LAJAS BLANCAS – A growing number of women migrants crossing the forbidding jungle of the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama on their route north are reporting sexual assaults, grabbing the attention of Panamanian lawmakers.
On Saturday, a 25-year-old Haitian woman told members of a Panamanian congressional committee visiting Darien province that she had been assaulted just days before as she navigated the lawless area with her husband and 8-month-old son.
The family stepped from a boat that had carried them along a roiling river to Lajas Blancas from Bajo Chiquito, the first small population center many migrants encounter after crossing the mountainous border. Hundreds of other migrants arrived Saturday alongside them.
Panamanian lawmaker Zulay Rodríguez said her committee had collected around 1,000 allegations of sexual abuse since they began investigating the issue two months ago.
“It is the daily life for women (migrants) when they are young, when they are 20 or 30 or so years old," Rodriguez said. Assailants “don't care if they rape them in front of their husband or family ... this displays the indifference.”
”This has simply happened for a long time and for many years,” said Rodríguez, head of the Women’s, Childhood, Youth and Family Affairs Committee and a member of the Democratic Revolutionary Party.
The Haitian woman who talked to the committee said that she and her husband had lived in Brazil for two years after leaving Haiti, then decided to head north. She said she was assaulted one afternoon last week by a man who had his face covered and held a gun to her head.
She showed a document from the aid organization Doctors Without Borders certifying that a medican examination had confirmed the assault.
Her husband said they did not think of making a formal complaint to authorities because they couldn’t identify her aggressor.
The couple were penniless because the attacker also took all their money and their cellphones. Police arranged for them to be transported by boat to Lajas Blancas because they couldn’t pay the fare.
Liseydis Martínez, a Cuban migrant, said that she saw two Cuban female friends emerge from the jungle bleeding and crying, who said they were sexually assaulted. They had been travelling in a group behind hers.
“Thank God nothing happened to me, but in the group behind were four Cubans and two of them who arrived (Friday), they raped them and a Haitian 13-year-old girl,” she said. “My God, it’s horrible!”
“They were bad,” she said of the victims. “Their husbands were beaten up.”
Martínez was waiting in Lajas Blancas with her husband and their children ages 3 and 6. She said they had been swindled out of $1,500 in Necocli, the main departure point in Colombia, by a man who passed himself off as a soldier who could transport their family to Panama.
Rodríguez, the lawmaker, said she would make sure the reports made it to the Attorney General’s Office and international aid groups.
Her committee has produced short documentaries about assaults, robberies and deaths among migrants their way into Panama through the Darien Gap. She wants to call authorities’ attention to the problems rampant in the Darien jungle.
At the migrant reception center in Lajas Blancas, migrants receive food and medical attention while they wait for buses to cross to the other side of Panama near the border with Costa Rica.
The flow of migrants through the Darien Gap this year has been the highest in more than a decade. So far, more than 107,000 migrants — mostly Haitians — have made the trek. Authorities expect 50,000 more in the coming months.