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Avellon Williams

MEXICO CITY- A visa requirement imposed by Mexico on Venezuelans in January briefly reduced the number of Venezuelans detained at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, it is now apparent that this only led to migrants taking more dangerous clandestine routes.

Venezuelans headed to the U.S.-Mexico border /Image, TNH/

Due to the intense jungle along Colombia’s border with Panama, Venezuelan migrants were suddenly unable to fly to Mexico as tourists but were still desperate to get out of their country.

During the period in which Venezuelans could still fly to Cancun or Mexico City as tourists, only 3,000 of them passed through the Darien Gap, a literal opening in the Pan-American Highway that runs along 60 miles (97 kilometers) of mountains, rainforest, and rivers. According to Panama’s National Immigration Service, there have been 45,000 so far this year.

/Image, WOLA/

The Washington Office on Latin America’s Adam Isacson said that “if they can’t arrive at Mexican airports, they’ll arrive by land through the Darien.” From there it’s just a series of stops: southern Mexico, the remote middle of the Mexican-U.S. border, and finally the East Coast of the U.S.

Isacson said such visa requirements can halt some migrants – Brazilians and Ecuadorians began to slow down after Mexico imposed them last year – but not others. He explained that “it has to do with the level of desperation.”

/Image, BI/

Under the combined effects of mismanagement and U.S. sanctions, Venezuela’s economy has collapsed. In the public sector, the minimum wage has dropped to $2 a month. On average, private sector employees make $75 per month. Venezuelans are arriving in the U.S. now after leaving Venezuela years ago, living in other countries, and now moving north.

Approximately 25,000 Venezuelans were detained at the U.S.-Mexico border in December, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. As a result of Mexico imposing the visa requirement in late January, there were only about 3,000 detentions in February. As June and July approached, the number of detentions rose sharply as detentions exceeded 17,000, initially slowly, then rapidly.

/Image, SS/

Through WhatsApp and social media, groups shared information about the alternate route. A treacherous, yet well-established route some 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) long is often influenced by migrant smugglers who regularly infiltrate such groups.

Anderwis Gutiérrez, 42, and his wife spent weeks watching videos online about crossing the Darien to determine if it was something they were capable of doing. Finally, they decided to join a group of 110 migrants of different nationalities. The jungle only yielded 75 survivors.

Anderwis Gutierrez /Image, APNS/

“They robbed us, took our money, we lasted four days without eating,” he said.

“One broke his leg, another was bitten by a snake, we didn’t have medicine, we weren’t carrying anything.”

Seeing bodies, witnessing two rapes, and unable to hold back his tears, he said his wife almost drowned when a swollen river carried her 100 yards downstream. “In the jungle, no one helps anybody.”

Former Venezuelan National Guard soldier Jonathan Vila, 34, traveled with his wife, their 3-year-old daughter, and their 4-month-old baby. The group consisted of 14 relatives and friends. In his view, his military training helped him lead them through some of the tragedies that others have experienced.

/Image, UNHCR/

The second bottleneck for land travelers has been Tapachula, a city near the border with Guatemala in southern Mexico. Mexico has employed a containment strategy since the Trump administration to keep migrants away from the U.S. border.

A large number of people apply for asylum in Tapachula, but the process is lengthy and there is little work available. It has become common for migrants to walk out en masse in frustration, exerting pressure on the government. Venezuelans have dominated the population since June.

/Image, NBCN/

In October, the Mexican government began busing migrants to offices outside Tapachula or to other states to speed up temporary document processing.

Ávila led one such march and got a transit permit that allowed his family to continue north. He also received help from a foundation because his baby was sick. Gutiérrez got a humanitarian visa.

“To appease them, the National Immigration Institute is giving them passes,” Isacson said.

/Image, CGTN/

Mexicans and Americans face the same problem when it comes to Venezuelans and other nationalities because they cannot be deported. Over 100 Mexicans have recently been sent back to their homeland after much negotiation.

With money sent by relatives to purchase bus tickets, migrants leave Tapachula quickly and travel quickly to the U.S. border.

In July, 92% of Venezuelans crossed the border at Yuma, Arizona, and Del Rio, Texas, according to WOLA’s analysis of U.S. Customs and Border Protection data.

/Image, ALJN/

In Del Rio, Gutiérrez and Avila crossed with their families.

According to Isacson, both areas are “in the middle of nowhere.” He stated, “That implies they have been guided there by someone; it cannot just be rumors circulating on WhatsApp.”

It wasn’t easy for Gutiérrez and Avila to get to the United States with their families. With no work or a place to stay in Maryland, Gutiérrez and his wife were returning to New York where they had spent several months in a homeless shelter.

/ Image, MND/

Avila works as a sales representative in Boston and a charitable foundation has provided his family with shelter and treatment for his kids. While he waits for his status to be sorted out, he sends a photograph and his location to U.S. immigration authorities every week.

As a result, he says his Venezuelan friends continue to ask for advice about making their journeys to the United States. “More are coming all the time”.

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Avellon Williams

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