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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A girl loses her mother in the jungle, and a migrant dream dies

By Julie Turkewitz

In the darkness, the little girl called out for her mother, her tiny form lit by the moon.

The two had left their home in Venezuela a week before, bound for the United States. To get there, though, they would have to cross a brutal jungle called the Darién.

But in the chaos of the trek, the child had lost her only parent. To contain her fear, Sarah Cuauro, just 6 years old, began to sing.

“The glory of God, giant and sacred,” she croaked through tears. “He carries me in his arms.”

A devastating combination of pandemic fallout, climate change, growing conflict and rising inflation is creating a seismic shift in global migration, sending millions of people from their homes. The United Nations says there are now at least 103 million forcibly displaced people around the world.

In few places is that shift more evident than in the Darién Gap, a hostile, sparsely populated, roadless land bridge connecting South America and Central America that must be traversed to reach the United States on foot.

For decades, the Darién was considered so dangerous, only a few thousand dared to cross it each year. Today, it is a traffic jam.

Since January, at least 215,000 people have traveled through the Darién, nearly twice as many as last year and nearly 20 times the yearly average between 2010 and 2020.

The enormous flood of migrants through the Darién is feeding a growing political problem in the United States, where more than 2.3 million people have been apprehended at the southern border this year, an unprecedented surge that has put intense pressure on President Joe Biden to stem the flow.

The people crossing the Darién this year are overwhelmingly Venezuelan, many of them worn down by years of economic calamity under an authoritarian government. At least 33,000 of the people who’ve made the journey this year are children.

Some migrants come from desperately poor families. But many, like Sarah and her mother, Dayry Alexandra Cuauro, 36, who was a lawyer in Venezuela, were once middle class, and now, thrust into desperation by their homeland’s financial ruin, have decided to risk their lives in the jungle. Cuauro left Venezuela with Sarah on a bus with their passports, $820 in cash and a blessing from Cuauro’s mother.

To understand the journey so many are taking, two New York Times journalists crossed the 70-mile Darién route in September and October, interviewing migrants, guides, law enforcement, community leaders and aid workers.

The route began at a Colombian beach town, passed through several farms and Indigenous communities, crossed over a grueling mountain called the Hill of Death and then wound along several rivers before arriving at a government camp in Panama.

A journey begins

The Darién jungle was once among the world’s most untouched rainforests. Parts were so inaccessible that when engineers built the Pan-American Highway in the 1930s, linking Alaska to Argentina, only one major stretch was left unfinished: a 66-mile roadless piece called the Darién Gap.

Today, the most common path through the gap begins in the Colombian beach town of Capurganá, where Sarah and her mother clambered from motorboats advertising “responsible tourism” onto a dock crowded with other migrants.

Men from a newly formed cooperative called Asotracap ushered the group into a walled compound where they explained that the migrants would be assigned guides who would take them the first few days into the jungle for a fee of $50 to $150 a person.

Sarah and her mother had joined a group with nine others. Together, they handed over $1,200.

The first days took them up a half-dozen hills in a part of the forest inhabited by small communities. On the second day of their jungle trip, Sarah and her mother passed a cluster of trees hiding a body, decomposing in a tent, dead of unknown causes. On day three, they reached a river, where locals were charging $10 for a 90-second boat crossing. On day four, they camped in a town where locals encircled the migrant camp with wire, charging $20 a person to leave.

And on that fourth morning, just before reaching the towering mud-slick mountain known as the Hill of Death, Sarah and her mother lost each other.

The separation

The morning Sarah and her mother were set to climb the Hill of Death, Cuauro had asked a friend she had made on the journey, Ángel García, 42, to help carry her daughter.

Almost the moment they had left Capurganá, Cuauro’s boots had begun to grind at her skin, and her feet were now so blistered and filled with pus she could barely walk.

García, who had left his own 6-year-old son at home in Colombia, hoisted Sarah on his shoulders, looking back constantly for her mother. Eventually, he turned around, and she was gone.

That night, Sarah slept in a tent with García and two of his friends. The men doted on her, but they seemed terrified by their new responsibility. They had no idea where Sarah’s mother was or if she was injured — or worse.

They had very little left to eat and several days more to hike. They needed to get Sarah as quickly as possible to the end of the route, where they believed there were officials who could help her.

They packed up their tent. “And my mom?” Sarah asked García.

“We’ll see her on the route,” he told her.

A moment of joy

On the eighth day of their trek through the jungle, Sarah and García arrived at a camp in a town that marked the next-to-last stop in the Darién.

Panamanian officials had set up a migration checkpoint in an effort to count the number of people crossing through the forest. They separated Sarah from García, putting her in a backroom with other children who had also lost their parents.

Sarah had now been separated from her mother for three days. Hours went by.

And then, suddenly, Cuauro appeared, rushing into the room. All along, she had been just a few hours behind, trying desperately to keep up.

Their joy was short-lived.

Like many Venezuelans, Cuauro left for the Darién believing that if she managed to cross the jungle and make it through Central America and Mexico, the United States would let her in.

Because Washington has no relationship with Caracas, it had no way of deporting Venezuelans back home. And in recent months, the United States had allowed thousands of Venezuelans to enter the country and ask for asylum.

Word of this had spread rapidly, helping to drive a massive surge to the border. Now the Biden administration was struggling to deal with a widening humanitarian and political crisis.

Sarah and her mother exited the Darién on Oct. 10. Two days later, the Department of Homeland Security announced that Venezuelans who arrived at the U.S. southern border would no longer be allowed to enter the United States.

Instead, citing a Trump-era pandemic health order, officials said they would be sent back to Mexico. At the same time, a small number of Venezuelans — 24,000 people — would be given legal entry if they applied from abroad and if they had a U.S. sponsor.

Sponsors had to be U.S. citizens or meet other residency requirements and demonstrate an ability to financially support an immigrant for up to two years.

Cuauro was devastated. She had no sponsor. They had used all their money.

Cuauro and her daughter wound up in a shelter in Honduras with a dozen other Venezuelan migrants. There, she waited for her family to gather enough money to buy them flights home.

A sister had arrived in Florida a few months before, after turning herself in at the border, and told Cuauro that she was racing to find someone who would sponsor them under the new entry program before all the slots were filled.

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