(CNN, KYMA/KECY) - A Venezuelan family of five is safe for now. Before arriving to a shelter in the Panamanian capital, they crossed the perilous Darien Gap, a jungle region connecting Colombia with Panama to escape the financial crisis in their home country.
The mother is pregnant and all three of their children are younger than eight.
The father, the only man in the group, says they thought they were doing fine in the beginning.
“Apart from the cliffs and all that, we were kind of calm,” he said. “Until we started seeing dead bodies.”
His son wanted to share with us some of the horrible things he saw.
“It was terrible,” the son said. “We found six dead bodies.”
The deadly dangers this family saw are nothing new at the Darien Gap as many migrants have also reported seeing or being victim to homicides, robberies, and sexual violence along the route.
Risking it all for the American Dream
What’s new is the fact that more and more families with children seem to be risking it all for the American dream. According to UNICEF, nearly 46,000 migrants crossed into Panama in the first two months of 2023. Of those, 9,656 were minors, a figure that is seven times higher than the one observed in the same period last year.
In 2022, more than 570 pregnant women, like Angreila Jiménez, also entered Panamanian territory through the Darien Gap, facing risks that are compounded by the fact that they’re expecting.
“I fell,” she says, “I’m not kidding you. I fell like four times and rolled down hills.”
The Darien Gap has caught the attention of U.S. Immigration authorities.
“I wanted to be there I wanted to be and to see the Colombian and Panamanian border, because we had seen that and heard that there was a lot of different types of populations coming through. They're coming through the Darien jungle, up to the southern border of Mexico of Mexico and the United States," said Gloria Chavez, Chief Patrol Agent, Rio Grande Valley Sector, U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
“This is a challenge that we have to solve together," said Antony Blinken, U.S. Secretary of State.
Joint solutions to a common problem
Last year U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken led a delegation to Panama to promote joint solutions to a common problem.
“Helping stabilize and strengthen communities that are hosting migrants and refugees, creating more legal pathways to reinforce safe, orderly and humane migration, dealing with the root causes of regular migration," Blinken stated.
Back at the shelter in Panama City, children do arts and crafts to calm their nerves after the terrifying ordeal.
Officials say more than a thousand unaccompanied minors crossed the Darien Gap last year and fear that figure may be even larger in 2023.