September 26, 2023



Jaque, Darien, Panama

Dec. 9?12

Our delegation arrived in Jaque on Tuesday, Dec. 9. We consisted of the following groups (about 15 people total): from Panama?Center for the Research and Promotion of Human Rights (CIPDH), Center for Popular Legal Assistance (CEALP), Vicariate of the Darien (Catholic Church), Justicia y Paz (Catholic Church); from Colombia?Project counseling Service, Norwegian Refugee Project Colombia office. There were 4 from the US including Roberto de Roock and myself from Tucson. The other two were members of Bridges Across Borders from Florida who have projects in Jaque such as preschools and youth camps. Immediately after our arrival in Jaque we began interviewing folks who were scheduled to leave for Colombia in two days to verify if they really wanted to go or not. What we found was that almost all who were on the final list did want to go back??this was a huge relief as I feared a much worse situation when I got off the plane that day.

On Nov. 28 Panama’s ambassador, Roberto Alfaro, had responded to Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona and 14 other members of Congress who had written the president of Panama to express concern over the treatment of refugees. Alfaro stated, " We cannot accept as refugees, illegals, terrorists, drug dealers, arms smugglers, and paramilitary which constitutes the majority of border violators."

When I was in Jaque last July Panamanian authorities had forced most of the refugees to sign voluntary deportation forms using threats and intimidation. About 220 people ( half children and adolescents) were to be sent back. They were told if they didn’t sign they would fall into the hands of immigration authorities who would deport them without any of their belongings. To avoid another public relations disaster like the one that occurred last April when 109 refugees were deported by force, the Panamanian government allowed the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to observe this repatriation and agreed to other important measures. First a group of six refugees were actually taken to Jurado, their former home in Colombia, where they could see first hand the situation there. When they returned to Jaque they had a closed meeting with other refugees to describe what they had experienced. Then just days before the scheduled repatriation, all the refugees on the list were given the chance to state again whether they truly wanted to return or not. The list dropped from 220 to 80 after that new census was taken.


So on December 11 the 80 Colombian adults and children did voluntarily return. There were also six Panamanian citizens who went due to family connections such as being married to Colombians. One Colombian woman who was being deported to Colombia against her will was taken off the list after members of our delegation met with the joint Panamanian?Colombian government commission which conducted the repatriation. A plane load of journalists was flown in to cover the repatriation. Overall things went fairly well. The refugees were taken back to Colombia on a huge ship.

While this repatriation was voluntary, it is important to note that all the refugees complain of how hard living in

Panama is for them. They are under constant strain. Very few have been granted refugee status. They cannot leave Jaque. They are often not allowed to farm or fish. They have to report regularly to the police, some as often as three times a day. For many who returned the difficult situation in Panama was the primary reason.

The refugees are returning to a Colombia still in a state of war. The Colombian government said they could only guarantee safe conditions in town and a couple of kilometers beyond. One of the two high schools in Jurado is used as a military base. There is very limited health care available with only one doctor in the clinic and little medicine. The returned refugees will only receive food assistance for three months.

The head of the UNHCR delegation in Panama, Gonzalo Vargas Llosa (son of the famous Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa) eloquently stated at the press briefing, "The people who are going back to Colombia today all have hopes and dreams for the future. The refugees staying behind also have hopes and dreams. We can’t forget them. Their situation in Panama is very difficult. Hopefully things will improve for them here."

We had close friends among the ones who went back to Colombia including our next door neighbors in Jaque, Casimiro Mena and his wife plus their daughter and three year old son Ariel who was our two year old daughter’s favorite playmate this past summer. No one was allowed to take any animals so they had to leave behind their two dogs and cat. The poor cat wailed all night like a baby and it was hard for us to sleep. The two dogs didn’t budge from the abandoned house for days. To our relief other friends said they would feed them.

On our final day in Jaque our whole group planned to travel upriver to visit an indigenous community where we have traveled many times to visit friends and buy crafts. For whatever reason the police refused to let us go this time, perhaps because the river is so heavily militarized and we had a journalist traveling with us.

Part II of Panama Journal

Since returning to Panama City I have been reviewing news coverage of the repatriation from Jaque. One paper carried an article about Amnesty International calling the repatriation on Dec. 11 "totally unacceptable" since the refugees were being sent back to a dangerous area where it is very likely they will suffer human rights abuses. Another disturbing article quoted the Director of Immigration in Panama saying the repatriation was a great success and that 600 more refugees will be repatriated in February from Puerto Obaldia and Central Darien. This is a very real possibility and these repatriations could be far less voluntary. Overall the Panamanian government has enjoyed good publicity from this repatriation so this may build momentum to clear out the remaining Colombians. It is unclear what will happen to the remaining 200 plus refugees in Jaque??the authorities may make life even harder on them with the hope that the rest will also decide to leave. If they are denied refugee status (which would give them greater protection against deportation) their future in Panama will be extremely precarious. But perhaps the most vulnerable refugee populations now are the ones which reside in more remote areas in Puerto Obaldia and Central Darien. Repatriations are scheduled for early next year from these areas.

