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On Colombian border, migrant families embark on dangerous jungle passage

The Darien gap is considered virtually impenetrable — yet thousands of people from Haiti, Cuba and Venezuela are making the perilous trek north.
A Haitian migrant trying to reach the U.S. holds his 11-month-old daughter, who he named “Esperanza,” or Hope.
A Haitian migrant trying to reach the U.S. holds his 11-month-old daughter, whom he named Esperanza, or Hope.Gabe Gutierrez / NBC News

NECOCLÍ, Colombia — They line up before dawn each day, passports in hand. Thousands of migrants and their children stand for hours in this western Colombian beach town, waiting for a seat on a boat that will take them one step closer to the United States — on an incredibly dangerous leg of the journey.

Migrants pay the equivalent of $40 each to ride the boat from Necoclí to Acani near Colombia’s border with Panama. Then comes the most perilous part of the trek to North America: the Darien Gap, a 60-mile roadless, lawless stretch of jungle run by smugglers and thieves.

Panamanian officials have recovered 50 bodies there this year, but say they believe the death toll is much higher.

Some 90 percent of the estimated 82,000 migrants who have flooded into this once-sleepy town since January of this year were born in Haiti, according to Colombia’s civil protection agency. They live in overcrowded hotel rooms or in tents along the beach, with no bathrooms nearby.  

Utnica, 5, watches her mother wash their clothes in a bucket, using soapy sea water. They sit by their tent under the hot sun. They have family in Orlando, Florida. “I want to start a new life and find a job,” Desir, her mother, said.

Last month, the U.S. deported thousands of Haitian migrants that arrived in Del Rio, Texas, citing Title 42, a Trump-era health measure that went into effect in March 2020 during the Covid pandemic and remains in place under the Biden White House.

82,000 migrants have passed through the port of Necoclí since January of this year, according to Colombia’s Proteccion Civil.Erika Angulo / NBC News

Still, smugglers are fueling a perception among migrants that they might be allowed to stay in the U.S. if they make the trek.

More than 1,000 migrants are arriving in Necoclí each day, but Panama will only accept 500 per day — creating a huge bottleneck. In the U.S., Homeland Security officials expect there could be a surge of migrants trying to cross the American border in October.

Many of the Haitian migrants had been living in Chile and Brazil since the 2010 earthquake that left 1.5 million homeless in Haiti.  They found work in those countries, until Covid took a toll on the Latin American economies and authorities started cracking down on undocumented immigrants, many of them Haitian refugees.

20,000 migrants are believed to be in the Colombian beach town of Necoclí.Gabe Gutierrez / NBC News

Fritz Nor stands by the sea holding his 6-month-old son, King, who was born in Brazil. He is scheduled to leave in two weeks with his wife and baby. Nor is aware that crossing the Darien Gap is dangerous.

But that doesn't deter him. “This is no life for a family," said Nor, who was a construction worker in Brazil. "I want to be a free man. I want documents to be able to work."

Chile’s government requires all migrants who entered the country before March 2020 to turn in a series of documents from their home countries, including criminal background checks to legalize their status.  Most Haitians say they would have to travel home to obtain those documents in person, because they are not available online in the country’s antiquated record-keeping system.

Fritz Nor holds his 6-month-old son, King, who was born while he worked as construction worker in Brazil. He wants to move to the U.S. to give his son a better life, he said. Erika Angulo / NBC News

Haitians who manage to cross the border into the U.S. risk being expelled back to Haiti. The Biden administration has expelled more Haitians than during the entire Trump presidency, according to research by the Haitian Bridge Alliance (HBA), a Southern California nonprofit that advocates for Haitian migrants.

Chile’s metropolitan police — with the help of Interpol -- busted a migrant smuggling ring on Sept 29 that helped migrants get to Mexico and the United States. The head of the metropolitan police brigade on human trafficking, Giordano Lanzarini, said the group so far this year had moved more than 1,000 Haitians, including many children traveling alone.

“We don’t have a precise figure of how many have entered Chile, but we know that around 50 or 60 people entered each day,” Lanzarini said of the smugglers during a news conference. Using the messaging service WhatsApp, the nine suspects arrested then allegedly would lure migrants into traveling north by road.

With thousands already in Necoclí, and only hundreds allowed to leave each day, the city has now become a crucial chokepoint in the stream of those seeking refuge north.

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