NECOCLI, Colombia — In a bustling line of migrants, Edouanier Simon wraps up his family's possessions in black trash bags and seals them with adhesive tape.
He’s been waiting for 24 days in the northwestern Colombian town of Necoclí to cross the Gulf of Urabá by boat, the first step in a journey with his wife and three children through the perilous jungle of the Darien Gap.
After nine years in Brazil, the 40-year-old Haitian says he decided to try to reach the United States after he began to receive death threats from his Brazilian co-workers on the construction site where he worked. Reports that some Haitians are being returned when they reach the U.S. border will not deter him.
“I'll start to worry after I get there if they try to send me and my family back,” said Simon. “I’ve seen some are being deported. But some still get in.”
Simon, his wife, and their children, aged 2, 11 and 14, were preparing to board a ferry this week to get to Acandí on the other side of the Gulf, where they would begin their trek through the Darien jungle to reach Panama.
Edouanier Simon and his youngest son walk to the boat that will take them across the Gulf of Urabá where they will begin a trek through the Darien Gap. Steven Grattan for VICE World News.
This is one of the most treacherous frontiers on the clandestine route to the United States. Migrants must place their lives in the hands of local guides—known as coyotes—who charge between $50-$100 a person for the trip across the no-man’s land where reports of rape and robbery are frequent. It can take up to a week for migrants to arrive in Panama, depending on the route they take.
Simon thinks his journey through the jungle will take only a couple of days. “You need to have faith in God, because there are no doctors in there or anything,” Simon said of the Darien passage, holding the hand of his toddler son.
The longtime plight of Haitians seeking to reach the U.S. burst into public view a couple of weeks ago when thousands of Haitians arrived at the Texas border town of Del Rio to ask for asylum. The U.S. government moved quickly to break up the Haitians' makeshift camp.
Although some 5,400 Haitians from the camp have been placed on deportation flights, many more were allowed to remain in the United States. Alejandro Mayorkas, the secretary of Homeland Security, said on Sunday that 13,000 Haitians were in immigration proceedings in the U.S. The deportation flights have continued all week.
“Haitian migrants are suffering gross rights violations across the region,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “This should be the time for governments to be supportive of Haitian migrants and ensure they are not sent back to danger. But we are seeing exactly the opposite.”
The report that many of those camped on the Rio Grande managed to reach the United States provided the sort of hope that drives the steady flow of migrants preparing to leave this point in South America. Necoclí’s population of 20,000 has swelled to almost double the size as migrants are stuck, waiting for their turn to board a boat across the water.
Some have money to stay at hotels, like Simon and his family, who saved $7,000 for the trip. Others sleep on the beach in tents, hammocks, or on the street.
Colombian migration authorities estimate that around 1,000 migrants arrive each day, but a recent agreement between the Colombian and Panamanian governments limits daily crossings to 500 people.
The migrants’ desperation offers a chance to make a quick profit in this far-flung town. Boat operators charge migrants about $41 for the crossing, double what locals and tourists pay, VICE World News found.
The spike in migrants heading north from South America has taken authorities by surprise. At the UN General Assembly last week, Panama’s president said that more than 80,000 migrants have passed through the country so far this year.
“To understand how dramatic the situation is: Panama went from receiving 800 migrants in January of this year to 30,000 last month,” President Laurentino Cortizo said.
Most of those in Necoclí this week were Haitian, but every day the buses also drop off migrants from Cuba, Venezuela, and African countries, all hoping to head north.
Many of the Haitian migrants were coming from Brazil and Chile, where the recessions caused by the coronavirus pandemic dried up work opportunities and intensified discrimination against newcomers.
Simon said that as wages stagnated and taxes rose in Brazil, his co-workers on the construction site turned their anger on immigrants.
Steeven Pierre, 24, left Haiti for Chile four years ago to escape the violence against young people there. In Chile he was able to study graphic and website design, but he ran up against racism. “I wasn’t given the same opportunities,” he said, recalling the racist insults he endured.
With travel restrictions loosening as COVID-19 infections fell, migrants decided to move on again.
Preparing to embark on the trip through the Darien Gap this week, Pierre said he had heard harrowing stories of the trip over WhatsApp from friends who said they saw a dead body on their path. “Obviously this scared me, but I’m here and the choice I have is to look for a better life, or die.”
Pierre, who was traveling alone, has also heard from friends who were deported back to Haiti when they reached the United States. “They went through a lot of tragedy to get there,” Pierre said from the makeshift hotel where he was sharing a room with six others. “I’ve been thinking that perhaps I should wait a bit more when in Mexico before trying to enter the U.S.
“Because if I go now, the same could happen to me.”
The strong sea breeze carries the stench of rotting garbage through the humid streets of Necoclí city center where the migrants cluster. The scent of Haitian delicacies cooked by women migrants on the seafront promenade mixes with that of the unwashed bodies of those who have slept for weeks in tents or hammocks on the beach.
Those who can afford to make the trip must pack for the danger ahead: plastic coats to keep them dry, head flashlights, and small bottles of creolin disinfectant, believed to ward off snakes from entering the tents that are sold at stalls all over Necoclí.
For food, they pack crackers, sugar, cartons of UHT milk, and instant noodles. Many have small fold-away gas burners for cooking.
Manguenlove Bellgarde has been living in a small room with his wife and two children for the last three weeks, waiting to start the trip across the Darien Gap for the US-Mexico border. Steven Grattan for VICE World News.
Haitian Manguenlove Bellegarde is looking ahead to his own trip. For over three weeks, he and his wife have been living in a small room with two young children.
Bellegarde, 33, left Haiti when he was a teenager for the Dominican Republic and then traveled to Chile in 2014. But life started to change for him and his family when Chilean President Sebastián Piñera took office in 2017. A new immigration law that was approved last year tightened restrictions on migrants and limited their rights.“Things took a 180-degree turn when he came to power,” Bellegarde said.
His Dominican partner, Julissa Familia, 26, said she has heard people speaking of death, robbery, and rape in the Darien Gap, but the recent reports of deportations at the U.S. border are a new worry.
“We’re risking all we have on this… I’m scared they could send us back straightaway,” said Familia. “I’m not scared of any job; I’ll do whatever I need to get by and build a life for my children.”
A coyote leader who asked not to be named for fear of reprisal told VICE World News that the claims of rape and robbery are true, and that it sometimes happens in front of his guides, who are usually very young men.
“Guides have been tied up… if there are good-looking women, they’ve raped them,” he said, unable to confirm who the bandits are but noting “they have guns.”
Back at Necoclí’s dock, Simon and his family are finally boarding the ferry, after a six-hour wait under the sun.
“I hope that when I get there, all this issue of deportations will have stopped,” Simon said. We’re going to work hard in the U.S. and they’ll see why they should let us in.”