When Mexico imposed a visa requirement on Venezuela in January, it briefly had the desired effect: the number of Venezuelans detained at the US-Mexico border fell. But it is now clear that this has only pushed migrants down more dangerous secret routes.
Suddenly unable to visit Mexico as tourists, but still desperate to leave their country, Venezuelan migrants join others traveling on land through the dense, chaotic jungle on the Colombia-Panama border.
In 2021, when Venezuelans could still fly to Cancun or Mexico City as tourists, only 3,000 of them crossed the Darien Gap—a literal gap in the Pan-American Highway that spans 60 miles of mountains, rainforest and rivers. spread along. According to Panama’s National Immigration Service, there have been 45,000 so far this year.
“If they can’t get to Mexican airports, they’re arriving by land via Darien,” said Adam Isaacson of the Washington Office on Latin America. From there it’s just a series of stops: in southern Mexico, the remote middle of the Mexico–US border, and then the final destination in the US, usually on the east coast.
Such visa requirements may deter some migrants – Brazilians and Ecuadorians slowed when Mexico implemented them last year – but not others, Isaacson said. “It has to do with the level of frustration,” he said.
The Venezuelan economy has collapsed due to mismanagement and US sanctions. The minimum wage for public employees has fallen to the equivalent of $2 per month. Monthly salaries in the private sector average $75. Some Venezuelans now coming to the Americas, having left Venezuela years ago, have spent time in other countries and are now moving north.
In December, US Customs and Border Protection detained Venezuela about 25,000 times at the US-Mexico border. Mexico implemented the visa requirement in late January, and in February barely 3,000 people were detained. But that number began to rise again, slowly at first, and then rapidly in June and July when detentions crossed 17,000.
Information about alternate routes between groups was given on platforms such as WhatsApp and social media. Migrant smugglers who frequently infiltrate such groups suffocate the route, in this case a treacherous, yet well established, nearly 5,000 miles long.
42-year-old construction worker Andrevis Gutierrez and his wife spent weeks watching online videos about crossing Darien to see if they thought they could do it. When he finally made up his mind, he joined a group of 110 migrants of different nationalities. Only 75 of them came out of the forest together.
“They robbed us, took our money, we went four days without eating,” he said. “One broke a leg, the other got bitten by a snake, we didn’t have medicine, we weren’t carrying anything.”
He said he saw bodies, saw two rapes and couldn’t hold back his tears, adding that his wife nearly drowned when a raging river carried her 100 yards downstream. “No one helps anyone in the forest.”
Jonathan Avila, 34, a former Venezuelan National Guard soldier, traveled with his wife, their 3-year-old daughter and 4-month-old baby. In all, they were 14 relatives and friends. He believes that his military training helped him lead some without the tragedies that strike others.
The southern Mexico city of Tapachula, near the border with Guatemala, has been another obstacle for those traveling by land. Since the Trump administration, Mexico has adopted containment strategies to keep migrants confined to the far south from the US border.
Thousands apply for asylum, but the process is lengthy and there is little work in Tapachula. Frustrated migrants have put pressure on the government by repeatedly moving out of the city en masse. Since June, Venezuela has made up a majority.
The Mexican government began sending migrants to offices outside Tapachula or in other states in October to speed up the processing of temporary documents and prevent demonstrations.
Avila led one such march and obtained a transit permit that allowed his family to move north. A foundation also helped because her child was ill. Gutierrez received a humanitarian visa.
“To make them happy, the National Immigration Institute is giving them passes,” Isaacson said.
Venezuelans and some other nationalities are also a problem for Mexico and the United States, as they generally cannot be deported. After much negotiation, Mexico was recently able to send back more than 100.
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Once out of Tapachula, migrants quickly head to the US border, usually buying bus tickets with money sent by relatives.
According to WOLA’s analysis of US Customs and Border Protection, 92% of Venezuelans crossed the US border in July in two parts: Yuma, Arizona and Del Rio, Texas.
Gutierrez and vila crossed over with their families in Del Rio.
Both areas are “in the middle of nowhere,” Isaacson said. “This tells us that they are being directed by someone out there, it can’t just be rumors circulating on WhatsApp.”
Gutierrez and vila made it to the United States with their families. Gutierrez was in Maryland, but without work or a place to sleep, he and his wife were planning to return to New York, where they spent a few months at a homeless shelter.
Avila has a sales job in Boston and a charitable foundation has sheltered and helped with her child’s treatment. Every week he is required to send a photo and his location on a cellphone given to him by US immigration officials while he waits to find out his status.
Meanwhile, he says his friends in Venezuela haven’t stopped asking him for advice on their travels to the US “more are coming all the time.”