METETI, Panama – Led by smugglers armed with knives and machetes, Mayra Reyes and 14 other Cubans sloshed through swamps and rivers and suffered hordes of mosquitoes as they struggled across the notorious Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia, the only north-south stretch of the Americas to defy road-builders.
After walking for three days, the group reached the foot of a steep, scrubby mountain. There, the smugglers peeled away and told the Cubans they would have to press ahead alone.
“I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” the 32-year-old hairdresser from Havana told the Associated Press. “What the guides did was get us to the mountain, where we had to wait for nightfall while these green and black poisonous frogs got on top of us.”
Hundreds of Cubans like Reyes are taking that arduous new route toward the United States, trekking across the 85 miles of steamy tropical jungle that divides Colombia and Panama, through mountains, ravines, and muddy ground teeming with poisonous reptiles, jaguars, wild boars, guerrillas and drug traffickers,
And after that, they still face a journey across 1,700 miles and six countries to reach the United States.
Panamanian immigration authorities detained 800 Cubans near the Colombian border from January through the first week in July, compared to 400 in all of 2011.
“We have detained up to 90 people in one week,” said Frank Abrego, director of Panama’s National Borders Service.
Thousands of islanders over the decades have used rudimentary rafts to travel the 90 miles that separate Cuba from the United States, but that journey can be deadly, and the U.S. Coast Guard has been patrolling the Florida Straits more aggressively, halting many before they can reach Florida. Most Cubans who reach U.S. soil can stay, but those intercepted at sea are usually returned to their homeland, and U.S. figures indicate that more than 1,000 have been stopped at sea so far this year.
So Cubans have turned to land routes. In the first nine months of this fiscal year, 7,407 Cubans have entered the United States through the border with Mexico, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
The route across the Darien Gap arose partly because many Cubans are now using the South American nation of Ecuador as the start of their path to the United States. President Rafael Correa eliminated visa requirements for Cuba in 2008, as other countries in Latin America, including Mexico, made it harder for Cubans to reach their shores.
The result has been a flood of islanders traveling to the South American nation, which borders Colombia along the Pacific Ocean.
According to Ecuadorean official figures, between 2007 and February this year, 106,371 Cubans entered the country legally and 97,923 left legally. It is unclear what happened to the other 8,448.
The Darien is one of the world’s most rain-drenched regions. While several thousand indigenous people live along its trails and rivers, the jungle is so dense, the ground so swampy or mountainous, that the few attempts to cross it by car or motorcycle have taken weeks or months.
Panamanian authorities began noticing five years ago that the Darien Gap was being used by migrant smugglers, usually to move people from Asia and Africa who had traveled to the area by boat from Brazil, said Jose Mulino, Panama’s public safety minister. That has tapered off. Panamanian immigration officials have detained just 97 non-Cuban migrants in the area since the start of the year.
After climbing the mountain, the group walked another six hours to a river. From there, Panamanian authorities detained them and took them eight hours by canoe to the town of Yaviza, where the Pan-American Highway ends in Panama. From there, they went by car to a detention shelter in the town of Meteti.
The Cubans remained in Meteti for several days until immigration authorities gave them, like most Cuban migrants, a temporary permit allowing them to be in the Central American country as long as they report to authorities every two weeks.