Masses of Migrants Overwhelm Panama’s Darién Gap

Plastic mats and waterproof fabrics hanging from trees in the rivers of the indigenous territory.
Plastic mats and waterproof fabrics hanging from trees in the rivers of the indigenous territory.


  • Record numbers of migrants are punching through the remote heart of Emberá-Wounaan jungle territory

When thunder claps in this dense jungle, indigenous people living along the banks of once-pristine rivers now brace for floods that wash up mountains of sodden garbage and at times, the bodies of dead migrants.

The roadless Darién Gap was for centuries an almost impenetrable and pristine strip of land connecting what is now Panama and Colombia, inhabited by the indigenous Emberá and Wounaan people. Now, tens of thousands of migrants trek through each year on their way to the U.S., contaminating the local environment and deluging the small communities along the route.

Locals encounter decomposing bodies as they bathe or fish. Discarded plastics, tents and clothing clog paths and streams. Water long used by villagers for drinking now carries human excrement that community leaders say makes children sick. In addition, violent confrontations have flared between the communities, migrants and local authorities.

Crossings of migrants from Venezuela, Haiti, Ecuador and as far away as Africa or China could hit a record of 400,000 this year, according to United Nations estimates, whereas the indigenous territory has a population of about 10,000. More than half a million migrants have crossed the jungle since 2021, including more than 183,000 so far this year, according to Panama’s government.

Many descend on hamlets of no more than 400 people which have no sanitation or running water, said Leonides Cunampia, the chief of the Emberá-Wounaan semiautonomous territory in the Darién Gap.

He and migration authorities say that dozens of migrants have been swept away by treacherous currents during their 70-mile trek across the jungle.

He said he used to spear tapirs, deer and rabbits, but those animals are now hard to find near migrant paths. Instead, “it’s common to find decomposing bodies of migrants who died during the journey."

“The situation is worsening," Cunampia said. “I feel that our culture and way of life are at risk."

The life of the Emberá revolves around the rivers, which provide transport, commerce and fishing. Children play on the banks, while parents bathe or brush their teeth, and women wash dishes and clothes. These days, the rivers are laden with canoes with outboard motors ferrying migrants.

Residents and healthcare workers say the water is becoming unsuitable for consumption, threatening the health of communities. Vomiting, diarrhea and skin infections have increased among indigenous children as migrants relieve themselves in waterways and plastic litter piles up along the banks and in the hamlets which are among the poorest in Panama, they say.

Some villages are covered with garbage that migrants leave behind, and the migrants don’t make an effort to pick up their trash, said Samira Gozaine, the head of Panama’s migration agency.

The magnitude of the problem was documented last year by the U.N. in a report that included images of a “cemetery" of rubber boots discarded by migrants as they arrived in the village of Canaán on the banks of the Membrillo River. Unicef showed piles of flashlights, with batteries that can pollute hundreds of gallons of water, camping stoves, gas canisters and waterproof fabrics hanging from trees in tatters.

“At times we crossed rivers with water up to our chests, so we had no choice but to discard clothes, blankets, mats and towels, which became really heavy," said María Durán, a Venezuelan hairdresser who arrived in Canaán in early June. Her clothes were wet and mud-stained, her feet covered with blisters from the boots.

There is an economic benefit to the wave of migration, especially in the small communities that function as an entry point into Panama after migrants cross the jungle.

In Bajo Chiquito, a hamlet on the banks of the crystalline Tuquesa River, it costs $1.50 to charge a cellphone and $5 a day per person for rudimentary accommodations.

Ernelio Mezúa set up a shoe and clothing stand in Bajo Chiquito about two months ago. The 20-year-old said most migrants need new shoes after crossing the jungle. “On a good day, you can sell 30 pairs for about $4 each," he said.

Along the Tuquesa, four communities share the money from ferrying migrants, rotating their fleets of canoes. Each carries 15 migrants seated in single file and clad in life vests. Community leaders charge a $5 tax per canoe trip.

“We’ve never seen such an exuberant economy," said Daniel Bacorizo, an Emberá who started working five months ago punting canoes through shallow waters.

In Bajo Chiquito, the tax revenue has been used to expand the school and buy construction materials. The traditional thatched “tambo" huts are giving way to brick houses with tin roofs.

Despite the commerce, the communities remained overwhelmed in many ways. Providing care and medicine for so many migrants is challenging, said Dr. Castalia Ramírez of the Canaán health center.

“If 100 migrants arrive in the community, 99% of the consultations are for them. Many require immediate attention for diarrhea, gastrointestinal infection or vomiting," she said. For locals, “medicines run out due to the urgent needs of migrants."

Many indigenous households have abandoned plots of land used for cultivation that help sustain the vibrancy of the local ecology. Some teenagers have dropped out of school, lured by the lucrative business of transporting migrants or selling them food and supplies.

“Easy money can be destructive over the long term. You can see the abandoned crops. Agriculture is part of the culture of the jungle, which is like a market for us where everything is useful," Cunampia said. “The greater the greed, the greater the pressure on a forest that’s suffocating."

Violence has also flared up as migrant flows have surged. Dozens of Emberá have been involved in robberies and sexual assaults against migrants as traditional governance weakens and many young people join criminal gangs, Cunampia, migrant aid workers and Panama government officials say.

More than 90 migrants have reported sexual assaults and some 400 of being robbed in the jungle since 2022, according to government data. Foreign aid organizations say the number is significantly higher because many migrants don’t report incidents to authorities.

Panamanian authorities said that they have recovered 30 bodies of migrants from the jungle this year, after recovering 60 in 2022. They said most of them were victims of attacks or accidents.

Foreign aid workers said the actual death toll is significantly higher, based on reports from migrants who have seen corpses along the pathway. Migrants said fellow travelers have fallen from cliffs or drowned in the rivers. Others get stuck in the jungle with injuries such as broken ankles or infected feet that prevent them from walking. Authorities said that in some cases bandits and smugglers dump bodies along the route.

“The humanitarian consequences can be similar to those of an armed conflict: missing people, death, attacks and sexual assaults against migrants," said Óscar Chávez, chief of operations of the International Committee of the Red Cross for Panama and the Caribbean.

Some indigenous leaders have sought to create new, safer overland routes for migrants, only to come into conflict with Senafront, Panama’s militarized National Border Service, which is tasked with fighting organized crime in the Darién Gap.

Indigenous leaders complain that the government allows the transport of migrants by canoe, but prosecutes efforts to provide safer paths for them overland.

Gozaine, Panama’s migration chief, said in response to the complaints that the government allows canoe transport because it can’t just leave the migrants stranded. But she added, “We’re not going to allow new pathways to be opened in the jungle because ultimately it’s organized crime that benefits."

In March, Cunampia sent a group of scouts upriver to explore alternative routes. They came across six bodies and piles of trash around the riverhead, said Evilio Guaceruca, the deputy chief of the indigenous territory who led the tour in March as he showed several photos, including one of a skeleton in an abandoned tent.

Panama authorities have charged six of the scouts from Guaceruca’s group with human smuggling after they were caught opening a new path away from the river communities. All of them belonged to the indigenous security team from the riverside hamlet of Marragantí. They deny wrongdoing and are facing trial.

“Government officials are in their offices with air conditioning, while in the communities we have to deal with what the river current brings," said Elvis Isaramá, one of the accused scouts. In late May, two bodies floated down the river and washed up on Marragantí banks, he said.

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