NECOCLÍ, Colombia — For decades, the Darién Gap, a roadless, lawless stretch of jungle linking South America to the north, was considered so dangerous that only a few thousand people a year were daring, or desperate, enough to try to cross it.
But the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic in South America was such that in the first nine months of this year, Panamanian officials say, an estimated 95,000 migrants, most of whom are Haitian, attempted the passage on their way to the United States.
They made the journey in shorts and flip-flops, their possessions stuffed in plastic bags, their babies in arms and their children by the hand. It’s uncertain how many made it — and how many didn’t. And yet tens of thousands more are gathered in Colombia, eager for their turn to try.
The migrants’ willingness to try to breach the notoriously dangerous land bridge connecting Colombia and Panama — long a deterrent to walking north — presents not only a looming humanitarian disaster among those making the trek, experts said, but also a potential immigration challenge for President Biden in the months to come.
The thousands of Haitians who crossed the border into Texas last month, jolting the town of Del Rio and thrusting the Biden administration into a crisis, were just the leading edge of a much larger movement of migrants heading for the jungle and then the United States. People who had fled their troubled Caribbean nation for places as far south as Chile and Brazil began moving north months ago, hoping they would be welcomed by President Biden.
“We very well could be on the precipice of a historic displacement of people in the Americas toward the United States,” said Dan Restrepo, the former national security adviser for Latin America under President Barack Obama. “When one of the most impenetrable stretches of jungle in the world is no longer stopping people, it underscores that political borders, however enforced, won’t either.”
The Darién, also known as the Isthmus of Panama, is a narrow swath of land dividing the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Parts are so inaccessible that when engineers built the Pan-American Highway in the 1930s, linking Alaska to Argentina, only one section was left unfinished. That piece — 66 roadless miles of turbulent rivers, rugged mountains and venomous snakes — became known as the Darién Gap. Today, the journey through the gap is made more perilous by a criminal group and human traffickers who control the region, often extorting and sometimes sexually assaulting migrants.
Now, Necoclí, a small Colombian tourist town just at the mouth of the passage, has become a staging ground for migrants hoping to cross. Thousands of families bide their time in hostels, or in tents along the beach. Hungry and running out of money, all are waiting for their turn to be ferried by boat to the edge of the forest.
“I’m afraid,” said Ruth Alix, 30, who was traveling with her husband, their daughter, Farline, 3, and their son, Vladensky, 6 months.
The number of migrants who have made the journey so far this year is more than triple the previous annual record set in 2016. At one time, Cubans made up the majority of migrants walking through the gap. Now, nearly all of the migrants are Haitians who settled in South America during better economic times, but who were among the first to lose jobs and homes when the pandemic hit.
As many as 1,000 migrants cross into Panama through Darién every day, said Panama’s foreign minister, Erika Mouynes, an influx that has pushed border infrastructure to the brink. Her government has tried to provide food and medical care to those who survive the jungle passage, she said, but officials cannot keep up with demand.
“We’ve surpassed completely our capacity to support them,” she said, adding that she was “raising the alarm” about the need for a regional response to the crisis.
“There are many more still coming,” she said. “Please listen to us.”
Each group that leaves is quickly replaced by another 1,000 or more migrants, creating a bottleneck that has transformed Necoclí. Sewers overflow in the street. Water has stopped flowing from some taps. Markets now sell kits made for crossing the Darién; they include boots, knives and baby slings.
They know the journey ahead is dangerous, they said. They had heard the stories of drownings and fatal falls.
At least 50 bodies have been found in the Darién this year alone, though estimates of the true number of dead are at least four times as high, according to the International Organization for Migration.
Sexual assault is also a risk: Doctors Without Borders has documented 245 cases in the Darién in the past five months, though the group believes the real number is far higher.
Ms. Alix, the mother of Farline and Vladensky, said that her family had fled Haiti for French Guiana, on the northern coast of South America, but found only poverty. Returning to Haiti was not an option, she said. The country is in tatters after a presidential assassination and an earthquake, its economy faltering and its streets haunted by gangs.
The only choice, Ms. Alix said, was the road north.
“We take this risk because we have children,” said Vladimy Damier, 29, Ms. Alix’s husband.
Many knew that the Biden administration had been deporting back to Haiti those who’d managed to make it into the United States — but they were still willing to try.
Henderson Eclesias, 42, also from Haiti, had been living in Brazil with his wife and 3-year-old daughter when the pandemic hit. In May, he lost his job, he said. By August, he and his family were on their way to the United States.
“I hope they change the way they are acting,” he said of the Americans. “Our lives depend on that.”
In recent years, a growing number of migrants had begun to brave the corridor, a journey that can take a week or more on foot. But after the pandemic, which hit South America particularly hard, that surge has become a flood of desperate families. At least one in five of those who crossed this year were children, Panamanian officials said.
As the number of migrants arriving at the U.S. border grew, the Biden administration retreated from a more open approach to migration embraced in the president’s first days in office to a tougher stance with a singular goal: deterring people from even attempting to enter the United States.
“If you come to the United States illegally, you will be returned,” the secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, said in September. “Your journey will not succeed, and you will be endangering your life and your family’s lives.”
But the warning is unlikely to turn back the tens of thousands of Haitians who are already on the road.
On a recent day, there were about 20,000 migrants in Necoclí, in Colombia. And there are up to 30,000 Haitian migrants already in Mexico, according to a senior official in the Mexican foreign ministry who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“They’ve already started the journey, they’ve already started to think about the U.S.,” said Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute. “It’s not that easy to turn that off.”
On a recent morning, Ms. Alix and Mr. Damier woke their children before dawn in the small home they’d been sharing with a dozen other migrants. Their turn had come to board the boat that would take them to the edge of the jungle.
In the darkness, Ms. Alix threw her backpack over her shoulders and strapped Vladensky to her chest. In one hand she carried a pot of spaghetti, meant to sustain them while it lasted. Her other hand reached out to her toddler, Farline.
On the beach the family joined a crowd of others. A dockworker handed a large life vest to Ms. Alix. She draped it over Farline’s small body and climbed into the boat. Aboard: 47 adults, 13 children, seven infants, all migrants.
“Goodbye!” yelled a man from the boat company. “Have a good trip!”
Government officials are largely absent from the Darién. The area is controlled by a criminal group known as the Clan del Golfo, whose members view migrants much as they view drugs: goods they can tax and control.
Once the migrants step off the boats, they are met by smugglers — typically poor men in the area who offer to take them into the jungle, starting at $250 a person. For an extra $10 they will carry a backpack. For another $30, a child.
Farline and her family spent the night in a tent at the edge of the jungle. In the morning, they set out before sunrise, alongside hundreds of others.
“I carry bags,” smugglers shouted. “I carry children!”
Soon, a vast plain became a towering forest. Farline clambered between trees, following her parents. Vladensky slept on his mother’s chest. Other children cried, the first to show signs of exhaustion.
As the group crossed river after river, tired adults began to abandon their bags. They clambered up and then down a steep, muddy slope, only to stare up at the next one. Faces that were hopeful, even excited, that morning went slack with exhaustion.
A woman in a leopard-print dress fainted. A crowd formed. A man gave her water. Then they all rose, picked up their bags and began to walk.
Today, after all, was just day one in the Darién, and they had a long journey ahead.
Julie Turkewitz reported from Necoclí, Colombia; Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico City; and Sofía Villamil from Necoclí and Bajo Chiquito, Panama. Oscar Lopez contributed reporting from Mexico City, and Mary Triny Zea from Panama City.