EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Reina Gil said she will remember the border city of El Paso fondly once she reaches her destination in the interior of the United States.
“Cruzamos fino (We crossed just fine). The United State of America received us with much warmth,” said Gil, a Venezuelan citizen waiting in El Paso to take a bus to Utah with her daughter, granddaughter and other members of her extended family.
But the journey that took them through several countries on their way here is something she and other Venezuelan migrants who crossed the Rio Grande into El Paso earlier this month said they would like to forget but likely will not.
“There is much corruption and evil things,” Gil said. “We saw dead people. A river nearly drowned us. We were robbed. We heard of rapes and many ugly things. I am telling you this so that people will know it is not easy to get here.”
In extended interviews with KTSM and Border Report, a few of the hundreds of Venezuelan migrants freed by U.S. immigration authorities onto the streets of El Paso in the past few days agreed that the worst part of the journey was walking through the jungle in Panama and having to constantly pay off “transportation people” (smugglers) in Mexico.
They also said that a decade ago, they would have never imagined having to leave good jobs and homes of their own to endure hardships in other countries to find a new place of safety and opportunity. What changed? Two consecutive populist presidential administrations – Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro – that decided to redistribute wealth and allegedly ran to the ground the economy of a country with 17.5 percent of the world’s oil reserves.
“I was an administrator, I worked in an oil field,” Gil said. “In just 40 days you could buy a car in Venezuela, but when the government changed hands, the businesses left.”
So did she. Unable to properly provide for her family when wages collapsed to as little as $28 a month, Gil moved to Peru. She worked not in an office but cleaning buildings and cooking food for others. “You learn to serve,” she surmised.
But when a better opportunity comes along, you take it. When Gil and other Venezuelans heard the United States might let them in, they decided to march north with their families.
Surviving the ‘Jungle inferno’
The Darien Gap is a roadless 60-mile stretch between Colombia and Panama with dense rainforest, steep mountains and swamps. Over the past few years, it has become a leading transit point for migrants from South America bound for the United States, according to the nonprofit Council on Foreign Relations.
“Once you go in, you cannot turn back,” Gil said. “There are no bathrooms, the camps are run by Indian tribes and everything costs $5 – food, water. If they see young women, they don’t let them go. They prostitute them. It is something ugly.”
Gerardo, from Tachira, Venezuela, also left his country a few years back to find a better-paying job in Chile. A few months ago, he, too, decided to find a better life in the United States.
Gerardo documented his group’s passage through the Darien Gap. He showed Border Report cellphone videos and images of muddy roads, trails on the edge of canyons and young men helping older travel companions sort numerous hills.
“When you come out, people cry, they embrace each other. You have mixed feelings because you accomplish something that not everyone can. You see people dehydrate, starving, unable to walk because their feet get swollen. People just leave them there,” Gerardo said.
He agrees that migrants are taken advantage of at the camps along the trail. “Everything costs money. […] You must bring money, if not, things get complicated,” he said.
Gil said first-time migrants are seldom prepared to walk such long distances over rough terrain. The equivalent of running the distance of three marathons takes walkers in the Darien Gaps eight to 12 days to cover, the migrants said.
“It’s mountain after mountain. We carried our luggage and we had to abandon it. We ended up with nothing” but the clothes on their backs, Gil said. “We met good people who helped us, but also very bad people who take advantage and profit from you. But there is a God up there who sees everything.”
‘Permits, what permits?’
Gerardo said he traversed nine countries which he tried to cross in a legal manner – procuring humanitarian permits. However, he says authorities in some of those countries aren’t interested in helping migrants, but rather exploiting them.
“Sometimes there is no option but to hire a (smuggler) because they don’t care if you have a permit,” he said, putting the cost of his trip at $2,000 to $2,500. In Mexico, “we had to go around eight checkpoints because they will detain you or they will deport you.”
He described how he and his travel companions were taken by a van driver across southern Mexico and would be told to walk part of the way to avoid the checkpoints, then be picked up again.
The companions’ plan was to cross the U.S. border at Piedras Negras-Eagle Pass but were told the Rio Grande carried too much water and could be dangerous. In Juarez, the river was low, so they took a bus from Mexico City to the border. Twenty-eight hours later, an acquaintance who already had made the trip gave them the contact of a cab driver who took them straight to the banks of the Rio Grande.
“We saw the wall, we started running and we crossed,” Gerardo said. “We were caught in the rain, we got our feet wet in the river but we arrived (here). We accomplished the goal.”
Gerardo took a bus out of El Paso and was in Dallas by Friday afternoon.