For migrants making the land trek up the spine of the Americas to the U.S., there’s one spot that consistently proves the most dangerous — the Darien Gap, a jungle wilderness that covers the boundary between Colombia and Panama.
Having been to Texas to see what was arriving at the U.S. border, Rep. Tom Tiffany, Wisconsin Republican, figured he’d get a first-hand look at what was coming through the Darien Gap.
Just back from a four-day trip, he told The Washington Times the experience was astounding.
Floating up-river to a village that marks the first point of contact with civilization for migrants traversing the camp, he saw 16 canoes with at least 200 people leaving the village, headed for a migrant camp where they’d recover and make plans for the rest of their trip north.
Once at Bajo Chiquito, he said, he heard unfathomable stores of desire, hardship and death.
Villagers told of children floating in the river, washed out of the Darien Gap, where they’d perished during the journey. Stories of robberies, sexual assaults on women and others succumbing to the dangers of the trip were common.
Migrants told villagers of walking over bodies of people from previous trips who’d failed to make it.
“People were coming out of there, some could barely walk, most people were limping. Some people looked like they were about to get gangrene,” the congressman said. “I saw a woman being wheelbarrowed into that health facility. We heard stories from villagers of babies washing down the river that had died en route through the Darien Gap. The human misery is awful.”
He said most villagers said the numbers have risen in the last few months, and one Bajo Chiquito resident laid responsibility specifically at the feet of President Biden and the changes to U.S. policy, which experts say have invited a surge of people unseen in 20 years at the U.S.-Mexico border.
Most are Mexican or Central American, but a large chunk are not — and many of those are coming right through the route Mr. Tiffany observed.
He made the trip with two journalists, Michael Yon and Chuck Holton, who have been studying the situation.
The village itself, normally a community of several hundred, was struggling with the daily influx.
“The stench was overwhelming. We saw human feces that they don’t have the facilities to handle, this crush of people,” the congressman said.
A doctor from Doctors Without Borders was in Bajo Chiquito, and had been for about a month, Mr. Tiffany said. But that was the total medical care available for the migrants who’ve been through a hellish experience.
“What becomes clear is that the Panamanian people did not ask for this, and I suspect it’s the same all up the pipeline. Costa Rica, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Mexico, the whole way. These people din’t ask for these migrants to come through, but they have no choice but to pass them through to America,” the congressman said.
Mr. Tiffany posted a short video about his trip to Twitter, drawing fire from a fellow congressman, Rep. Mark Pocan, who complained that Mr. Tiffany was sowing distortions.
“I’ve been to the Darien Gap backpacking. It is a swamp 10 months of the year,” the Wisconsin Democrat said. “People just aren’t coming via there. But hope you had a nice vacation.”
He also took a shot at Mr. Tiffany’s suggestion that once through the gap, migrants hook up with the Pan-American highway, saying the road was never completed.
Mr. Tiffany suggested Mr. Pocan return to the gap now, not as a tourist but as a fact-finder like he did, visiting points along the route where the migrants are traveling.
“His comment was that he’d been to the Darien Gap and it’s no big deal. Well it’s no big deal to an American who has the resources to be able to navigate something like that. That’s not what these people have,” Mr. Tiffany said.
He also urged Vice President Kamala Harris, whom President Biden has tapped to stem the flow of people headed north, to visit the gap and see what’s coming up.
Ms. Harris is focusing on Central America, but Mr. Tiffany said the people coming through the gap signal that the illegal immigration surge is far more than just Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans.
“While they’re talking about the Northern Triangle, they’re not getting to the genesis of the problem, the origin of the problem, which is these migrants coming out of South America,” he said.
He met a man from Senegal while he was on his trip, and villagers in Bajo Chiquito told of people from Pakistan, Somalia, Bangladesh and Romania who’d been through the village — all in addition to the usual flow of Haitians, Cubans, and South Americans.
The Washington Times has reported on smuggling networks that ferry people from Middle East nations to Brazil, then help them make their way north.
Some transit the Darien Gap, though others pay in Colombia for a boat trip that circumvents the gap, landing them up further the coast in Panama.
It’s not just the congressman who says migrants are massing through the gap.
The International Organization for Migration said 11,370 “extra-regional migrants” arrived in Panama from January to April.
Mr. Tiffany said the 200 to 300 people he saw headed out of Bajo Chiquito the day he was there were likely a daily occurrence.
He said there’s a notion in the U.S. that migrants are asylum-seekers fleeing rough conditions or persecution in their home countries.
In fact, he said, some of the Haitians they spoke with had left Haiti years ago and had been living in Peru or Brazil, and just decided now was the time to head north.
Mr. Tiffany said the flow he saw undercuts the Biden administration’s suggestion that assisting Central American countries will dry up the border surge.
He said he supports efforts to enhance opportunities in Central America — one idea is to encourage companies with plants in China to relocate to the region. The U.S. could also help countries like Panama better secure their own borders, too.
But he said the most important step is for the U.S. to gain control of its own southern border, preventing those who cross without permission from staying. That, he said, would stem the flow no matter what the origin.
“Dumping money into the Northern Triangle countries will not solve this as long as the green light is on at the [U.S.] border,” he said.