Sunday, May 19

Sexual Assault of Migrants in Panama Rises to Level Rarely Seen Outside War

The girl, 8, from Venezuela, had slept fitfully the night before, wailing in her dreams, her mother said, about the men trying to kill her.

Days earlier, the family had entered the Darién Gap, the jungle straddling Colombia and Panama that in the last three years has become one of the world’s busiest migrant highways. After climbing mountains and crisscrossing rivers in their quest to reach the United States, their group was accosted by a half-dozen men in ski masks, holding long guns and issuing threats.

“Women, take off your clothes!” the assailants shouted, the mother said, before they probed each woman’s intimate parts looking for cash.

Sons, brothers and husbands were forced to watch. Then the men turned to the girl, her mother said, ordering her to undress for a search, too.

Assault, robbery and rape have long been a grim risk of migrant journeys around the globe. But aid groups working in the Darién Gap say that in the past six months they have documented an extraordinary spike in attacks, with patterns and frequencies rarely seen outside of war zones.

Nearly all the attacks, they say, are happening on the Panamanian side of the jungle.

Long-established aid groups, including Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF, with experience working in conflicts, say the attacks are organized and exceptionally cruel. Perpetrators beat victims and take food, even baby formula, leaving people battered and starving in the forest.

And the assaults often involve cases in which dozens of women are violated in a single event.

In January and February, Doctors Without Borders recorded 328 reports of sexual violence, compared with 676 in all of 2023. This year, 113 came in a single week in February.

“The level of brutality is extreme,” said Luis Eguiluz, the organization’s director in Colombia and Panama.

Several humanitarian organizations, including Human Rights Watch, accuse Panama’s border police, which is charged with security in the jungle and has officers patrolling the forest, of failing to protect migrants and allowing perpetrators to commit crimes with impunity.

These accusations come as top Panamanian officials voice growing frustration with the financial and environmental cost that migration has inflicted on the small nation, and amid growing calls among political leaders — including candidates in an upcoming presidential election — to halt the flow of people.

Two reporters for The New York Times captured a snapshot of the violence in March, speaking with more than 70 people during a four-day period who said they had been robbed by clusters of armed men in the jungle.

Of those interviewed, 14 were women who said they had been sexually violated, ranging from forcible touching to rape.

“They do all kinds of evil to you,” said one woman, 40, a mother of six who had been living in Chile. She was surrounded by a half-dozen masked men and raped, she said, after the group she was traveling with left her alone in the jungle. (The Times is withholding the names of people who say they had been victims of sexual violence to protect their privacy.)

Panama’s top security official, Juan Manuel Pino, whose ministry oversees the 5,000-person border police, known as Senafront, declined repeated requests for an interview.

Speaking at a public event, Edgar Pitti, the top Senafront official in the Darién, said officers were doing all they could to protect migrants, considering the jungle’s challenging terrain.

“It’s important to understand the geographic context,” he said.

Several Panamanian officials said the problem was not as serious as described by aid groups and migrants.

The prosecutor charged with leading investigations into organized crime, Emeldo Márquez, insisted in an interview that sexual violence on the migrant route in his country “has gone down.”

But data from his office shows investigators opened 17 cases into sexual assault on the Panamanian side of the jungle in 2023, and 14 so far this year. Mr. Márquez explained that for some of this year’s cases he was still verifying claims by victims.

The director of the country’s National Migration Service, Samira Gozaine, expressed skepticism recently in a post on the platform X about the data provided by Doctors Without Borders.

“It is easy to say people here are raped every day,” she said. “Where is the evidence?”

Ms. Gozaine declined a request for an interview.

Until recently, Doctors Without Borders was the primary nonprofit providing health care to migrants at the end of the Darién route, with 67 staff serving roughly 5,000 people a month, the organization said. It was also the main group collecting testimony of sexual assault claims.

But in early March, following the organization’s repeated public statements about violence against migrants, Panama ordered Doctors Without Borders to suspend operations.

The country’s health minister, Luis Fernando Sucre, said in an interview with The Times that the medical group had not complied with local regulations, including reporting the names of sexual assault victims to the government to help with investigations.

The suspension order, he said, was not in retaliation for the group’s reports about attacks in the jungle.

But Ms. Gozaine also accused the organization and other “international bodies” of directing migrants into Panama by providing information about the route, contributing to the country’s problems.

Doctors Without Borders declined to comment.

The 8-year-old girl from Venezuela had been in third grade when her parents decided to leave for the United States. With dark curly hair and a love for animals, she said she wanted to be a veterinarian when she grew up.

