Deadly animals and cartel members: Migrants in Denver describe their journey
The city has served more than 10,000 migrants, many from Venezuela, since December
Eduardo Caripa fled his home of Venezuela to Colombia before continuing to the U.S. on a three-month journey involving homelessness and violence for a better standard of life. Photographed on May 22, 2023, in Denver. (Andrew Fraieli for Colorado Newsline)
The Darién Gap is a 60-mile-wide no-man’s-land of dense, mountainous jungle that swallows the border of Panama and Colombia. There is no road, only a muddy path rife with hundreds of thousands of migrants, and cartel members charging a fee to cross it.
The Gap is a common route for migrants trying to reach the United States from South America, including some of the hundreds who have entered Denver in the past few weeks.
The city first experienced an influx of migrants in December, when Mayor Michael Hancock issued an emergency declaration and the city set up emergency shelters. The migrants came from Central and South America, particularly Venezuela. A new influx of migrants began in Denver, as in other American communities, around the beginning of May as Title 42, a pandemic-era federal immigration policy that allowed border authorities to quickly expel migrants from the U.S., came to an end.
Colorado Newsline spoke with a few of the recent migrants who have arrived at Denver’s processing center, with Martin Perez — a Denver Human Services emergency service worker — translating.
The time needed to cross the Gap, repeatedly called one of the most difficult parts of the migrants’ journey to the U.S., varied person to person. For Shelby Monsalve, a father and food truck owner passing through Denver to New York, it took almost nine days. He slept in a tent, had only small snacks for the trip, and said he was alongside burglars and drug traffickers on the trail. One night he saw a jaguar outside his tent.
Monsalve’s seven-month journey, and counting, from his home country of Colombia to Denver saw him pass out of the jungle into Panama City, then through Costa Rica, Nicuagra, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Each country he’s traversed has had people helping migrants, he said, but he felt they were mostly trying to move them onwards, putting him on a bus to be shipped out of the country within five days.
He still feels that way.
Besides the Gap, Mexico was the most difficult place to cross for Monsalve, but the difficulty in Mexico was due to bureaucracy and bribes, not jaguars and mud. He said he was detained by Mexican immigration police, whom he had to pay to release him. Even crossing the border into Texas, which alone took two months, he felt kidnapped, as he said he was held in a detention center in Texas for 12 days with only two meals a day. Forced to sign papers in English he didn’t understand, he said he felt duped as well.
When asked what he left behind, Monsalve said, “Mi vida” — my life. Tearing up, he explained that he left not for a better life for himself, but for his family, his brother, his 9-year-old daughter he left with her mother. He said he’d watched friends die during protests in 2019 in Colombia and his mother die from a lack of access to medical care in 2014. He said he’s tired of living that way, and wants to live in a free country and free world.
He wants his own business, a food truck in New York selling Latin food, and to earn enough to properly bring his family to the U.S.
The train doesn’t stop
While crossing the Darién Gap presents the dangers of disease, deadly animals, cartel members, and the environment itself of mud, rain, and mountains, another major route for migrants can bring extreme cold and heat, and even death: train hopping across Mexico.
Liliana Perez, with her husband, first hopped a train northward to Texas in December after traveling much the same path as Monsalve, but from Venezuela. She explained that the train doesn’t stop, so she had to run and jump onto it. She jumped off outside Texas, turning herself over to U.S. immigration officials in February, but was sent back to Mexico, forcing her to hop the same train again and start the process all over.
A nine-month trip in total — taking two to get to Mexico from Venezuela, and almost five days to cross the Gap — she didn’t enter the U.S. to arrive in Denver until this month.
Working at a government ration manufacturing plant, Perez said she, her husband, and their three children were relatively well-off back home. They owned their own house. But after voicing dissent against the Nicolás Maduro regime, she began receiving death threats and being harassed. Her family was afraid of being persecuted, so she moved her three children to her mother’s place — far away from their hometown, she said — and began the trip to the U.S.
Even then, the harassment did not stop. Perez described her journey as full of tears and suffering, surviving sickness, hunger, sleeping on the streets and attempted sexual violence. She described one man in Mexico who was known for housing migrants on their journey, but also for assaulting some. She didn’t believe it until it happened to her: sexual assault, the man trying to watch her in the bathroom, and trying to assault her with a knife before she fled.
She still feels persecuted, even stalked, by this man, as well as her government. She’s heading to Chicago partially because she feels more secure the farther she is from her home, hoping she and her husband can establish themselves and bring their kids over as well.
When asked if the journey was worth it, she said yes. She believes they would be dead otherwise.
Faced with assault rifles
While train hopping and crossing treacherous jungles were large physical impasses, the U.S. border can be a large bureaucratic one. It was at the border that Eduardo Caripa, after 15 days lost in Colombia, three days waiting to enter the Darién Gap — guarded by men with guns demanding an entry fee — five days traversing it, four trains and a three-month total journey, lost track of his girlfriend he’d traveled with all that way.
The two were detained by U.S. immigration officials on May 12, with Caripa and friends of his girlfriend all being released soon after. But none have heard from his girlfriend.
He faced the same challenges as other migrants, train hopping and crossing the jungle, as well as being robbed of everything — even his clothes and shoes. He was sick, had no food, slept on the streets, and had to panhandle in every country he passed through to have the money to travel, and bribe. Entering Mexico he was faced by five men with assault rifles, he said.
Caripa said he fled his home of Venezuela earlier than most, heading to Colombia after he had to stop his studies due to the pandemic and due to pay not being enough for expenses. He got paid $10 a week, and a bag of rice was $1, he said.
Ultimately, his goal is to provide for his family back home. Both his brother and mother are sick, and the family doesn’t have the money to treat them. Caripa said he knows someone in Chicago, where he hopes to get a job and meet his girlfriend there.
Caripa arrived at the processing center only that morning, and was off to catch a bus to a job, and possibly his girlfriend, by the afternoon.
More than 10,000 migrants
By 10 a.m. Monday, 96 people had already entered Denver’s processing center to either find shelter or be sent to their final destination — some leaving after only arriving that morning.
As of Monday, the city has served more than 10,000 migrants since December, according to Denver’s Office of Emergency Management. The migrants have flowed through the processing center in the city, with the majority going off to cities like New York or Chicago, but others have wanted to stay in Denver. Those migrants, about 1,200, have been staying at one of five shelters the city is running, relying mostly on faith-based organizations for staffing and space, according to community engagement officer Jill Lis at the city’s Department of Housing Stability.
As of early last week, Lis said the recent influx of migrants seemed to have been mellowing, but this was before May 18, which saw a bus of 41 migrants chartered to Denver by Texas officials. The biggest influx of migrants since the winter occurred from May 1 to May 10, according to the city’s data dashboard, and it has stayed relatively stable since.
Editor’s note: This story was updated at 11:39 a.m., May 23, 2023, to correct the spelling of Colombia.
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