DARIÉN GAP, Panama — Olga Ramos trekked for days through the jungle, crossing rivers, scaling mountains and carrying a diapered child through mud so deep it threatened to swallow them whole.
Along the way, she fell several times, passed a disabled child having a panic attack and saw the body of a dead man, his hands bound and tied to his neck.
Yet, like tens of thousands of other Venezuelans traversing this wild, roadless route known as the Darién Gap, Ms. Ramos believed that she would make it to the United States — just as her friends and neighbors had done weeks before.
“If I have to make this journey a thousand times,” said Ms. Ramos, a nurse, speaking at a camp many days into the forest, “a thousand times I will make it.”
Ms. Ramos, 45, is part of an extraordinary movement of Venezuelans to the United States.
During the worst period of the crisis in Venezuela, 2015 through 2018, apprehensions of migrants at the southern border never passed 100 people a year, according to U.S. officials.
This year, more than 150,000 Venezuelans have arrived at the border.
Most have been inspired to make the harrowing and sometimes deadly journey as word has spread that the United States has no way to turn many of them back.
But their journeys — often poorly informed by videos ricocheting across social media — are producing brutal scenes in the Darién Gap, a 66-mile stretch of jungle terrain that connects South and Central America, a result of grinding, parallel crises unfolding to the north and south.
To the south, Venezuela, under an authoritarian government, has become a broken country, fueling a massive exodus of people seeking to feed their families. More than 6.8 million Venezuelans have left since 2015, according to the United Nations, mostly for other South American nations.
Yet amid the pandemic and growing economic instability exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, many people have not found the financial footing they had sought in countries like Colombia and Ecuador. So many Venezuelans are on the move again, this time toward the United States.
To the north, the surge presents a growing political challenge for President Biden, who is trapped between calls to aid desperate people and growing pressure from Republicans to limit a wave of migrants from Venezuela and elsewhere ahead of the November midterm elections.
In recent months, apprehensions at the U.S. southern border have hit record levels, with Venezuelans among the fastest growing groups.
But Venezuelans cannot be easily sent back. The United States broke off diplomatic relations with the government of President Nicolás Maduro and closed its embassy in 2019, after accusing the authoritarian leader of electoral fraud. In most cases, U.S. officials allow Venezuelans who turn themselves in to enter the country, where they can begin the process of applying for asylum.
This has put them at the center of the political fight over migration: A large number of the people being flown or bused by Republican governors to Democratic-led enclaves are Venezuelan, including those who arrived recently on Martha’s Vineyard, the upscale island off the Massachusetts coast.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in an interview that the Biden administration remained committed to building “lawful pathways” for people to migrate to the United States “without having to place their lives in the hands of smugglers and proceed through treacherous terrain like the Darién.”
But he laid out no specific plan for Venezuelans, who would likely have to wait years if they apply for visas from abroad.
He made it clear that the United States is not offering any special type of sanctuary for Venezuelans.
Still, that has not stopped rumors from flying that the Biden administration has opened its doors to Venezuelan migrants, and will offer help once they arrive.
Surrounded by her family in a Darién gateway town before beginning her trek, Ms. Ramos, the nurse, said that she had left behind her parents and her home of 20 years in Caracas.
She was traveling with 10 family members, among them several grandchildren and two daughters.
“In the past, you needed a visa to enter the United States,” said Ms. Ramos. “Now, thank God, they’re giving us refuge.”
For decades, the Darién Gap was considered so dangerous that few dared to cross it. From 2010 until 2020, average annual crossings hovered just below 11,000 people, according to Panamanian officials. At one time, Cubans made up the majority of migrants walking through the gap. More recently, it was Haitians.
Last year, more than 130,000 people trekked through the Darién. Already this year, more than 156,000 people have crossed, most of them Venezuelan.
“From Venezuela, I went to Colombia, I worked and I worked,” said Felix Garvett, 40, waiting under a tent in a Colombian beach town to begin his journey last month. “But my dreams are big, and I need a future for my children.”
The United States has invested nearly $2.7 billion in response to the Venezuelan crisis since 2017, with a significant part of that money meant to support South American countries hosting Venezuelans. The goal has been to keep them from traveling north.
But this new surge suggests that this strategy is not working.
Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, said that the rush toward the border was not the result of a shift in policy between the Trump and Biden administrations, but rather a growing awareness among Venezuelans that U.S. authorities are letting them in.
The migration surge has corresponded with a proliferation of people documenting their trips through the Darién Gap on social media.
On TikTok, variations of the hashtag #selvadarien, meaning “Darién jungle” in Spanish, have now been viewed more than a half billion times, an enormous jump from just a few months ago.
The trend has yielded Darién selfies and videos that experts say are leading large numbers of people to chance a trek that is far more dangerous than it appears on social media.
Asked for comment, a TikTok spokesman referred to the company’s community guidelines, which prohibit content that promotes criminal activity. The company said that it did not plan to disable hashtags related to the crossing, though it removed some videos for violating guidelines after being contacted by The New York Times.
In dozens of interviews over several days hiking the route, it became clear that a combination of desperation, the enduring pull of the American dream and deceptive social media posts are creating a humanitarian crisis unlike any previously seen in the Darién.
Diana Medina, who leads community engagement and accountability for the International Federation of the Red Cross in Panama, has been monitoring social media to try to understand what information migrants are receiving.
Venezuelans, she said, were both particularly attached to technology and more likely to trust what they saw online, something she attributed to the decline of traditional media under the current government.
As a result, greater numbers of people are embarking on the journey, led by emotional TikTok testimonies. “Blessed be God,” reads the text on a video of a man and his partner crying as they wade through a river toward what appears to be the United States. “The glory belongs to God.”
Many migrants set out with no understanding of the terrain, geography or social conflicts that lay ahead of them, Ms. Medina said.
A powerful criminal group controls the region. Many migrants have been extorted and sexually assaulted on the route. Others have died on the hike, carried away by rivers or killed after a steep fall.
Panama’s border police force said recently that it had found the remains of 18 migrants in the Darién during the first eight months of the year.
On a recent day, about 1,000 migrants left Capurganá, Colombia, the last town before entering the Darién.
For hours, they trudged up several hills. While many wheezed and winced in pain, at day’s end, the mood was celebratory. Someone commented that it wasn’t so bad — a bit like walking through farmland.
Over the next few days, though, the journey got much harder. As people traveled deeper into the jungle, it became more and more difficult to see the path. Many lost track of family members when they tripped and fell or stopped to empty a waterlogged boot.
Past the border between Colombia and Panama, Romina Rubio, 23, an Ecuadorean who had been living in Venezuela, collapsed, fainting in her husband’s arms, suffering from severe pain in her abdomen.
When she came to, they charged on. But at the top of a perilous descent, Ms. Rubio’s sister-in-law, Yhoana Sierra, 29, lost her grip on a guide rope and went tumbling down the mountain.
Ms. Sierra was pregnant, and the next morning she woke up bleeding, likely to have lost the baby.
No one was taking selfies anymore.
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