Venezuelan migrant with a prosthetic leg defies odds in 4,000-km trek to U.S.

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Lying in the jungle with a gun pointed at him, Marcel Maldonado remembered his mother’s warning about the dangers of migrating overland to the U.S. — and wondered if he would get out alive.

Despite having a prosthetic leg, the 30-year-old Venezuelan had made it with his family as far as the notorious Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama. But when he got held up by criminals he was reminded why this is one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes.

“They’ll never find my body here,” he remembers thinking.

Mr. Maldonado had arrived in the remote region of dense rainforest and swamps days after leaving Venezuela on September 15 with his wife Andrea, 27, and adopted son Samuel, eight.

It was one of the darkest moments in their nearly two-month odyssey through nine countries.

The data processing technician is one of 7.7 million Venezuelans — a quarter of the population according to the United Nations — who since 2014 have left their oil-rich country due to a deep political, economic and social crisis.

Over a decade, he saw his country’s economic output shrink by 80%. Mr. Maldonado said he saw only “a life of poverty” ahead unless he left Venezuela in search of a better future for his wife and son. He also feared that he would be unable to replace the prosthesis that he has worn since losing his right leg in a road traffic accident in 2014.

The Darien Gap

Mr. Maldonado paid smugglers $900 to cross the Gulf of Uraba off the coast of northern Colombia by boat and then travel by motorcycle to the entrance to the Darien Gap, an area of dense tropical jungle with no roads.

From there, dozens of men and women advanced in single file along paths and riverbeds with their few belongings on their backs, some carrying children in their arms.

What Mr. Maldonado called the “craziness” began when migrants started to descend into Panama through a lawless zone rife with bandits. “The criminal gangs are hidden between the trees,” he said.

According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, organised crime groups like the Clan del Golfo — Colombia’s main drug cartel — earn tens of millions of dollars from control of the Darien migration route.

Things took a terrifying turn for the worse when a gunman appeared firing into the air, Mr. Maldonado said.

“They threw us all to the ground. I was sure they were going to shoot us,” he said. Instead they were beaten with a machete.

The criminals even “searched the women’s private parts,” he said. “It’s horrible because you don’t know what could happen.”

Between January and October, at least 397 migrants — 97% of them women — were victims of sexual violence in the Darien jungle, according to medical aid group Doctors Without Borders.

After eight hours the family was released with only their identity documents.

One day another migrant warned Maldonado: “If you think the jungle is bad, get ready for Mexico.”

And so it proved.

“It’s really the hardest thing,” Mr. Maldonado said, recalling the high prices, exhausting walking and rampant extortion.

In southern Mexico, Maldonado said that he initially stayed in a government shelter but left because he felt like a “prisoner,” preferring to sleep on the street with his wife and son.

Refuge in mountains

To avoid Mexican immigration agents, the family took refuge in the mountains. Vegetation got in the way of Maldonado’s prosthetic leg, making every step a struggle, he recalled.

Mr. Maldonado decided against scheduling an appointment with U.S. authorities to seek asylum through a cellphone application —a process that can take months due to the huge numbers applying.

In the year to October 2023, more than 2.4 million arrivals were recorded at the southern U.S. border — a new record.

Mr. Maldonado knew that deportations of irregular migrants from Venezuela had resumed, and that U.S. President Joe Biden’s opponents were using migration to attack him ahead of the 2024 election.

He decided to cross the river with people smugglers who told the family to bring only their IDs, money and the clothes on their backs.

On the other side, helped by his companions, he managed to climb over the barbed wire. By the time the headlights of a U.S. patrol car lit up the area the family was already on U.S. soil.

“Here we are! What a joy!” Maldonado said in videos to his relatives back home. It was November 4. The family had travelled around 4,300 kilometre and spent $7,000 to reach the U.S.

Others have paid with their lives — in 2022 alone, more than 680 people died or disappeared trying to cross the U.S.-Mexican border, according to the International Organization for Migration.

In Texas, Mr. Maldonado was given a DNA test by uthorities to register his identity and a cell phone to keep in contact.

The family was given a residence permit valid until May 2026, when a judge is due to rule on their asylum application. “They don’t deport families,” Mr. Maldonado said, explaining why he was allowed to stay.

He now sells flowers in the street in Greenville, South Carolina while awaiting a work permit. Andrea works as a cleaner. Samuel goes to school where he learns English.

Mr. Maldonado’s head is full of dreams — working as a taxi driver, having a child, getting a new prosthesis and playing basketball again.

“Nothing’s impossible,” he said.

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