Rosmary González packed cans of tuna, cookies, diapers, hydration solution, some clothes and the children’s favorite toys.
Although the bags were full, she found a place in her son Samuel’s backpack to keep her lawyer’s ring and the seal she used to certify legal documents in her country.Venezuela
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Samuel was 4 years old. Since he was the youngest of his six children, Rosmary would carry the boy’s backpack on the journey to the United States.
When she settled in Bogotá shortly before the pandemic, along with her husband José and the children, Rosmary kept the ring and seal in a drawer to start from scratch, this time as a kitchen helper.
After being fired during the confinement and avoiding a year without a job, José proposed to his wife to cross the Darién Gap, the intricate tropical jungle that separates Colombia from Panama. Then they would cross Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico, to finally enter the United States through the land border.
The Panamanian immigration authorities calculate that 211,355 people crossed the Darién between January and October 2022, a number never seen before, much higher than the 133,000 registered in 2021.
Seven out of ten were Venezuelans, and more than 32,000 were minors, according to Unicef.
Rosmary tells BBC Mundo that she did not want to leave Colombia, but she would do what was necessary to make José feel better. He didn’t bother to inquire about the rigors of the tour. Her husband would take care of everything.
José Quiróz was a captain in the Venezuelan merchant marine. Although military discipline dictated that he should obey without question, he publicly complained about shortages that forced them to stand in long lines to buy food in Valencia, an industrial city two hours from Caracas.
When their superiors warned that they would be punished if they did not keep quiet, José and Rosmary made the decision to emigrate from Venezuela.
More than seven million people have fled or emigrated from Venezuela over the past seven years, an exodus second only to the refugee population that has fled the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
welcome to the border
The couple was part of a group of 26 people who left Bogotá: the eldest son, 23 years old, with his wife and their daughter Adriana, who was close to turning one year old. The second son of 22, and the minors of 16, 8, 6. And the youngest, Samuel, of 4. They were accompanied by a brother of Rosmary with his wife and their young son, other nephews and a family friend.
The group took a boat in the port of Necoclí and disembarked in Acandí, the Colombian municipality on the border with Panama, north of the department of Chocó.
Other migrants estimated that they could reach the northern edge of the jungle in less than a week. However, Rosmary and José prepared to take a slow route, but one that was safer and more comfortable for the children.
The Colombian guides showed them the way until they came to a sign that said: “Welcome to the Panama border.” From there, they would advance on their own.
always the river
The coyotes advised, according to Rosmary’s account, to carefully go down the muddy slopes and look for the river, always the river. Then they could orient themselves with the blue bags and the rags tied to the trees, the traces that other guides and migrants left for those who followed in their footsteps.
When Samuel complained that his feet hurt, his mother would pick him up. Busy trying to get a firm footing on the mired tree roots, Rosmary saw a group of men dressed in field uniforms.
He thought it was the Panamanian guard, until the men came over and drew pistols. They turned out to be indigenous people who controlled that sector of the jungle. They ordered the Venezuelan migrants, and a group of Haitians who were going through the same stretch, to gather on the hillside and hand over all the money.
“They yelled at the Haitians: ‘Money, money!‘. And for them to hand over the cell phones they were told: ‘High-end'”, recalls Rosmary.
José, his eldest son and Rosmary’s brother handed over the cash. “Keep walking!” the men ordered.
A few meters later, the group was again intercepted by indigenous people dressed as soldiers. Rosmary was sure it was the same group of raiders.
Although she was afraid, she decided to confront the man who was pointing a gun at her: “What are we going to give you if they already stole everything from us?” she said. “We are Venezuelans, they already took the little money we brought with us.”
The men snatched the backpacks. When they were opened and turned over, the cans of tuna, crackers, and oral rehydration fluids spilled out. Adriana, Rosmary’s granddaughter who was less than a year old, had her nappies soak up brown water from a puddle, she recalls.
The men returned the almost empty backpacks and ordered the migrants to keep walking.