Her mother, age 35, said their family left Venezuela after they were threatened by supporters of President Nicolás Maduro, whom they had refused to support. They moved to Colombia, where her husband delivered groceries, making less than the minimum monthly wage of about $300. With their two children they eventually decided to follow hundreds of thousands of other Venezuelans on a now well-trodden path north.

During the attack in early March, the mother said, masked men patrolled a line of terrified people.

A woman who refused to take off her clothes was yanked violently by her hair, she added.

The mother said she was beaten, and then, naked, searched between her legs, a man probing with his fingers, demanding money.

When they turned to her daughter, they threatened to kill the girl if she did not undress.

“Mami,” she recalled her daughter shouting, “I’ll take off my clothes! I don’t want to die.”

The men did not touch the girl, her mother said, and after they were sure she had no money, left quickly.

Other survivors recounted stories of nearly identical attacks, saying the assaults often happened a few hours’ hike past a Senafront camp inside the forest.

Last year, Panama arrested four people accused of sexual assault in the jungle, according to Mr. Márquez, who declined to say if there had been any arrests this year.

People crossing the Darién in Panama must pass a stretch of the jungle that is home to communities of Kuna and Emberá Indigenous peoples. These communities have seen their livelihoods transformed by migration: Their water and land has been polluted by trash, but they also have new opportunities to make money selling food, boat transport and other services.

Dozens of victims, all of whom spoke Spanish, said the perpetrators spoke to each other in an Indigenous language. Some people said they were robbed multiple times, by men speaking an Indigenous language and, separately, by men speaking Spanish with a Colombian accent.

A representative of the Colombian police declined to comment on violence in the jungle.

In interviews, several Indigenous leaders said some perpetrators might come from their villages, and urged the Panamanian border police to investigate.

Tulio Rosales, a leader in the Emberá village of Villa Caleta, called on the border police to “put more force” into migrant protection.

A 29-year-old woman from Venezuela left with her partner and four children, fleeing poverty. They had been walking roughly 12 hours a day when armed men stopped them, she said.

The woman’s partner was allowed to move on with the children, but the woman was forced to stay behind and undress. She wept as she described how one of the masked men placed his fingers inside each of the roughly 16 women who remained, searching for money, she said.

Afterward, she fled in a panic, forgetting the family’s food.

Then her group was accosted a second time, this time while they slept. Again a group of masked men forced some people to strip naked and hand over cash. This time, the woman said, she had nothing left to give.

As crises around the world have pushed a record number of people from their homes, the Darién jungle — which must be traversed to reach the United States from South America by foot — has become an unforgiving rite of passage for those seeking new lives.

More than 520,000 people crossed this stretch last year, more than twice the year before, which has helped fuel the historic number of arrivals at the U.S. border.

This year, Darién crossings in January, February and March were up nearly 25 percent compared to the same period in 2023, according to Panamanian authorities, with most people coming from Venezuela, Ecuador, Haiti and Colombia.

Panama, a nation of just over four million people, has seen a million migrants pass through in just three years. Ms. Gozaine, the director of the National Migration Service, says this tide of people has cost the country $70 million, including money spent on lodging and food at government-run camps at the end of the jungle.

The government’s goal, Ms. Gozaine has said, is to provide migrants a “dignified” experience in her country.

But as frustration among Panamanian officials has grown, the country’s security officials have deepened ties to several right-wing influencers who have become popular in the United States by portraying migrants as potential criminals and aid groups as profiteers encouraging their journey.

Some influencers have toured the Darién Gap with the border police. Oscar Ramirez, a correspondent for Real America’s Voice, which also hosts Steve Bannon’s show, was invited in February to address hundreds of Panamanian officials at a security conference in Panama City.

The accusations of sexual assault come as the Biden administration ramps up aid to Panama, which it has called a key partner in its efforts to control and halt the flow of people.

In the last three years, Washington has delivered nearly $40 million to help Panama deal with migration.

Asked at a recent event if the United States would urge Panama to do more to protect migrants, the U.S. Embassy’s second-in-command in Panama, John Barrett, declined to answer, saying simply that he understood that there was a “humanitarian situation” in the jungle.

The mother of the 8-year-old said that on the day the family was attacked, perpetrators took the last of their savings: $280.

“They stole my daughter’s innocence,” she said of the attack in the Darién. “I can stand anything, but she cannot.”

Eventually, the family made it to southern Mexico. There, the mother said in audio message from a friend’s cellphone, the family was kidnapped and held for two days in a cockfighting arena.

The mother was again forced to strip naked and searched for valuables, she said.

Once released, the family sold candies in the street, planning to use their earnings to try and continue north.

Federico Rios, Simón Posada and Ken Bensinger contributed reporting.