By Calah Schlabach/Cronkite Borderlands Project
LA PEÑITA, Panama — Tsheve Joseph Mundeke watched his 9-year-old daughter, Carla Elizabeth, collapse into the dirt at the edge of the road, exhausted. They were only a few miles from their next stop, the village of La Peñita, but after a weeklong trek through Panama’s Darién Gap – considered the most dangerous jungle in the world – they had to take a break.
Dust stuck to Elizabeth’s sweaty skin as SENAFRONT, Panama’s border patrol, bumped by in Jeeps. In Bajo Chiquito, the village she and her father had left a few hours earlier, a group of 100 migrants were boarding boats for an easier trip upriver to La Peñita, which is near the border with Colombia. But the Mundekes’ group had been robbed in the jungle and didn’t have the $25 each to pay the indigenous villagers who shuttle migrants between camps in long, thin motor boats.
Tsheve and Elizabeth opted to walk with the group Tsheve said he now considers family.
Panama is the latest step in the Mundekes’ journey, which started in the Democratic Republic of Congo more than four years ago. The father and daughter are not alone in undertaking journeys of thousands of miles from their home countries, first to South America and then through Central America in hopes of reaching the U.S. In 2019, more than 22,000 migrants from more than 60 countries braved the Darién Gap to cross into Panama from Colombia, according to SENAFRONT and Panama’s National Migration Service.
Oriel Ortega Benitez, director general of the border patrol, described the evolution of what Panamanians call “irregular migration” in the region, which he said started increasing in 2011 due to a complex series of causes, including tightening immigration laws and labor markets in countries to the north and south of Panama.
Instead of trying to enter the United States or Mexico directly, which is increasingly more difficult, some migrants now begin in South America and make the long, arduous journey over land. Others were already in South American countries, lured by jobs and lax visa requirements, both of which have begun to disappear.
“Historically, we had migration flows that never exceeded 300 to 400 people each year and only from South America and very little from Central America,” Ortega said. “We have started to see an increase in migrants from African countries and Asia. From 2014 until now, migration flows have been massive, including Cuban and African people.”
Panama has become a transit country for migrants from around the world fleeing violence, poverty and prejudice, most trying to reach the U.S., Canada and, increasingly, Mexico. For many migrants, Panama is their first encounter with the U.S. immigration system, which is working with Panama’s border patrol to track entrants.