They were intercepted for the third time the next day, says Rosmary. The head of that group insulted them, cursed them. He ordered them to sit with their heads bowed. They had to give up everything they had. Rixio, Rosmary’s 16-year-old son, began to cry.
The man kicked the teen and was unable to stop. “Learn to be a fucking man!” he yelled as he dug his boots into Rixio’s legs and torso over and over again, Rosmary assures.
Another of the men took Adriana, the baby of less than a year, and put the barrel of the gun in her mouth to force them to hand over the money.
Rosmary raised her hands in surrender, begged the man to stop beating her son. He explained that he had taken everything from them the day before. “Leave my granddaughter, please. We don’t have money.”
The family friend who was with them confessed that she had $200 in folded bills that she had managed to hide during previous robberies.
The head of the assailants suspected that there might be more money. He wrested Samuel’s bag from Rosmary and found the ring and seal.
-What is this? he asked angrily, Rosmary recalls.
“It’s my grade ring and seal, do you want it?” She,” she replied, willing to say whatever was necessary to dissuade him from shooting if she assumed she had lied to him.
The man put the ring in his pocket, but couldn’t find what to do with the seal.
“Destroy it if you want,” Rosmary suggested. “But don’t hurt the children.”
The man dropped the seal and stomped on it until it broke and sank into the ground.
Now they get up and walk. Or rather, start running —the man threatened —If you don’t run, we’re going to shoot you, says Rosmary.
This time the assailants appropriated the bags. “We ran into the bush. We were afraid that they would shoot us in the back,” he recalls.
The sixth day of the journey presented them with a new test: overcoming the high current of the river.
José recommended his wife to cross alone; he would take care of Samuel and another nephew. A group of Haitians passed first. Rosmary plunged into the river, but the current was so strong that he returned to the bank. Another migrant from Caracas suggested making a chain, holding each other’s hands to support each other as they crossed.
Rosmary’s brother was in the lead, followed by the Haitians and by her, who took the hand of the friend who had handed over the $200. Behind came José with Samuel and a nephew.
When they were in the middle of the river, at the same distance from one bank to the other, Rosmary remembers that she asked the migrants who had already crossed for help. A young Haitian man came to her aid, while the friend behind her let go of José’s hand.
He says that the stones crashed against his ankles. Slipping on the rocks, he felt that he lacked the strength to get out. Other migrants took her by the arm, while she held the hand of her friend.
Rosmary reached the other shore and dropped to the ground. When he turned to look for José and Samuel, he only caught sight of the brown flow of the river.
“I started asking where they were. The Haitians didn’t want to tell me, until a woman put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Calm down, calm down, your husband and son were taken away by the river.'”
Six people from that chain had disappeared.
“At that moment everything collapsed. What a great desperation!” says Rosmary. “I started screaming for them to help me, my brother jumped into the river and saw José with his feet up, while he was dragged by the river. He couldn’t see the children.”
“I got down on my knees and started crying. Then the Haitians picked me up and said, ‘Come on, let’s keep going, don’t collapse.'” That afternoon, the group managed to reach the Lajas Blancas camp.
Rosmary felt unable to decide what to do with the rest of her family. “I am hypertensive and have heart problems. Every day I asked God to give me the strength to carry on and finish getting my children out of there.”
Two days later, the authorities notified Rosmary that they had found Samuel’s body. She didn’t dare admit it.
After spending two weeks in the shelter, waiting for the authorities to find José’s body, Rosmary left the jungle. The plan to reach the United States without her husband seemed unfeasible, so she decided to settle in Panama.
“It hasn’t been easy raising my children alone,” she says in a phone call from La Chorrera, a town 37 kilometers from Panama City. “Whoever has sustained me here has been God.”
José and his nephew never showed up.
I am Jack Morton and I work in 24 News Recorder. I mostly cover world news and I have also authored 24 news recorder. I find this work highly interesting and it allows me to keep up with current events happening around the world.