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'It Is Human Torture, and They're Abusing People': The Brutal Smuggling Game Along the Darien Gap

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PUERTO LIMON, Panama – A massive spike of migrants crossed the Darien Gap here in Panama last year with nearly 250,000 men, women, and children from 150 countries making the perilous journey. There were 36 recorded deaths, but many more simply disappear. Rather than trying to shut down the dangerous route, U.S. officials are making changes that will bring even more people to the U.S. illegally each year.   

Not long after sunup on the steamy Panamanian side of the Darien Gap, dugout canoes make their way downriver to a tiny tribal village. The dugouts aren't carrying locals, however. They are packed with migrants from all over the world, whose destination is the U.S. southern border.

Recent policy changes the Biden administration allow 120,000 migrants per month to skip this challenging trek by pre-registering using a new mobile app. Even so, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas maintains the goal is not to stop migrants from entering the U.S. 

"So what we're trying to do is incentivize individuals through the CBP One application to make an appointment and to come at the port of entry to cut out the smuggling organizations," Mayorkas said. "And I've seen the criticism of it as a ban, but it is not a ban at all."

Since the new policy only covers Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Venezuela, migrants from other countries now fill these routes.

The migrants who are coming into Puerto Limon here are the lucky ones. They are the ones who had a little more money and are able to take the shorter route through the jungle that only took three or four days instead of six days or more. These tend to be more from places outside the Western Hemisphere, places like China, Afghanistan, and India.

CBN News went down to talk to some of them. We met people from China, Somalia, and Mauritania, among others. 

Among those arriving at Puerto Limon this day included two American journalists, Ben Bergquam and Oscar Ramirez. They had just followed the migrant trail all the way from Colombia, walking three and a half days through the jungle.

Oscar "Blue" Ramirez, an international correspondent, told us, "It was way harder than I thought it was going to be. The first day was really hard, then we got a little bit lost the second day so we had to backtrack, which was double the effort. And on the third day... we were exhausted, a lot of the people were dehydrated, we saw a lot of migrants dehydrated, it was really bad."

"This is not recommended for no human being. It's a horrible journey, really," he said. 

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He's not exaggerating. Yet Colombian smugglers are using videos to advertise in China, making the trek seem like a fun and easy hike in the woods. Chinese pay smugglers up to $20,000 per person, although the true cost is measured in misery.

Ramirez said, "It is completely destroying the environment, it is risking their lives, risking child's lives. This is complete torture, it is human torture.  And they're abusing people, that is the most you know shocking thing for me that they put a human being through that and they're promoting that is really false advertisement. That's what they are doing."

Subteniente Vicente Guerra and his team of seven Panamanian SENAFRONT border police regularly recover bodies of those who die of heatstroke or drown during river crossings.  

"The dangers that these migrants face are enormous because they have no experience surviving in the jungle. Others bring children through this - it's a whole different level of risk they are taking. We carry everything we need in case we have to spend the night in the jungle. These people have nothing," he said.

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On this trip, the SENAFRONT team accompanied Ben and Oscar on their journey, making careful notes about the routes, and keeping an eye out for bandits known to prey on migrants. After experiencing it for themselves, the journalists had a clear message.

"People should look for another route for people to migrate, or a safe way or safe pathway for people to go to another place if they want to migrate – but the Darien, no," Ramirez said.

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