In the darkness, the girl called out to her mother, her silhouette illuminated by the moon. The two had left their home in Venezuela a week before, bound for the US. To get there, however, they would have to cross a brutal jungle called Darién.
But in the chaos of the journey, the child lost its mother. To quell her fear, Sarah Cuauro, 6, began to sing. “The glory of God, giant and holy,” she whispered through her tears. “He carries me in his arms.”
A devastating combination of fallout from the pandemic, climate crisis, escalating conflicts and rising inflation is triggering a seismic shift in global migration. The UN says there are now at least 103 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.
In few places is this change more evident than on the so-called Tampon de Darién, a hostile, sparsely populated, roadless isthmus (land bridge) linking South and Central America. For decades it was considered so dangerous that only a few thousand dared to cross it each year. Today, there is a traffic jam there.
Since January, at least 215,000 people have traveled across Darien, double the number of last year and almost 20 times the annual average between 2010 and 2020.
The flood of migrants is fueling a growing political problem in the US, where 2.3 million people have been detained at the southern border this year, an unprecedented increase that puts intense pressure on President Joe Biden to stem the flow.
Migrants crossing the Darien are mostly Venezuelans, many worn down by years of economic calamity under authoritarian rule. At least 33,000 of the people who made the trip this year are children.
Some migrants come from extremely poor families. But many, like Sarah and her mother, Dayry Alexandra Cuauro, 36, a lawyer, were once middle-class and now, desperate for their country’s financial ruin, have decided to risk their lives in the jungle. Cuauro left Venezuela with his daughter by bus, taking passports, US$820 (R$4,384) in cash and a blessing from his mother.
To understand the journey, two New York Times journalists traversed the 110-kilometer Darién route in September and October, interviewing migrants, guides, police, community leaders and aid workers.
The route started in a coastal town in Colombia, passed through farms and indigenous communities, traversed a grueling mountain called the Hill of Death, and then meandered along several rivers before arriving at a government encampment in Panama.
the journey begins
The Darien jungle was once one of the most pristine rainforests in the world. Some parts were so inaccessible that when engineers built the Pan-American Highway in the 1930s, linking Alaska to Argentina, only one important section was left unfinished: a roadless piece of about 100 km called the Darién Cap.
Today, the most common route through the region begins in the Colombian town of Capurganá, where Sarah and her mother descended from speedboats advertising “responsible tourism” to a crowded dock. Men from a newly formed cooperative called Asotracap led the group to a walled compound, where they explained that the migrants would have guides who would take them through the first few days in the jungle for a fee of US$50 (R$267) to US$150 (R$ $802) per person.
Sarah and her mother were in a group with nine other people. Together, they delivered more than US$ 1,200 (R$ 6,422).
They were taken over half a dozen hills in a part of the forest inhabited by small communities. On the second day of the trip, Sarah and her mother passed a cluster of trees that hid a decomposing body in a tent. On the third, they reached a river, where locals charged US$10 (R$53) for a 90-second boat crossing. In the fourth, they camped in a town whose residents surrounded the place with wire, charging US$ 20 (R$ 106) per person to leave.
The next morning, just before they reached the imposing muddy mountain known as Death Hill, the two lost their way.
The break up
The mother had asked a friend she had made on the journey, Ángel García, 42, to help carry the girl. When they left Capurganá, Cuauro’s boots began to scrape against her skin, and her feet were so full of blisters and pus that she could barely walk.
García, who had left his 6-year-old son at home in Colombia, lifted Sarah onto his shoulders, constantly looking back for his mother. Finally, he turned around and she was gone.
That night Sarah slept in a tent with Garcia and two of her friends. The men coddled her but seemed terrified of her new responsibility. They had no idea where Sarah’s mother was or if she was hurt—or worse.
They had very little to eat and several more days of walking. They needed to get Sarah as quickly as possible to the end of the route, where they believed there would be authorities who could help her. They folded the tent. “And my mother?” the girl asked. “We’ll meet her on the way,” Garcia replied.
Moment of joy
On the eighth day of trekking through the jungle, Sarah and García arrived at a camp in a town that was the penultimate stop on the Darién.
Panamanian authorities set up a migration checkpoint in an effort to count the number of people crossing the forest. They separated Sarah from García, putting her in a back room with other children who had also lost their parents.
Sarah had been separated from her mother for three days. Hours passed.
And then, suddenly, Cuauro appeared, running into the room. The whole time she had been just a few hours late, desperately trying to catch up.
The joy, however, was short-lived. Like many Venezuelans, Cuauro left believing that if he made it through the jungle and across Central America and Mexico, the US would let her in.
Since Washington has no diplomatic relations with Caracas, it had no way of deporting Venezuelans back home. And in recent months the US has allowed thousands to enter the country and seek asylum. Word spread quickly, helping to propel a massive wave to the border. Now, however, the Biden administration is struggling to resolve an escalating humanitarian and political crisis.
Sarah and her mother left the Darién on October 10th. Two days later, the Department of Homeland Security announced that Venezuelans arriving at the southern US border would no longer be allowed to enter the country.
Instead, citing a pandemic health order from the Donald Trump administration, officials said the migrants would be sent back to Mexico. At the same time, a small number of Venezuelans — 24,000 people — would have legal entry if they applied from abroad and had a US sponsor.
Sponsors must be US citizens or meet other residency requirements and demonstrate the ability to financially support an immigrant for up to two years.
Cuauro was devastated. She had no sponsor and had spent all her money. She ended up in a shelter in Honduras with her daughter and a dozen other Venezuelan migrants. There, she waited for the family to raise enough money to buy tickets back home.
A sister of hers had arrived in Florida months earlier after turning herself in at the border and said she was racing to find someone to sponsor them in the new entry program before all the spots filled up.