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MEXICO CITY — When Mexico imposed visa requirements for Venezuelans in January, it had a briefly expected effect: a drop in the number of Venezuelans detained at the U.S.-Mexico border. But it is now clear that it only pushed migrants onto more dangerous clandestine routes.

Suddenly unable to fly to Mexico as tourists, but still desperate to leave their country, the Venezuelan migrants joined others traveling overland through the dense, chaotic jungle along the Colombia-Panama border.

In 2021, when Venezuelans could still fly to Cancun or Mexico City as tourists, only 3,000 of them could cross the Darien Gap—a literal gap in the Pan-American Highway that stretches 60 miles (97 kilometers) along mountains, rainforests and rivers. According to Panama’s National Immigration Service, 45,000 people have arrived so far this year.

“If they can’t get to Mexican airports, they’re coming overland through Darien,” said Adam Isaacson, of the Washington Office on Latin America. From there it’s just a series of stops: in southern Mexico, in the remote middle of the Mexico-US border, and then to the final destination in the US, usually on the East Coast.

Such visa requirements may deter some migrants — Brazilians and Ecuadorians slowed after Mexico imposed them last year — but not others, Isaacson said. “It has to do with the level of desperation,” he said.

A combination of mismanagement and US sanctions has crippled Venezuela’s economy. The minimum wage for public employees has been reduced to the equivalent of $2 a month. Monthly salaries in the private sector average $75. Some Venezuelans are now in the US, having left Venezuela years ago, spent time in other countries, and are now heading north.

In December, US Customs and Border Protection detained Venezuelans nearly 25,000 times along the US-Mexico border. Mexico imposed a visa requirement in late January, and only 3,000 were detained in February. But the numbers began to rise again, slowly at first and then in June and July when arrests topped 17,000.

Alternative route information was shared on platforms like WhatsApp and in groups through social media. Migrant smugglers who often infiltrate such groups influence the route, in this case a treacherous, yet well-established, route some 5,000 miles (8,000 kilometers) long.

Anderwis Gutiérrez, a 42-year-old construction worker, and his wife spent weeks watching videos online about crossing the Darien to decide if they thought they could do it. When he finally made his decision, he joined a group of 110 migrants of different nationalities. Only 75 of them came out of the forest together.

“They robbed us, took our money, we went without food for four days,” he said. “One broke his leg, another was bitten by a snake, we didn’t have medicine, we weren’t carrying anything.”

He said he saw bodies, two rapes and could not hold back his tears, saying his wife almost drowned when the swollen river swept her 100 yards downstream. “No one helps anyone in the forest.”

Jonathan Avila, a 34-year-old former soldier in the Venezuelan National Guard, was traveling with his wife, their 3-year-old daughter and 4-month-old baby. In total, they were 14 relatives and friends. He believes his military training helped him lead them without some of the tragedies that plagued others.

The southern Mexican city of Tapachula, near the Guatemalan border, has been another problem for those traveling by land. Since the Trump administration, Mexico has used a restrictive policy to limit migrants to the south, away from the US border.

Thousands of people apply for asylum, but the process is long and there is little work in Tapchula. Frustrated migrants have repeatedly left the city in large numbers, putting pressure on the government. Since June, Venezuela has formed a majority.

The Mexican government began moving migrants to offices outside Tapachula or other states in October to speed up the processing of temporary documents and stop the demonstrations.

Ávila led one such march and received a transit permit that allowed his family to travel north. A foundation also helped as his baby was sick. Gutierrez received a humanitarian visa.

“The National Immigration Service is giving them a pass to silence them,” Isaacson said.

Venezuelans and some other nationalities also pose a problem for Mexico and the United States, as they generally cannot be deported. After much negotiation, Mexico was recently able to send back more than 100.

Once out of Tapachula, migrants quickly travel to the US border, often buying bus tickets with money sent by relatives.

According to WOLA’s analysis by US Customs and Border Protection, 92% of Venezuelans crossed the US border in July in Yuma, Arizona and Del Rio, Texas.

Gutierrez and Avila crossed over to Del Rio with their families.

Both areas are “in the middle of nowhere,” Isakson said. “That tells us they are being mentored by someone there, it can’t just be rumors spreading on WhatsApp.”

Gutierrez and Avila moved to the United States with their families. Gutierrez was in Maryland, but without work or a place to sleep, he and his wife planned to return to New York, where they spent a few months in a homeless shelter.

Avila has a sales job in Boston, and a charity foundation has given him shelter and helped treat his son. Each week he is required to send a photograph and his cellphone location to U.S. immigration officials while he waits to find out his status.

Meanwhile, he says his friends in Venezuela haven’t stopped asking him for advice on making their own trip to the U.S. “More are coming.”

AP writers Claudia Torrence in New York and Juan Zamorano in Panama City contributed to this report.

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