Lesandra Martínez was halfway through her mango juice and 980-miles from home when she started to cry.
For the past seven months, the 27-year-old Cuban hairdresser and her two friends had braved thieves, endless rivers and crowded buses to get to this picture-perfect fishing village in northern Colombia.
Here, they were expecting to walk 20 minutes across the Panamanian border and continue their journey north. Instead, they discovered that Panama had become the latest country to close its borders to Cubans. If they wanted to follow their American Dream and avoid Panamanian authorities, local smugglers told them it would be a four-day hike through the Darien — which straddles parts of Colombia and Panama and is one of the hemisphere’s most dangerous jungles, teeming with criminal gangs and guerrillas.
“I’ve been on a river for 18 days — look at my feet,” Martínez said, showing a cellphone picture of swollen, bug-bitten ankles. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
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One of her traveling companions leaned across the table and grabbed her arm.
“We’ve crossed the entire Amazon, so there’s no way we can’t do this,” he said. “Finish your juice and let’s go.”
If the world were flipped upside down, the Darien would be the thinnest point of a hemispheric hourglass. As migrants from around the world pour into South America and begin making their way north, most have to squeeze through here. For the lucky ones with documents, it’s a simple walk over a small hill to get to the Panamanian checkpoint. For those evading the law, this is where they have to make tough decisions: punch into the jungle, brave the oceans or go home.
The Colombian Navy keeps track of the global flow that sweeps through the region. In one week alone, from March 25-30, they counted 721 “irregular” migrants from Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Somalia, Haiti, Nepal and Senegal. But almost half of them, 321, were from Cuba.
Fleeing the privations of the Communist island and drawn by U.S. policies that promise subsidies and automatic residency, Cubans are making the trek in droves. Since October 2014, some 75,000 Cubans have crossed the U.S. border, according to immigration data.
Claudio Gonzalez, a 22-year-old beekeeper from Santa Clara, Cuba, had spent three weeks making his way from Guyana overland to northern Colombia. He said there’s a growing fear that the U.S. will cut off the Cuban Adjustment Act that benefits people like him.
“Of course, we hope it will never end because it’s really our only option to get out of Cuba,” he said. “If the [U.S.] ended the policy, I don’t know where we would go.”
Just as the crush of migrants is redefining U.S. politics, it’s also having an impact throughout the Americas.
In November, Nicaragua closed its borders to Cubans after dozens broke through an immigration checkpoint. Managua’s decision had a domino effect, creating a backlog of Cubans in Costa Rica, which ultimately shut its border to new arrivals last month. And in recent days, Panama followed suit, saying it could no longer handle the influx of Cubans. It’s mulling airlifting more than 3,600 who are already in the country to Mexico so they can continue their journey to the United States.
FLIRTING WITH A CRISIS
While there are no signs of migrants backing up in Colombia yet, it’s not unlikely, said Naval Captain Juan Carlos Jiménez Howard, who oversees military forces in the Gulf of Urabá that fight drug traffic and migrant smuggling.
“We don’t have any contingency plans if that were to happen,” he said. “We don’t have the resources to handle it and the local mayors don’t have the capacity to provide emergency shelter.”
While migration flows are dictated by global forces, it’s local politicians who have to deal with the problem, he said.
“This is a situation that requires the attention of the entire region — from Cuba up to the United States,” he said. “We all need clear rules. Either we all open our borders or we all keep them shut.”
END OF AN ERA?
Panama’s border closing ended a fleeting golden period for Cuban migrants in Colombia.
Just a few months ago, Cubans had to hide from the law as they crossed this strategic nation. As a result, in the port city of Turbo, gang violence exploded as groups fought to take control of smuggling and housing networks, said Alejandro Abuchar, the city’s mayor.
“Many of the migrants were practically locked up in slums and put on boats without any regard for safety,” he said. “Many were abandoned along the river, many drowned and many were murdered in the jungles of the Darien.”
Working with immigration authorities, Abuchar helped promote a system where Cubans are given week-long passes to leave the country. That has allowed travelers to step out of the shadows, stay at legitimate hotels and use the regular boat service to head toward the border.
Nobody really knows who they were or where they were headed. Did they drown? Were they murdered? We just don't know.
Ebelio Cortéz, cemetery caretaker
But the recent Panamanian decision is forcing migrants back into the arms of smuggling gangs and, more importantly, forcing them back inland toward the jungle.
The Darien is one of the most inhospitable swaths of the Americas. Its swamps have infamously swallowed attempts to complete the Pan-American highway. And local authorities admit the region is beyond their control. It’s the haunt of at least two leftist guerrilla groups and assorted networks of drug and human traffickers.
Just how dangerous the trip can be is measured in the dozens of unmarked crypts at Turbo’s cemetery. Ebelio Cortéz, the graveyard’s caretaker for the last two decades, said some of the anonymous corpses he has laid to rest looked African and Asian.
“But nobody really knows who they were or where they were headed,” he said. “Did they drown? Were they murdered? We just don’t know.”
Just minutes after Martínez and her group arrived in Sapzurro wearing their tell-tale orange wristbands identifying them as undocumented migrants, they were approached by coyotes offering to take them across the border for $15 or $20.
Soon, a shirtless, tattooed man sidled up to them. He said anyone charging so little was certain to leave them abandoned in the jungle or worse.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “It’s four days of hard walking and it’s going to cost at least $140 or $200 per person.”
“If you don’t have that kind of money, you should just turn around and go home now,” he said.
NO TURNING BACK
For most Cubans who reach the edge of the Darien, desperation registers louder than fear. Many are deep in debt or have spent too much time and money to consider retreat. Martínez and her two companions had just over $100 between them at this stage.
“There’s no way we can do this,” she worried. “Nobody is going to take us through the jungle if we don’t have the money.”
Martínez’s journey began last June, when she and others tried to fly to Ecuador. Because it was one of the few nations in the Americas that didn’t require a visa, it was a popular starting point for Cubans heading north. Even so, Martínez was stopped at the airport and sent home. (Ecuador began requiring visas for Cubans in December.)
In November they tried again, this time flying into Guyana, which also doesn’t demand visas. On day three of their stay, at 9 a.m. in downtown Georgetown, they were robbed at gunpoint of all their documents and most of their money. They spent three months helping take care of a baby for room and board.
Their next stop was Brazil, where they spent another three months trying and failing to land jobs. Eventually they worked their way to the Amazon River and hopped a boat that made its way upstream the entire length of the gargantuan river and onto the Putumayo tributary. The last leg of the journey was spent in a dugout canoe over 18 days. When they landed in Puerto Asís, Colombia, they made their way overland to Turbo. And then it was onto a boat to Sapzurro.
After Martínez recounted their 2,400-mile journey she dried her eyes. She said she hoped to make it to Houston, Sarasota or Hialeah.
“All I can tell you is that we’re not going back to Cuba,” she said.
Within a few minutes, another small group of Cubans approached the table. They said they had found someone who might know someone who could take them across the Darien.
Martínez grabbed her bag, left her juice and walked toward the hills.