“Salomon died this week in the jungle,” says Jeff Sagasse, uttering the phrase with resignation, as if speaking of an inevitability. Sagasse is Haitian, as was Salomon, and he is sitting in a restaurant in Necoclí, a coastal town in Colombia where more than 10,000 migrants have crowded together to cross into Panama.
Sagasse pulls out his cellphone and shows EL PAÍS a picture. It’s Salomon, a man wearing a wide-brimmed red hat and looking into the camera. His first name was Raymond. In the photo, a cross is drawn above him and a message written in Creole: “It is with great sorrow that I learned of this news. Rest in peace my friend.” They say he was 42 years old and a builder, and that he tried to cross the impenetrable Darién jungle with eight family members. He drowned in a river, as no one was able to help him. “Salomon was an excellent construction worker, and before going I told him to take care of himself. But he left us,” says Irvens Norvilus, another Haitian who was about to travel to the Darién zone from Chile.
The authorities do not know for sure how many migrants have died trying to reach Panama, just one step in the long journey through Costa Rica and Mexico with the final aim of reaching the United States. Those who have crossed are clear that the 500,000-hectare Darién Gap is one of the most dangerous in South America. This thick and humid jungle, they say, is a cemetery.
The dangers come from all sides and the Haitians know it, but some feel they have no choice. “Yesterday I cried, I called my family, but my sister told me: do anything but turn back, you’ve come this far, so keep going,” says Surys Rivera, a Dominican who was traveling with a group of Haitians. She picks up a bottle of creolin, a disinfectant that supposedly repels snakes and other animals in the jungle. Her suitcase contains three inhalers because she is asthmatic, along with pain pills and some clothes. Her departure point was Chile, before crossing Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. She leaves her cellphone number to talk about the journey, but after she waves goodbye, there is no more news from her. Here, migration is a WhatsApp message with a single tick, which may or may not ever be answered.
The Necoclí dock is bustling. As on many days since July, thousands of Haitian men and women with children in their arms are lining up to board a boat and leave this coastal town of 70,000 inhabitants (20,000 in the urban area) to head to Capurganá, the last town before entering the Darién jungle. The beats of African and Colombian music blend together over loudspeakers, as a vendor reads the names of the migrants who have managed to get a place on a boat over a megaphone. He asks them all to put on face masks, but no one listens. The humidity is suffocating. A Haitian couple carrying a baby do not manage to get on the boat. They have come from Brazil and do not speak Spanish. They could not buy a ticket to travel with an accredited company, so will have to wait for another day or venture out on an illegal boat. Distress is evident in their eyes, but they stay silent.
Villa Haiti is the name given to this area where about a thousand people a day crowd together to leave on legal boats. A few blocks away, another large group of Haitians tries to obtain their own spots. According to the Panamanian authorities, 18,000 migrants entered Panama in July alone. The Haitians are organized into groups of families or friends, and support each other through the jungle crossing. A day before each trip they send a leader to buy the boat tickets, but they do not always get enough for everyone, breaking up these small support groups. “All children over two years old have to pay. We need to get 92 people in and there are 94. The only option is for one person in the group to get off,” says a Colombian who organizes the boat trips. “It’s humanitarian aid, but it’s also business.”
The migrants pay $55 (€47) for a trip to Capurganá, and for that, they will have a life jacket and good travel conditions. Their suitcases are protected from the water and marked with their names, but the ticket costs a little more than double what a visiting tourist would pay. In Necoclí, the risk of a migrant’s life is calculated in dollars, and their hard currency has revived this town’s economy. The more money, the less risk, they are told.
Those who have more money and fear the jungle prefer to pay for illegal boats, which leave on dark and windy nights. They pay up to $450 (€386) per person for the smugglers to take them directly to Panama by sea. That way they avoid eight days of dangerous paths and potential robberies, says a local source. “Sadly, people believe the worst problem is the wild animals, but the greatest danger is the criminals who violate the rights of others,” confirms Juan Francisco Espinosa, the director of Migration Colombia, a government body.
The sea that swallows migrants
Avoiding the jungle does not always mean avoiding danger. The sea also swallows migrants. In January of this year, a boat carrying Haitians was shipwrecked in Pinorroa Bay, on the Colombian side. Three bodies were found, including that of a six-year-old girl, but four other migrants are still missing. Earlier in 2019, 21 others died, a one-year-old baby among them. “With it being irregular migration, the deaths are hidden. The same happens in the Darién Gap,” says Espinosa.
