METETI, Panama — Led by smugglers armed with knives and machetes, Mayra Reyes and 14 other Cubans sloshed through swamps and rivers and suffered hordes of mosquitoes, as they struggled across the notorious Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia, the only north-south stretch of the Americas to defy road-builders.
After walking for three days, the group reached the foot of a steep, scrubby mountain. There, the smugglers peeled away and told the Cubans they were on their own.
“I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” the 32-year-old hairdresser from Havana told the Associated Press. “What the guides did was get us to the mountain, where we had to wait for nightfall while these green and black poisonous frogs got on top of us.”
Hundreds of Cubans like Ms. Reyes are taking that arduous new route toward the United States, trekking across the 85 miles of steamy tropical jungle that divides Colombia and Panama, through mountains, ravines, and muddy ground teeming with poisonous reptiles, jaguars, wild boars, guerrillas and drug traffickers.
After that, they still face a journey across 1,700 miles and six countries to reach the United States.
Detained in Panama
Panamanian immigration authorities detained 800 Cubans near the border with Colombia from January through the first week in July, compared with 400 in all of 2011.
“We have detained up to 90 people in one week,” said Frank Abrego, director of Panama’s National Borders Service.
Over the decades, thousands of Cubans fleeing the communist-ruled island have used rudimentary rafts to travel the 90 miles that separate Cuba from the United States. That journey can be deadly, and the U.S. Coast Guard has been patrolling the Florida Straits more aggressively, halting many before they reach Florida.
Most Cubans who reach U.S. soil can stay, but those intercepted at sea are usually returned to their homeland. U.S. figures indicate that more than 1,000 have been stopped at sea so far this year.
So Cubans have turned to land routes. Nearly 90 percent of all Cubans who make it to America now come over land, usually through Mexico, rather than over open water, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The route across the Darien Gap arose partly because many Cubans are now using the South American nation of Ecuador as the start of their path to the United States. President Rafael Correa eliminated visa requirements for Cuba in 2008, as other countries in Latin America, including Mexico, made it harder for Cubans to reach their shores.
All a Cuban needs is an exit permit from the Cuban government and a letter of invitation from a citizen of Ecuador, where some people sell such letters for $300 to $500. If Cubans have a letter of invitation and prove they can finance their travel abroad, it’s relatively easy to get an exit permit if they are not doctors, scientists, military or members of other professions deemed high value by the government.
Cubans in Ecuador
The result has been a flood of islanders traveling to the South American nation, which borders Colombia along the Pacific Ocean.