NORTHERN COLOMBIA – The crisis on the U.S. southern border took center stage in Congress Wednesday. House Republicans are accusing Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas of intentionally making the situation worse.
Recently, Mayorkas traveled to South America to pledge U.S. cooperation in shutting down a key route used by migrants.
When Mayorkas visited Panama’s Darien gap a year ago, he had vowed to stem the flow of migrants making the dangerous jungle trek. Instead, numbers have kept rising and the Darien saw a record 250,000 migrants make the arduous crossing in 2022.
This explosion is causing panic among leaders in Panama and Colombia. That led Mayorkas to travel here last week to meet with local leaders and try to figure out a plan.
Mayorkas said, “The combination of wars and conflict, climate change, and the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an unprecedented flow of vulnerable people throughout the world, including in our hemisphere and specifically in the Darien.”
CBN News visited a beach town on the northwest border of Colombia called Neck Oakley. It’s the jumping-off point for people coming through the Darien Gap. Now we’re seeing a lot more Chinese come through here than we have in past years, as a matter of fact. They’re now the fourth largest group of people that are coming through the gap.
The Biden administration has announced, in conjunction with the Panamanian and Colombian governments that they’re going to shut off this passage for the next 60 days. But they haven’t said how they’re going to do that. And the people that we’ve talked to here have had one of two reactions. They’re either saying, “Good luck with that,” because it’s so big, there’s no way they’re going to be able to close it; or, they’re saying, “We have nowhere to go back to.”
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One Venezuelan woman told us, “There were many people who had to sell everything to get here – their homes and everything in them. But if they close the path, we’ll have to go back – and we don’t have anything to go back to.”
Locals we spoke to are all surprised by the sudden increase in Chinese migrants. A merchant told us, “There are Chinese everywhere!”
CBN News spoke with one of them. We asked why so many Chinese are coming now. That migrant, Zhang Wei, said, “They want to go to America, they search for freedom, democracy.”
He said it might look to the outside world like the economy in China is good, but it’s “not the truth.”
Other Chinese migrants also told us they’re here because of China’s draconian COVID lockdowns and poor economy.
Still, there’s one other demographic of migrants that has spiked recently – the number of children traveling through the gap has risen 700 percent this year.
We spoke to a 16-year-old named Stefanie who’s from Margarita, Venezuela. She was carrying her seven-month-old baby with her.
Stefanie was about to embark on a journey through the Darien Gap and she was afraid. She told us she knows that it’s going to be difficult but she says life is going to be difficult no matter what, so she hopes that this will give her little baby Willyenis a chance at a better future.
In order to get that chance, they first have to survive the crossing. In early April, Panamanian border police accompanied by American Journalists Ben Bergquam and Oscar Blue, encountered a cartel gang robbing and raping migrants at gunpoint in the jungle.
CBN NEWS EXCLUSIVE: A River of Human Misery Headed to the US
While authorities killed one of the robbers and captured six more, the danger remains. In Necocli, the price charged by the cartels to allow the migrants to pass has increased, and a protection racket has sprung up. Cartel members sell plastic wristbands to migrants as proof they’ve purchased “insurance.”
A migrant named Isaac explained, “Here you have to pay for passage, plus a ‘sticker’. The sticker is like insurance to make sure nothing happens to you in the jungle. I really think it’s a scam, because once we get in there, what’s stopping them from charging you even more?”
Cartels make an estimated $300,000 per day from this protection racket, and it’s unlikely they’ll allow this lucrative path to shut down without a fight. Each day, more desperate migrants arrive here in Necocli, increasing the pressure on both countries to do something to fix the problem.