All the migrants pay “guides” who charge them $120 (€102) each and offer them security against the presence of armed groups such as the Clan del Golfo. “I ask people who are thinking of coming not to do so, don’t come, because there are many dangers in the jungle. They took my belongings but left me with my life. The guides left us stranded on the second day,” says a Venezuelan who crossed the Darién. Robbery, rape and murder are all risks, according to several testimonies that circulate on the beaches of Necoclí.
The humanitarian crisis is not new, but has been exacerbated considerably by the coronavirus pandemic. After Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, many people migrated to Brazil and Chile. But the economic effects of lockdown in those countries have forced them to cross an entire continent. “I had a nightclub that closed with the lockdown,” says Sagasse. Dressed like a basketball player, he says he would like to talk to Iván Duque, the president of Colombia. “We need proper transportation, a humanitarian passage to Panama. We don’t want to stay in Colombia, we just want to pass through and continue on to the United States or Canada.”
Transitory migration nevertheless has a strong impact. In 2016, there were 34,000 migrants transiting, which dropped to just 4,000 in 2020, according to Migration Colombia. The new wave is rapidly making up the backlog, says Espinosa.
The gathering of so many migrants in Necoclí has also been labeled a health crisis. The children, says a doctor from the municipal hospital that provides free care on the beach, usually have diarrhea, while the adults have the flu. Nearby, the Family Welfare Institute delivers nutritional supplements to pregnant women and children, but the aid stops there. Little is said about the coronavirus.
Rumors circulate and the migrants cling to the slightest certainty: a picture, or an audio message from someone who reached the other side of the border. They ask about the possibility of a humanitarian crossing. “Is it true that they only do that for Cubans and Venezuelans?” asks Julio Chacón, a Cuban who left through Suriname, arrived in Venezuela, went on to Colombia and now works as a waiter to pay for his passage in the jungle.
A group of Venezuelans who arrived on foot to Necoclí live in tents on the beach. They are led by Saida González, a Venezuelan military veteran who cries every time she talks about her uniform. Her group also begs for a corridor that will allow them to reach Panama safely. “We know about the rapes, robberies and deaths in the jungle,” she says, mentioning videos from compatriots showing corpses.
The Colombian and Panamanian authorities say they have decided to explore humanitarian corridors, The Panamanian Foreign Minister Érika Mouynes will visit the Colombian side where the migrants gather to determine a quota that can be received in an orderly and safe manner. “We do not want migrants to risk drowning or for them to go through the Darién, which is so risky. There are so many children and women,” says Colombian Foreign Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez.
For Salomon, or the baby from the Democratic Republic of Congo who died in 2019, it is too late. While these decisions become realities, the flow of migrants does not stop. Guerlande Lesperance was 21 years old when she spoke to EL PAÍS, and she didn’t know how to swim. Days before embarking on a voyage that would take her directly to Panama, she was struck by the fear of drowning, and that her family would see her sink and no one could do anything about it. “There are many people who died in the water, I wouldn’t want to see that,” she said. Like many others, she left her cellphone number behind, but she still hasn’t answered.
Ten women and girls killed every day in Mexico, Amnesty report says | Global development
At least 10 women and girls are murdered every day in Mexico, according to a new report that says victims’ families are often left to carry out their own homicide investigations.
The scathing report, released on Monday by Amnesty International, documents both the scale of the violence and the disturbing lack of interest on the part of Mexican authorities to prevent or solve the murders.
“Mexico is continuing to fail to fulfil its duty to investigate and, therefore, its duty to guarantee the rights to life and personal integrity of the victims as well as to prevent violence against women,” says the report, Justice on Trial.
“Feminicidal violence and the failings in investigation and prevention in northern Mexico are not anecdotal, but rather form part of a broader reality in the country,” the report adds.
Femicide has been rife in Mexico for decades – most notoriously in an epidemic of murders which claimed the life of some 400 women in the border city Ciudad Juárez during the 1990s. In recent years, a growing feminist movement has held massive street protests against the violence, but authorities have proved unwilling to take action to stop the killing.
“It’s always a question of political will,” said Maricruz Ocampo, a women’s activist in the state of Querétaro.
Ocampo has been part of teams lobbying state governors to issue an alert when femicides reach scandalously high levels – a move to raise awareness and mobilise resources. But officials often resist such moves, she said, as governors worry about their states’ images and investment.
“They refuse to recognise there is a problem,” she said.
The president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has also downplayed the problem. He branded the women protesting on 8 March, International Women’s Day, as “conservatives” and alleged a dark hand manipulating the demonstrations.
When asked last year about rising violence against women, he responded, “Tell all the women of Mexico that they are protected and represented, that we’re doing everything possible to guarantee peace and quiet and that I understand that our adversaries are looking for ways to confront us.”
