxi drivers wait to zip them to the trailhead — a route that is now being paved.
Camps have cropped up early in the route where migrants can pitch their tents and buy provisions. For those with the means, porters can be hired.
The journey is punishing. Migrants hike for several days over mountains in dense jungle contending with biting insects, venomous snakes, torrential rains and mud-slicked mountain passes. Swollen rivers sweep away those who slip. Bandits rob and sexually assault migrants.
Still, nearly 250,000 people did it last year and the United Nations projects another 400,000 could attempt it this year.
Some migrants said they could just no longer sustain their families in their countries. They fled political instability, unemployment or crime.
Many fled Venezuela's political and economic crisis — now or years earlier — but others come from more distant countries.
Yu Tian traveled from Wuhan, China, to Hong Kong, and then to Ecuador where he boarded a bus to Colombia. “Hundreds of thousands are leaving China,” said the tourism guide turned migrant.
At the Ecuador-Colombia border, migrant trafficking groups recruit customers by telling them “right now you can go cross to the United States,” said Pedro de Velasco, a member of the KINO initiative, a binational nongovernmental organization at the U.S.-Mexico border, who traveled to the Ecuador-Colombia border to see why so many were arriving.
The smugglers charge $10,000, “but don't tell them they're going to be expelled,” he said.
In Panama, as 34-year-old Oriana Serra neared the end of her Darien crossing with her two teen children, several men with pistols blocked their path, stealing the last of their money.
So when the family arrived at the river bank where boat operators waited to carry migrants downriver, she had no way to pay. They started the long walk to Bajo Chiquito, but somehow became separated from her 14-year-old son. Hoping he arrived before her, she desperately searched for him among the arriving throngs.
At dusk, the boy finally arrived on a boat sent back upstream to look for him.
In Bajo Chiquito, migrants make their first registration with Panamanian authorities. Under the blazing tropical sun they pitch tents in any open space along the dirt streets or beside the river. Smoke from their wood fires hangs in the heavy humidity.
Children are everywhere, resting in tents, holding mothers' hands, riding fathers' shoulders. Migrants pause before setting out again the next day for camps farther downriver. From there, Panama buses them across the country to its border with Costa Rica where they will continue north through Central America and eventually to Mexico.
Mexican border cities are reporting increasing arrivals, many of whom are not waiting to see what happens after May 11. On Monday, U.S. Border Patrol Chief Raul Ortiz said that over the previous 72 hours, agents had made about 8,800 apprehensions per day — up from about 5,200 in March.
The U.S. government for months has encouraged migrants to register with their online application CBP One rather than make the dangerous and expensive journey to the border. If applicants appear eligible for asylum and can line up a financial sponsor in the U.S., they receive an appointment at the border for further screening.
Back in Bajo Chiquito, with six more countries still to be traversed, migrants struggled to digest the ordeal they survived. As physically brutal as the crossing was — some migrants arrived on stretchers — many said they would carry more lasting memories.
Ángel Garcés, a 28-year-old from Maracaibo, Venezuela remained shaken.
“If I had known it was like that, I wouldn’t come,” Garcés said. “Not just the physical exhaustion — what you see.” Garcés said he averted his eyes when he smelled a body alongside the trail. The remains of 36 migrants were recovered from the Darien last year, but the real death toll is believed to be significantly higher. In March, the Red Cross donated 100 tombs in a local cemetery for the bodies of those who perish.
Garcés said he would advise anyone considering the journey, “don’t come, look for another route, try to do it the legal way, because the Darien isn’t for just anyone.” __ AP journalists Iván Valencia in Acandi, Colombia, Eduardo Hernández in Bogota, Colombia and María Verza in Mexico City contributed to this report.