On the first day of her jungle journey, Erlinda Mendoza fell into a deep hole while climbing one of the many mud-slick mountains along the treacherous Darién Gap passage connecting South and Central America. Within seconds, her body sank into the heavy, stinky mud.
She began to panic. For 15 minutes, she was stuck.
“I saw death in Darién,” Mendoza said.
It was a rainy afternoon when her adult son, who was crossing the Darién with her, and a group of others managed to pull Mendoza out of the hole. They handed her a pair of boots.
She called them her angels. She cried. God, she believed, had given her a second chance.
Thousands of immigrants, mostly from Latin America and the Caribbean, risk their lives every year crossing a mountainous jungle between Colombia and Panama known as the Darién Gap on their way to the southern U.S. border.
In 2022, more than 250,000 immigrants crossed the Darién, according to Panamanian government statistics. Nearly two-thirds — 150,000 — were Venezuelans. Most of the rest came from Ecuador, Haiti or Cuba.
This year, the United Nations Human Rights Office said the number of people making the journey could soar to 400,000, a record figure that’s contributing to an escalating U.S. border crisis. The organization calculated that 1 in 5 was a child.
To help improve conditions in the countries that migrants are fleeing, President Joe Biden’s administration this year announced a plan to support economic opportunities and to stimulate private sector investments in Central America. Its goals include developing clean energy infrastructure and creating training programs for young adults.
But it’s unclear if these and other efforts will do enough in time to address the crush of migrants.
Michael Coon, associate professor of economics at the University of Tampa, said it can take decades to reduce migration through these strategies.
“In the short term, U.S. taxpayer dollars would be better invested in infrastructure at the southern border to create a humane, orderly process for migrants to enter the country legally,” said Coon. “This would substantially decrease the number of people crossing irregularly, decrease the wait time for asylum cases to be adjudicated and dramatically reduce the pressure on Border Patrol agents.”
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Under current conditions, however, hundreds of thousands of migrants are betting their lives on the Darién Gap.
“I definitely wouldn’t do it again”
Marcos Cedeno survived. A year ago, the Venezuelan husband and father walked the Darién from Ecuador, where he had been living for the previous four years, selling guanábana yogurts.
Cedeno left his native country, Venezuela, because of inflation and low salaries. He had struggled to make ends meet while working as a government employee in Maracaibo, the capital of Zulia state. Four years ago, inflation forced him to leave Venezuela for Ecuador. Now Ecuador is in crisis, so last year he decided to move to the U.S. to find a good job.
Cedeno used all of his savings, almost $3,500, to pay the “coyotes” who were supposed to help him on the journey. But they stranded him twice. They told him it would only be a three-day trip. He ended up in the jungle for 11 days.
In the dry season, which runs from December to April, the hostile journey takes about four to seven days on foot. During the rainy season from May to November, it can take more than 10 days, according to Marta Hurtado, spokesperson for the United Nations high commissioner for human rights.
“If I had known what I would experience, I would have stayed in Ecuador,” said Cedeno, 50. “I definitely wouldn’t do it again.”
Cedeno saw at least two people in his group die trying to cross the raging rivers. He also said that others were abandoned, victims of physical exhaustion or broken bones that prevented them from continuing.
One night, Cedeno and some others intervened when a mother, desperate to escape Darién’s grasp, nearly took the life of her 7-year-old daughter with a stone.
“I saw everything and went through everything,” said Cedeno.
He nearly lost his own life after he fell on the slope of a muddy mountain.
“I got stuck in the mud, couldn’t move, and thought it was my end. But a person from the area, who worked as a guide, helped me get out,” said Cedeno. He said the guy who saved his life was the only good man among the coyotes.
In August, Cedeno reached the U.S. southern border and applied for asylum, which allows him to temporarily live and work in the country. He is an apprentice electrician for a Tampa construction company, making $27 an hour. He lives in St. Petersburg.
He wants to legally bring his two sons from Venezuela to study and work in America, a process he can start after he becomes a permanent resident.
“Someday we’ll be together again,” Cedeno said.
“If we are alive, it’s a miracle”
Some people who migrated to the United States by crossing the Darién remember it as a horror movie.
One of them is Elba Dayana Fernández. She made the trek seven years ago along with her husband, Manuel, 35, and her younger sister, Darianna, 29. Together, they faced mud, rivers and smugglers across a 66-mile stretch of jungle terrain.
