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Why migrant traffic through a dangerous jungle passageway is slowing down

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For migrants on their way to the United States from South America, a key stopover is a Colombian town where they prepare to enter a thick, roadless rainforest on the border with Panama. Traffic through the jungle is slowing. Reporter John Otis explains why.

(CROSSTALK)

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Scores of migrants gather on the wharf in Necocli, on Colombia's Caribbean coast. Most are from Venezuela, but there's a smattering of Africans, Chinese, Ecuadorians and Haitians.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: Because they lack visas, flying to the U.S. is not an option. So they're taking a roundabout, overland route through South and Central America, then Mexico.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLASTIC BAG CRINKLING)

OTIS: They wrap their luggage in plastic, then board a boat that will take them across a bay to where the Darien jungle begins. Then, they'll spend up to a week, walking 60 miles, to get to the first village on the Panamanian side of the border.

The migrants are wearing life jackets. They've got their passports encased in plastic. They're drinking water, buying last-minute food supplies and getting set for the Darien jungle.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER RUSHING)

OTIS: The boat pulls away from the dock, and the migrants are on their way. While navigating the rainforest, hundreds of migrants have been robbed, killed or raped, and some have drowned in fast-flowing rivers. Yet they're so desperate to get to the U.S. that, last year, a quarter of a million people braved the Darien jungle - an all-time high.

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: But the migrant flow is finally starting to abate. On May 11, the Biden administration put in place new rules for entering the U.S. that are in some ways much tougher on migrants. Now, those caught entering the U.S. without a visa could face criminal prosecution and a five-year ban from re-entering the country. Those seeking asylum must first prove they were denied asylum in a country they traveled through on their way to the U.S. U.N. officials tell NPR that, before the new rules took hold, between 1,000 and 1,500 migrants were crossing the Darien jungle every day. Now, they say, that number has dropped to between 500 and 700.

NATALIE VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Natalie Vasquez (ph), who manages one of the main ferry services here in Necocli, immediately felt the impact.

VASQUEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: She says her ticket sales to boat passengers heading to the Darien jungle have dropped by half.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

OTIS: The changes are also visible on the town's waterfront. It used to be filled with migrants camping out in tents as they prepared to cross the jungle. Now, most of the tents are gone, and tourists have reclaimed the sandy beaches. But this lull may be temporary. The factors driving migration, like rising crime, political instability and economic strife, are getting worse across much of South America.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: This Ecuadorean bus driver, who I meet on the wharf in Necocli, says he left his homeland after he was threatened by gang members demanding extortion payments.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "They pulled a knife on me twice because I didn't want to pay them off," he says. "I was really scared. That's why I fled."

(CROSSTALK)

OTIS: Farther down the beach, I meet Rudi Heredia (ph). Five years ago, she fled the economic crisis in her native Venezuela and resettled in Peru. There, she sold empanadas while her husband worked construction.

RUDI HEREDIA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: But Heredia explains that anti-government protests in January paralyzed Peru and cut off the flow of building supplies to much of the country. Her husband lost his construction job, so now they're on their way to the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: For migrants here in Necocli, the path forward is especially daunting. First, they'll have to make it across the Darien jungle in one piece. Then they'll have to navigate the onerous new U.S. immigration rules. Still, none of this has stopped Luis Flores (ph), who is heading north with several fellow Venezuelans.

LUIS FLORES: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: He says, "even if we get deported from the U.S. five times, we will come back five times."

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Necocli, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Otis