At 4:53 PM on January 12, 2010, a strong tremor shook the residents of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. The quake measured 7.3 on the Richter scale and claimed the lives of 316,000 people, with another 350,000 injured and more than 1.5 million left homeless. At the time, it was described as one of the worst human disasters in history.
That same year, the Brazilian government reported excellent economic growth figures.
In their search for employment, thousands of Haitians decided to make the journey to a land where they hoped to achieve opportunities that they could not find at home.
A couple of years later, when the closing ceremonies of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics were being held, the situation in Brazil had changed. The huge construction projects that were required to host these sporting events and the excessive demand for labor that accompanied them had come to an end. Migrants then cast their eyes on new vistas and took to the road again. This time, they wanted to get to the United States and — as so few have been able to realize — live their American dream.
Thousands of Haitians took to the road again, leaving behind countries such as Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia. From there they began their journey northward. Men, women, and children went from country to country, guided in many cases, by unscrupulous coyotes who transferred them through the only land route that exists between South America and North America – the Darién Gap.
But this was not just a Haitian migration. In 2013, Cuba removed its restrictions on leaving the country, increasing the flow of people to the United States.
The green wall
Many Cubans resumed their journey from Ecuador or Peru, setting out toward the Panamanian border, where they encountered Haitians.
This huge migratory flow grew even heavier and some countries, unable to manage it, chose to close their borders.
Panama tried to do the same on its border with Colombia, but a large part of the frontier between both countries is a jungle. Once the prohibitions were in place, migrants decided to hike the footpaths of the Darién Gap, opened last century by Colombians seeking refuge from the conflict that had broken out in their country.
The first migrants to cross into Panama recounted how some of their fellow travelers had been left behind along the way.
“More and more of them started arriving. In fact, over a single weekend 1,500 people entered Panama. This raised the alarm for us,” Cristian Hayer, director of Panama’s National Border Service (SENAFRONT, per its Spanish acronym) told Diálogo.
SENAFRONT agents patrolled the roadways, offering assistance. “In Panama, we estimate that 10 to 12 people died,” Hayer said.
Coyotes would tell travelers that their passage through the area would take two or three days. However, they would fail to explain that those who cross in that short amount of time are physically fit and used to that type of terrain. Pregnant women and families with children needed 10 to 15 days to make the journey.
In many places, the border between Panama and Colombia is located high in the mountains, in the middle of the jungle. This makes the route more difficult. Along the way the hikers, exhausted, their feet bleeding, would opt to leave their provisions and other belongings behind.
Some 20,000 people passed through those areas. “The trochas [footpaths] now look like highways… There are many shreds of shirts, shoes, and other things that they have left behind on the trail,” Hayer added. According to the figures published by newspapers at the time, 24,000 people entered the country along the land route in 2015. In response to the waves of migrants in 2016, the Panamanian government set up shelters where it provided aid to the travelers and conducted a census to identify them.
“Panama gave humanitarian aid to the migrants using its own resources. They received food and health services at the shelters, including the vaccinations required for continuing their journey, as many of them expressed that their intention was to cross the country, not to remain there,” Rodrigo García, secretary general of the National Commission on Human Trafficking, told Diálogo. His commission fights the crimes of sexual and labor exploitation in Panama. He also serves as the president of the Regional Coalition on Human Trafficking and the Illegal Trafficking of Immigrants.
“We have reached agreements with Costa Rica so that they would let 100 migrants per day go through. We let them through with vaccines and we do security checks with biometric registration,” the SENAFRONT director added.
Very few migrants are being held in custody at the few shelters that are open. The crisis has passed, for the time being. Panamanian authorities are resting easy, confident that they have provided the necessary assistance to the thousands who passed through their country seeking a better life, but who found only suffering and irretrievable losses.