Dec. 13?15 Central Darien

On Saturday Dec. 13 our delegation left the coastal town of Jaque and we flew into the heart of the Darien Gap region to the town of Real. This is one of the most remote areas in Central America. Real is about in the middle of the Darien Gap between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Real is about an hour down river from Yaviza which is the end of the Pan?American Highway. The highway has never been completed to Colombia so a seventy mile gap remains. We traveled to Yaviza that afternoon by boat to have a meeting with refugees who have been living there for seven years. There is a lot of support in Yaviza for Colombian refugees. A banner hanging on the front of the Catholic Church states "Let the Refugees Live in Peace." The banner was put up after 109 Afro?Colombian refugees were deported in April from the upriver settlement of Punusa. Punusa
has been entirely wiped off the map as the houses were burned. Many of the refugees in Yaviza and Central Darien in general are from the Cacarica River area in Colombia which is racked by violence and largely controlled by brutal paramilitary forces. There is also the peace community of Cacarica which has a humanitarian fence around it to keep all armed groups out and has constant accompaniment of Colombian and international NGOs. All of the refugees who were deported from Panama in April are now living in the Cacarica peace community.

The story of the refugees in Yaviza (and all other areas we were in) were very similar. They had been threatened with deportation if they didn’t agree to leave "voluntarily." The mayor of Yaviza was very outspoken in favor of the refugees being allowed to stay. The UNHCR is supposed to open an office in Yaviza soon as well as ONPAR, the Panamanian refugee agency which has a history of abuses against refugees (the new ONPAR director seems far better than the notorious old one). There are over 60 refugees living in Yaviza. After our meeting we returned to Real for the night and rest up for the last and most ambitious day of the trip??a three hour canoe trip up the Tuira River into the most conflictive part of Panama.

We left at the crack of dawn in two motorized canoes and were accompanied by a Salesian nun from Real who had also gone with us to Jaque. We were unsure of how far we would be permitted to go. The day before the police chief (note??Panama has no army but all the police dress like soldiers and carry automatic rifles) in Yaviza had told the Panamanians they were most concerned about the two US citizens (Roberto and myself) in the group. It was obvious he was referring to the incident last January where two US backpackers and a European journalist were kidnaped by Colombian paramilitary forces in Panama just upriver from where we planned to go. They were released unharmed after 11 days of captivity but the same paramilitaries assassinated four Kuna indigenous leaders in the village of Paya after accusing them of collaborating with the FARC (Colombian guerrillas). The FARC moves in and out of the Darien for whatever reason??they have even been sighted close to Jaque. This has led to a very precarious existence for the residents of Darien. People are accused of collaborating with the guerilla such as selling food to them and then risk the wrath of the paramilitaries or Panamanian police. The region is heavily militarized as a result of this and residents seem to complain most about heavy?handed police tactics which restrict their daily lives in many ways.

Our first stop was in Boca de Cupe, the last significant village (over 1,000 pop. with about 160 refugees) before reaching the Colombian border several hours upriver. The situation there was somewhat in crisis. About six Embera indigenous including a child had just been taken away by a police helicopter the day before. It was unclear what they were charged with though I later overheard a police telling the local priest that they had no documents to which he responded that no Embera have documents. In Boca de Cupe we met in the Catholic Church with a large group of refugees. As in every place we visited, our Panamanian counterparts described in detail what had just happened in Jaque and they gave out posters for them to put up on their houses which list rights they are entitled to and should demand as refugees. Manuel Acevedo of the Darien Vicariate of the Catholic Church stated, "Jaque was a first step where the voice of the refugee was felt. Here there shouldn’t be second or third class people. We are all equal. Should Panamanians and tourists be the only ones who can freely move about? You (the refugees) didn’t chose to abandon your homes and enter Panama as a pleasure trip. Some have come here with only the clothes they were wearing. Refugees shouldn’t be punished for coming here and made to feel like they’re in prison."

The Catholic nun based in Boca de Cupe spoke very strongly. "We have seen people taken away and we don’t know anything about what happens to them. We have known of cases of torture. Here there is no rule of law. It is a police state in this area. Civil authority doesn’t exist. Just the other day police were firing their weapons off right in front of the church. The Vicariate is being harassed by authorities for having denounced these things."

One Afro?Colombian man in the crowd (the refugees in Central Darien are a mixture of Afro?Colombian, mestizo, and indigenous unlike Jaque where they are almost all Afro?Colombian) mentioned he had just fled Colombia within the past year and that he was from the village of Rio Sucio. I asked him if the knew Marino Cordoba, an Afro?Colombian leader from Rio Sucio who is a friend of ours and who is living in Washington, DC after receiving political asylum. Incredibly he said he was related to him and had even had a dream about him the night before.

We received permission from the police to continue upriver (the day before nobody was allowed to go upriver) to the small community of Tolocua which has about six Colombian refugee families and an agricultural project supported by the Catholic church. It was from Tolocua that four refugee families had left the day before after hearing that they were to be sent back to Colombia on Dec. 14, the same day we were there. These types of rumors are rampant throughout the Darien especially after the awful events of April.

On our way back to Real we made one last stop to meet with refugees living in the village of Yape. We made it back to Real at dusk after traveling for a couple of hours in a cold hard rain.

So that is how our days in Panama played out. At least another major atrocity was prevented in Jaque but that doesn’t mean the future is brighter for the hundreds of refugees remaining in Panama. The future for the people who just returned to Colombia is also very uncertain. What is clear is that people shouldn’t be made to suffer as refugees so they will feel compelled to return to a war zone. While some Panamanian authorities say that no refugees will face deportation for the time being and that their status will be reviewed on a case by case basis, other authorities such as the Director of Immigration continue to speak of imminent repatriations. Hundreds of Colombian refugees in Panama have no documented status and are certainly the most vulnerable of all.

The new year will certainly bring new challenges and difficulties for the refugees. The question of whether the Jaque repatriation represents hope for the future or more suffering ahead will be answered soon.

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