Last year, one of Alexis’s cousins decided to try his luck in the United States. He and his wife set off from northern Colombia, reached Panama through the Darién Gap, and crossed five more countries on foot and by car. It wasn’t clear how long they could legally stay in the U.S., but it mattered little to the rest of the family. In the couple’s telling, life in the United States was prosperous, colorful, and full of promise. Before long, Yenis was asked by her sister-in-law Yorgelis if she and Alexis could picture their lives in the U.S. After Yenis immediately responded ‘Yes,’ she was invited to join a family group chat called La Selva, or the Jungle.
Alexis told everyone in the group that they had lost their minds. He had heard horror stories surrounding the Darién Gap, where the number of migrants attempting to cross the jungle had risen sharply, as had the number of people who did not make it out of the area alive. Those who did described families being carried away by strong river currents, women dragged into the brush by armed strangers clad in black, and children emerging alone from the jungle’s winding paths, after their parents failed to make it through. “Think about the baby, think about you,” Alexis pleaded with his wife, who was newly pregnant.
Yenis was aware of the dangers, but she also struggled to see a prosperous future in Colombia. The pandemic had taken a toll on the family’s finances, and their debts kept piling up. “If I’m going to live day by day here, I’d rather live day by day in Venezuela,” she told Alexis, who faced treason charges in their home country. Her husband made a final plea: “If you get raped, there will be absolutely nothing I can do to prevent it. If they kidnap our daughter, we will have to assume her to be missing.” Then he asked Yenis, “Is that something you’re willing to go through? To have that weigh on your conscience for the rest of our lives?” His wife was determined to take the risk.
Just as they did when fleeing Venezuela, the couple put all of their belongings up for sale. They collected five hundred dollars, part of which they used to buy basic supplies for the trip, including a tent, mountain boots, bug repellent, and raincoats. Yorgelis had gotten in touch with a smuggler on TikTok, where human traffickers openly advertise “safe” and “guaranteed” trips to the U.S. The smuggler proposed two different routes across the Darién. For about two hundred dollars apiece, the family members could cross the jungle by foot in a week. For a hundred dollars more each, they could take a shortcut and make it to Panama in three days.
To accommodate everyone’s budgets, the family chose the lengthiest route and agreed on a departure date: the twenty-sixth of May. Eleven family members, among them four children, who ranged in age from newborn to seven years old, would join Alexis, Yenis, and their daughter. Carrying several hundred dollars in cash, the couple got on a bus with the rest of the group headed to Necoclí, a coastal town on the southernmost tip of the Caribbean Sea. For most migrants, whether they hail from Venezuela, Haiti, Bangladesh, or Uzbekistan, Necoclí is a mandatory stop on the journey north, as it is where boats headed to the jungle set off from. Last year, a quarter of a million people attempted to cross the Darién Gap.
The family had planned to buy their necessary provisions in Necoclí: a camping stove, five or six gas cannisters, and an array of canned goods, along with pasta and rice. Water was too heavy to carry, so they decided to rely on the jungle’s rivers. After Necoclí, the family’s next stop would be Capurganá, a town at the foot of the Darién Gap, where South and Central America meet. The people who abandon their journey through the Darién area, or are injured along the way, are often found on the side of the trail, waiting for nature to take its course. The jungle’s many paths bear traces of migrants’ despair—from everyday belongings to human bones. Like others before them, Alexis and Yenis ultimately got rid of their gas cannisters and stove to lighten their load along the way. They did without food during the last days.
Near the end, the smuggler left the family at the base of a mountain dubbed the Hill of Death. It was known among migrants as the most brutal point in the journey, where the slightest slip could be lethal. Alexis had heard that it took about five hours to climb up the steep slope, so his plan was to camp at the bottom and rise early the next day. “But we couldn’t stay,” he told me. “The stench of death was hard to stand.” After six hours, the family made it across, certain that the Panamanian border wasn’t too far off. Days later—past a few rivers, where Indigenous tribes collected a fee and let them spend the night—Alexis and Yenis reached a camp for migrants, where United Nations staff assisted them. Save for Diana, who was diagnosed with bronchitis, the rest of the family was safe. They had survived the Darién Gap.
For the next leg of the journey, Yenis and Alexis walked, rode buses, hitched rides, and begged for money as they slowly traversed roughly three thousand miles, from Panama to South Texas. While crossing through Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, the family relied on dozens of strangers, who let them ride in their cars, sleep under their roofs, or dropped a dollar bill in their cup. Over time, the journey grew Darwinian, as not everyone in the family had saved enough to make it all the way to the U.S. border. Those who had more cash moved through Central America and Mexico faster. Yenis and Alexis, who had less money and moved at a slower pace because of the pregnancy, trailed behind the rest of the group.
Along the way, the family had to haggle with human traffickers and local authorities. They spent a month and a half crossing Mexico, Alexis said, where it was hard to tell an immigration agent from a smuggler. Near the southern border, the couple spotted many other migrants, mostly from Venezuela. U.S. Border Patrol agents were detaining high numbers of Venezuelan migrants and releasing them in the United States while their immigration cases were being processed. Between 2015 and 2019, an average of fifty Venezuelans were apprehended along the Southwest border each month. But around the time Yenis and her husband made their way north, last August and September, the numbers rose to nearly sixty thousand. Under mounting political pressure, the Biden Administration began developing a new policy to thwart these crossings.
Three months after leaving Colombia, Yenis, Alexis, and Diana, who was now a year old, arrived in Piedras Negras, Mexico, mere feet from the Rio Grande River. Alexis felt restless—he was closer than ever to the United States, but he was plagued by too many worries to fully appreciate it. Several migrants had drowned attempting to cross the river in recent days. What if it happened to him and his family? Alexis wondered. His phone kept pulsing with messages from his father, who had already made it across: “Mijo, they’re sending a lot of people back to Mexico,” his father warned. The following day, Alexis rose at five with his wife and child, intent on reaching the river while it was still quiet. As he walked north, clutching Diana to his chest, a man dashed in front of him. “Jefe! Are you going to cross?” Alexis shouted instinctively. “Yes!” was his reply.
Trailing behind the man were a middle-aged woman, three girls, and one boy; Alexis and Yenis hurried to keep up with them. “How’s it looking?” Alexis asked the man, who had slowed his pace to get through a tangled patch of brush. The man pressed on, without saying a word—a sign that Alexis took to mean he knew his surroundings well. Within minutes, they reached a hill overlooking the riverbank. The current seemed mild, so Alexis rushed down to dip his feet in the waist-deep water. While Yenis readied herself to cross, Alexis learned that the woman in the other group was Salvadoran; she was in the company of her four children. Each of them got in line to form a human chain across the Rio Grande.
Once in the water, Yenis turned her back on the current to minimize its impact on her belly. There was an islet mid-river, where she paused to regain her breath, and everyone else huddled around her. It was there that the Salvadoran woman confided that she needed a favor. She had heard that Salvadoran adults, unlike Venezuelans, were not being let into the U.S. Like Alexis and Yenis, she and her children had been through too much to risk deportation, so she needed her son and daughters to make the final leg of the trip on their own. The couple exchanged glances, unable to utter a single word—they felt enough responsibility already with Diana and their unborn child. But, before they could say no, the woman began to wade in the opposite direction. “Me los cuidan, por favor,” she said—“Please, take care of them.”