Mexico recorded the murders of 3,723 women in 2020. Some 940 of those murders were investigated as femicides.
The Amnesty report focused on Mexico state, a vast collection of gritty suburbs surrounding Mexico City on three sides. It has become notorious for femicides over the past decade – and for the way the former president, Enrique Peña Nieto, a former Mexico state governor, ignored the problem.
The report found cases of families carrying out their own detective work, which were ignored by investigators. In many cases, authorities contaminated crime scenes or mishandled evidence. They often did not even pursue leads such as geolocation information from victims’ mobile phones.
In the case of Julia Sosa, whose children believe she was killed by her partner, two daughters found her body buried on the suspect’s property – but had to wait hours for police to arrive and process the crime scene. One of her daughters recalled the subsequent interview process, in which “the police officer was falling asleep”.
Sosa’s partner hanged himself, prompting police to close the case, even though family members said there were more leads to pursue.
In states rife with drug cartel violence, activists say cases of femicides go uninvestigated as impunity is commonplace.
“The authorities say it’s organised crime and that’s it,” said Yolotzin Jaimes, a women’s rights campaigner in the southern state of Guerrero. “Many of these aggressors find protection under the excuse of organised crime.”
The persistence of femicides is a stark contrast to recent gains by the women’s movement in Mexico. The country’s supreme court decriminalised abortion earlier this month. A new congress recently sworn in has gender parity and seven female governors will be installed by the end of year – up from just two before last June’s election’s
The decriminalisation of abortion “let off some steam” from the pressure driving the protests “because part of the demands was over the right to choose,” Ocampo said. “But when it comes to violence, we still see it everywhere.”
US official urges EU to speed up enlargement
Gabriel Escobar, the US’ newly-appointed acting deputy secretary of state for South Central Europe, has urged Europe to speed up Western Balkans enlargement. “To return 20 years later and see that there hasn’t been much progress on that front was a little disappointing,” he told the RFE/RL news agency Friday, referring to his last post in Europe in 2001. “We would like to see a more rapid integration,” he said.
Climate crisis leaving ‘millions at risk of trafficking and slavery’ | Global development
Millions of people forced to leave their homes because of severe drought and powerful cyclones are at risk of modern slavery and human trafficking over the coming decades, a new report warns.
The climate crisis and the increasing frequency of extreme weather disasters including floods, droughts and megafires are having a devastating effect on the livelihoods of people already living in poverty and making them more vulnerable to slavery, according to the report, published today.
Researchers from the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) and Anti-Slavery International found that drought in northern Ghana had led young men and women to migrate to major cities. Many women begin working as porters and are at risk of trafficking, sexual exploitation and debt bondage – a form of modern slavery in which workers are trapped in work and exploited to pay off a huge debt.
One woman, who migrated to Accra from northern Ghana, used to farm until the land was ruined by flooding and she was forced to move. For seven years she has worked as a porter (kayayie), carrying items on her head.
She said: “Working as a kayayie has not been easy for me. When I came here, I did not know anything about the work. I was told that the woman providing our pans will also feed us and give us accommodation. However, all my earnings go to her and only sometimes will she give me a small part of the money I’ve earned.”
She dropped a customer’s items once and had to pay for the damage, which she could not afford. The woman in charge paid up on condition that she repay her. She added: “I have been working endlessly and have not been able to repay.”
In the Sundarbans, on the border between India and Bangladesh, severe cyclones have caused flooding in the delta, reducing the land available for farming. With countries in the region tightening immigration restrictions, researchers found that smugglers and traffickers operating in the disaster-prone region were targeting widows and men desperate to cross the border to India to find employment and income. Trafficking victims were often forced into hard labour and prostitution, with some working in sweatshops along the border.
Fran Witt, a climate change and modern slavery adviser at Anti-Slavery International, said: “Our research shows the domino effect of climate change on millions of people’s lives. Extreme weather events contribute to environmental destruction, forcing people to leave their homes and leaving them vulnerable to trafficking, exploitation and slavery.”
The World Bank estimates that, by 2050, the impact of the climate crisis, such as poor crop yields, a lack of water and rising sea levels, will force more than 216 million people across six regions, including sub-Saharan Africa, south Asia and Latin America, from their homes.
The report is a stark warning to world leaders in advance of the Cop26 UN climate summit in Glasgow in November and calls on them to make sure efforts to address the climate emergency also tackle modern slavery. The report says labour and migrant rights abuses are disregardedin the interests of rapid economic growth and development.
Ritu Bharadwaj, a researcher for the IIED, said: “The world cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking that’s being fuelled by climate change. Addressing these issues needs to be part and parcel of global plans to tackle climate change.”
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