Darién Gap: “We crossed the jungle looking for a better future—not for our lives to end.”

MSF teams in Panama are treating rising rates of sexual violence among migrants crossing the deadly Darién Gap on their journey north.

Migrants in transit in Ecuador, Colombia and Panama

2023 © Juan Carlos Tomasi/MSF

Content warning: The stories below include references to sexual violence and torture.

In the mountainous rainforests and swamplands of the Darién Gap—a 100-kilometer stretch of wilderness known as one of the most dangerous migrant crossings in the world—people report being subjected to kidnappings and rape in tents set up for that purpose.

This year, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams have treated 397 survivors of sexual violence, many of them children, after they succeeded in crossing to Panama.

"How can you survive five rapes?” asked a Venezuelan migrant in tears, whose name is withheld for security reasons. Like many migrants, she was forced by the economic conditions in her country to cross the Darién Gap, a route that is described as one of the most dangerous in the world. On her journey, she witnessed repeated episodes of sexual violence.

“We crossed the jungle looking for a better future—not for our lives to end,” she said. “A snake does not end your life. Your life is ended by the men inside the jungle who rape and kill."

The dangerous journey north

The survivor from Venezuela is one of nearly 460,000 migrants who have crossed the Darién Gap so far this year on their journey north towards the United States. During this journey, they are exposed to risks including falling from cliffs, drowning in rivers, as well as robbery, kidnapping, and rape.

She explained how the entire group she traveled with was kidnapped by armed men and subjected to violence. “They beat me on my legs with a bat, because those of us who had no money were beaten,” she said. “Those who said they didn’t have any money, but when searched were found to have some, were hurt even more. They said, 'Oh yes, she has some money,' and they raped them. I saw many people raped. I saw them left naked and beaten. One, two, or three of them grab you and rape you, and then the next one comes and rapes you again, and if you scream, they beat you.”   

"They say it is their land, that you have to respect it, and that whoever passes through there must pay. And if you pay or don't pay, they do it anyway. They'll abuse whoever they want. They have even raped men."

Survivor from Venezuela

Sexual violence in the Darien Gap is increasing, according to the number of survivors seeking assistance from MSF in Panama. In October alone, MSF teams assisted 107 survivors, including 59 people in one week—which equates to one incident of sexual violence occurring every three hours. Three of the rape victims were children aged 11, 12, and 16.

Shocking as these statistics are, they are likely to be a significant underestimate, as sexual violence often goes under-reported due to stigma and fear.

“Not all people who experience sexual violence receive timely attention due to the stigma against victims surrounding this form of violence, threats from perpetrators, lack of recognition of forms of sexual violence, and the fact that people do not feel safe asking for help,” said MSF medical coordinator Carmenza Gálvez. “In addition, there is the fear that reporting the crimes may delay their journey north.”

MSF patients have told our teams that armed men are kidnapping groups of migrants and stealing their money, telling them that it is the cost for passing through the Darién Gap. Patients have described how sexual violence, ranging from unwanted touching to rape, occurs in front of other migrants or in tents set up for that purpose. Ninety-five percent of the victims of sexual violence treated by MSF were female. Those who tried to defend the victims were themselves subjected to violence and in some cases killed.

“Some young men were also beaten and thrown onto the ground for trying to defend the women,” said the Venezuelan woman. “They killed a boy in front of us with a shot to the forehead.”

She issued a plea: “We only ask that there are no more deaths or rapes. It is not fair that they do this to us. We are warrior women for our children. We understand there are rivers, animals, and snakes, but most harmful are the men inside the jungle. They are raping us and ending our lives.”

People disembark from canoes in a river in the Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia, along the Central American migration route.
Migrants arrive in Bajo Chiquito. Panama 2023 © Natalia Romero Peñuela/MSF

Facing the repercussions of sexual violence

MSF staff in Panama treating survivors of sexual violence point to its serious medical and psychological repercussions. “Sexual violence has consequences for people’s physical and psychological health, such as sexually transmitted infections that can affect women’s fertility if not treated in time,” said Gálvez. “It can expose them to HIV infection, with the consequent risk of infecting others. It can cause physical trauma, unwanted pregnancies, social isolation, feelings of guilt, recurrent thoughts about the events experienced, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, insomnia, and the risk of substance abuse, and it increases the risk of  facing sexual violence in the future.”

MSF is calling on governments to ensure an effective presence in the Darién Gap to end the many risks to which migrants are exposed, including sexual violence. “No one should have to suffer this type of violence,” said Gálvez. MSF also calls on governments to ensure that survivors of sexual violence can access medical care within 72 hours of the incident to avoid unwanted pregnancies, HIV, and other sexually transmitted diseases.

MSF activities along the Central American migration route

MSF provides free and confidential support to people on the move at different points along the migration route between South America, Central America, Mexico, and the United States.

In Panama, MSF provides medical care at the Lajas Blancas and San Vicente temporary migrant reception centers and in the Bajo Chiquito community. From January to October 2023, MSF teams provided 51,500 medical consultations, 2,400 mental health consultations, 17,400 wound dressings, and treated 397 cases of sexual violence. Migration is not a crime. Human mobility is a universal right.