- Valentina Oropeza Colmenares – @orovalenti
- BBC News World
Rosemary Gonzalez canned tuna, cookies, diapers, hydration solution, some clothes and the children’s favorite toys.
Even though the bags were packed, her son Samuel’s backpack had room to put his lawyer’s ring and the seal used to certify legal documents in his home country of Venezuela.
Samuel is 4 years old. As the youngest of her six children, Rosemary would carry the boy’s backpack on trips to America.
Having settled in Bogotá just before the pandemic, with her husband José and children, Rosemary kept the ring and signet in a cupboard to start anew, this time as a kitchen assistant.
After being fired during his incarceration and missing a year without a job, José proposed to his wife to cross the Darien Gap, the complex tropical jungle that separates Colombia from Panama. They will then pass through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, and finally enter the United States via the land border.
Panamanian immigration officials estimate that 211,355 people crossed the Darien between January and October 2022, an unprecedented number, well above the 133,000 recorded in 2021.
According to UNICEF, seven out of ten were from Venezuela, and more than 32,000 were minors.
Rosemary tells BBC Mundo that she doesn’t want to leave Colombia, but will do whatever it takes to make Jose feel better. He didn’t bother to inquire about the rigors of the tour. Her husband will take care of everything.
José Queiroz was a captain in the Venezuelan merchant marine. Although military discipline dictated that he obey without question, he publicly complained that he was forced to stand in long lines to buy food in Valencia, an industrial city two hours from Caracas.
When their superiors warned them that they would be punished if they did not keep quiet, Jose and Rosemary made the decision to emigrate from Venezuela.
More than seven million people have fled or emigrated from Venezuela in the past seven years, second only to the number of refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Welcome to the frontier
The couple was part of a group of 26 people who left Bogotá: the eldest son, 23, along with his wife and their daughter Adriana, nearly a year old. Second son of 22, and ages 16, 8, 6. The youngest was Samuel, 4. They were accompanied by Rosemary’s brother, his wife and their young son, other nephews and a family friend.
The group took a boat at the port of Necoclí and disembarked in Acandí, a 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 forest within a week. However, Rosemary and Jose were willing to take a slower route, but one that was safe and comfortable for the children.
Colombian guides led them until they came to a sign that said “Welcome to the Panama border.” From there they will progress on their own.
Always the river
According to Rosemary’s account, the coyotes advised them to carefully navigate the mudslides and look for the river, always the river. Then they can orient themselves with blue bags and rags tied to trees, clues left by other guides and migrants who followed in their footsteps.
When Samuel complained that his leg hurt, his mother would carry him. Rosemary, who was busy trying to get a firm footing on the roots of a stuck tree, saw a group in field uniforms.
He thought it was the Panama Guard, until the men came and took out their pistols. They became the tribe that controlled the forest area. They ordered the Venezuelan immigrants and a group of Haitians traveling the same route to gather at the foot of the hill and hand over all the money.
“They shouted to the Haitians:’Money, money!‘. And when they handed over their cell phones, they were told: ‘High'”, recalls Rosemary.
Jose, his eldest son and Rosemary’s brother provided the money. “Keep walking!” They ordered that.
A few meters later, the group was stopped again by tribesmen dressed as soldiers. Rosemary was sure it was the same group of raiders.
Although she was scared, she decided to face the man who pointed the gun at her: “What are we going to give you if they already stole everything from us?” she said. “We are Venezuelans and they already took the little money we brought with us.”
The men grabbed their backpacks. When they were opened and turned around, out came cans of tuna, crackers and oral rehydration fluids. Rosemary’s granddaughter Adriana, not even a year old, scooped up brown water from a puddle of her nappies, she recalled.
The men returned the nearly empty backpacks and ordered the migrants to keep walking.
The next day they were intercepted a third time, Rosemary says. The leader of the group insulted and cursed them. He ordered him to sit with his head bowed. They had to give up everything they had. Rosemary’s 16-year-old son Riccio began to cry.
The man kicked the teenager and could not be stopped. He screamed as he repeatedly dug his boots into Riccio’s legs and torso, Rosemary says.
Another of the men took Adriana, who was less than a year old, and put the barrel of a gun in her mouth to force her to hand over the money.
Surrendered, Rosemary raised her hands and begged the man to stop beating her son. He explained that everything had been taken from them the previous day. “Leave my granddaughter alone, we have no money.”
A family friend who was with them admitted he had $200 in folded bills that he had hidden during previous robberies.
The leader of the attackers suspected that there might be more money. She grabs Samuel’s bag from Rosemary and finds the ring and signet.
-what is this? he asked angrily, Rosemary recalled.
“This is my rank ring and signet, would you like it?” If she thought she had lied to him, she was willing to say whatever it took to stop him from firing.
The man pocketed the ring, but couldn’t figure out what to do with the seal.
“Destroy it if you like,” suggested Rosemary. “But don’t hurt the children.”
The man dropped the seal and stomped on it until it broke and sank to the ground.
Now they get up and walk. Or, start running – the man threatens – Rosemary says if you don’t run, we’ll shoot you.
This time the attackers grabbed the bags. “We ran into the bush. We were afraid they would shoot us in the back,” he recalled.
The sixth day of the journey presented them with a new test: overcoming the high current of the river.
Jose suggested his wife cross alone; He will take care of Samuel and another nephew. A group of Haitians crossed first. Rosemary drowned in the river, but the current was too strong for her to return to shore. Another immigrant from Caracas suggested forming a chain, holding each other’s hands to support each other as they crossed.
Rosemary’s brother was in the lead, followed by the Haitians, who held the hand of a friend who had given him $200. Jose followed with Samuel and a nephew.
When they were in the middle of the river, about the same distance from one bank to the other, Rosemary remembered asking for help from the migrants who had already crossed. A young Haitian came to her aid, letting go of her friend Jose’s arm behind her.
He says stones hit his ankle. He slipped on the rocks and felt he didn’t have the strength to get out. Other migrants held her hand, and she held her friend’s hand.
Rosemary reached the other side and fell to the ground. When they turned to look for Jose and Samuel, all they could see was the brown flow of the river.
“I started asking where they were, and the Haitians didn’t want to tell me until a woman put her hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Be still, be still, your husband and son have been taken by the river.'”
6 people in that chain disappeared.
“At that moment everything collapsed. What a great disappointment!” says Rosemary. “I started shouting for them to help me and my brother jumped into the river and saw Jose lifting his legs up and the river was dragging him. He couldn’t see the children.”
“I fell to my knees and started crying. Then the Haitians picked me up and said, ‘Come on, let’s keep going, don’t collapse’.” Later that afternoon, the team managed to reach the Lajas Blancas camp.
Rosemary couldn’t decide what to do with her family. “I have high blood pressure and heart problems. Every day I asked God to give me the strength to get my kids out there and finish.”
Two days later, the authorities informed Rosemary that they had found Samuel’s body. She didn’t dare admit it.
After spending two weeks at the shelter, waiting for the authorities to find Jose’s body, Rosemary left the forest. The plan to go to America without her husband seemed impossible to her, so she decided to settle in Panama.
“It’s not easy to raise my children alone,” she says in a phone call from La Sorera, a town 37 kilometers from Panama City. “It is God who bears me here.”
Jose and his son-in-law never came.
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