“For me, it was the worst nightmare of my life,” said Fernández.
Fernández didn’t know she was one month pregnant with her second child, Jordan, when she ventured into the jungle in 2016 from Ecuador, where she, her husband and her sister were living and working after having left Cuba because of rising prices, food shortages and a lack of jobs. With no future on the island, they were determined to start a new chapter in Ecuador.
This was during a time when the Ecuadorian government didn’t require Cubans to apply for a visa. She also didn’t know that their journey through Darién would take almost two weeks.
They each paid $1,200 to a Colombian coyote, expecting a guide, accommodation and a secure connection as part of the package. But she said they were deceived and stranded in the middle of the Darién, one of the wettest regions in the world, where temperatures can reach 95 degrees.
“We didn’t have boots to walk in the jungle, and when we crossed the first river, our skin got infected,” said Fernández. “It was terrible. We had no food; we drank water from the river. If we are alive, it’s a miracle.”
The Cuban family crossed a handful of hills, including one called the Loma de la Muerte, or the Hill of Death, following other groups of immigrants. The worst part of the journey, Fernández said, was watching a Haitian mother lose her 5-year-old son, who drowned in one of Darién’s rivers.
“She was carrying her 8-month-old baby and holding her child’s hand,” said Fernández. “But she lost her balance, and the river took her son away. That was horrifying.”
Fernández remembers her swollen and wounded feet. She thought it had been a mistake to cross the jungle and the Hill of Death.
“I was exhausted,” she said.
Around her, she saw many other immigrants giving up, and lying down without the strength to continue, watching their groups disappear along the way.
Fernández told her sister and husband that she couldn’t continue. But they reminded her that she had a son in Cuba who wanted to see his mother alive.
“It was my last attempt,” she said.
They walked for hours and days, following some little marks and small flags that occasionally other immigrants left in the trees to help each other. They saw the decomposing body of an adult man who had likely died many days earlier, covered by foliage. They saw a mother crying inconsolably on the side of the river when she found the body of her drowned son.
On the last day, they finally reached an Indigenous community, where they got some help, food and rest. It was a kind of heaven in the middle of a brutal jungle. From there, they waited until dark to walk across the border, joining others.
In Panama, they paid for a bus to Costa Rica, then crossed into Nicaragua and rode north on another bus to Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. They sought refuge through the border city of Laredo, Texas.
Five years ago, Fernández was able to reunite in Tampa with her eldest son, Chris, 7, and her mother, Sarahy Illas, 54, who were waiting in Cuba. Her sister, Darianna, is now the mother of a 3-year-old girl named Chloe. The family lives in Brandon.
“We suffered, but we are happy,” Fernández said. “There is nothing better than having the whole family together.”
They were allowed to apply for permanent residence a year and a day after coming to the U.S.
A deadly trap
Mendoza, 56, who was rescued from the mud by her adult son, left her native Venezuela in May 2022. Before making the journey north, she had been working as an assistant cook at a local hospital in the city of Maracaibo.
She met her son in Ecuador. They entered the jungle in early June. Their trek took eight days.
“We started with 17 people,” said Mendoza, who works in Land O’ Lakes as a caregiver. She is an asylum-seeker, a status that allows her to obtain work authorization in the U.S.
“By the end, only my son, two friends and a woman we met along the way remained,” Mendoza said.
Those who could not continue hoped to regain strength or join other groups. Some never made it out. One man who came with them during the journey had a heart attack and died while trying to cross a mountain known as la Llorona, or the Crying Woman. Another immigrant was attacked by a wild animal, believed to have been a jaguar, Mendoza said.
For her, the Darién Gap can be a deadly trap.
“That’s why I don’t recommend the jungle to anyone,” said Mendoza.
She also remembers slipping and stepping on a snake that could have bitten her. It was another miracle, she said, because many travelers were bitten by snakes that hid among the mud and vegetation.
Mendoza also heard from other immigrants about the harassment and sexual abuse they endured. She said they themselves were afraid until a group of 20 Haitians arrived and said they would kill anyone who tried to hurt them.
Mendoza and her group followed the Haitians into the mountains because they had machetes.
“For a while, we felt protected,” Mendoza said. “But thank God, we got out of that nightmare.”