Bogota, Colombia— Manguenlove Bellegarde stared incredulously at the steep slopes he had to climb at the beginning of his journey across one of the most dangerous frontiers in the world.
Along with his Dominican partner and two young children, the 33-year-old Haitian tried to cross the Darien Gorge, a lawlessness 160 kilometers (100 miles) long and 50 kilometers (30 miles) wide between Colombia and Panama. Mountain jungle.
It is the main route for refugees and asylum seekers who wish to reach the US border. Since there are no roads, the only way to cross is to walk and take a rickety river boat.
“I almost looked back before I started. It’s like climbing a wall. We have to cheer up with the roots of plants,” Bellegarde said. “On the third day, we passed a Panamanian military base, so I thought we were close… Oh my God, four more days have passed.”
The heavy rain added more time to the journey—causing the rivers to rise to dangerous heights and making them impossible to cross—and turned an already dangerous trek into a more dangerous journey.
The trip was difficult physically and mentally.
“We saw six dead, one of whom was in the camp where we slept,” Bellegarde said. “A man in the river, head buried in the mud. It looks like the river took him away, this is where he ended up.”
A few weeks ago, another Haitian, 25-year-old Steven Pierre, said that he saw five bodies on the road.
“The journey is really difficult, especially when it rains. It’s just muddy, rivers and non-stop mountain climbing,” Pierre said. “There are pregnant women, we have to walk in the river… the children fainted, and even men sometimes can’t continue.”
He decided to face Darien Canyon bravely because he knew that some of his friends had been deported back to Haiti after he left him to reach the US border a few months ago.
The Bellegarde family left Chile in August and they have lived there since immigrating from Haiti in 2014. Like dozens of other people interviewed by Al Jazeera, they have been planning to leave Chile for a while, citing poor job opportunities and racism. But the global coronavirus pandemic has left this family and thousands of others in trouble.
With the relaxation of border restrictions in the Latin American pandemic, large numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers have moved again, creating bottlenecks in places such as Colombia.
It is estimated that 19,000 people from Haiti, Cuba, Venezuela, and African countries gathered in the coastal town of Necocli in northwestern Colombia, waiting to be allowed to take a boat across Uraba Bay to Arcandi and begin their Darien journey.
In October, Al Jazeera met Bellegarde and his family there. They waited a month to reach Darien Canyon.
Last month, the soles of Bellegarde’s partner Julissa Familia’s feet became stiff and blistering after a week of trekking. The 26-year-old Dominican will take a week to recover after arriving in Panama.
After successfully crossing the Darien River, they took a bus across Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
In Honduras, they stopped and waited for their family’s money to let them continue north through Mexico to the US border.
The Bellegard family had to pay many unexpected expenses during their hike in Darien, and when they arrived in Panama, they were penniless. The most expensive: a $320 fee is charged to the local guide known as the “Coyote”. A total of 19 guides led the Bellegarde family and 100 others through Darien Gap to help carry their luggage.
“I didn’t expect so much. I left Necocli with $400, and I arrived on the other side with $17,” he told Al Jazeera on the phone in November.
The United Nations expressed concern that refugees and asylum-seekers faced robbery, rape and human trafficking as they crossed lawless and roadless territories, as well as being killed by wild animals and lack of drinking water.
According to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as of early November, more than 100,000 people have crossed the Darien Gorge.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said in October that nearly 19,000 children are the highest level on record.
“It’s tough, but I’m stronger”
In order to prevent movement, Colombia and Panama agreed in August to limit the number of immigrants who can cross the Darien River to 650 per day, and in September it was reduced to 500.
A local shipping company working with the Colombian authorities ensures that only an approved number of tickets are issued each day, which means that many refugees and asylum seekers have to wait a month or more in Necocli to cross the bay, creating a bottleneck.
When they can finally board the ship, they will face the lawless Darien Gap.
Adam Isacson of the Latin American office in Washington said he fears that there is no government control.
“When 100,000 people pass by a place, you can’t make it completely unregulated. You see zero evidence for any country agent. It’s crazy.”
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Colombia and Panama did not respond to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests regarding their Darien Gorge policy.
St Vil Sanriel, Haiti, left Necocli in October with instant noodles, a small folding gas stove and a bottle of disinfectant. He is believed to be able to drive snakes away. He and other solo travelers said that the rain is not particularly heavy and they can cross the border in three days.
He told Al Jazeera: “We have been sliding and it is difficult to walk.”
Sanriel saw human corpses during the long journey. He said that his team had to leave an exhausted African on the journey, and he thought he might be dead.
“It’s tough, but I’m stronger,” he told Al Jazeera about the journey on the phone.
“I saw seven bodies. I just wanted to stay motivated to leave there without thinking about it,” he said, quickly changing the subject.
Sanriel had fled Haiti and spent eight months in Brazil, then decided to travel north and attempted to go to the United States.
In late September and early October, the United States expelled thousands of Haitians who had crossed the border into the country—some of whom had been outside Haiti for many years—and sent them back to Port-au-Prince by air.
Sanriel said this did not affect his morale.
“I already know [about the deportations], I’m not worried,” he said.
“The only thing I can do is to keep going.”