‘Out of Christian charity,’ priests bury migrants who died in Darien jungle

Darien jungle View of a pantheon built by the Red Cross to bury the bodies of irregular migrants at the Municipal Cemetery of El Real de Santa Maria, Darien Province, Panama, on March 8, 2023, on the eve of its delivery to Panamanian authorities. The Red Cross constructed the hundred niches pantheon to bury the bodies of irregular migrants who die during their journey through the inhospitable Darien jungle in search of the American dream. | Credit: LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images

There is no exact figure on how many people die trying to cross the Darien Gap, but those whose bodies are recovered can receive a decent burial thanks to the work of the priests of the Apostolic Vicariate of Darién in Panama and the nuns of the community of the Daughters of Mary, Help of Christians.

The inhospitable Darién jungle, shared by Panama and Colombia, has for years become an unavoidable route for hundreds of thousands of migrants who want to reach the United States. According to figures from the Colombian People’s Ombudsman Office, in 2023 the gap was crossed by more than 520,000 people, of which 406,905 were adults and 113,180 were minors.

The region is a 65-mile gap in the Pan-American Highway due to the great difficulties in building the road through there and environmental concerns.

However, not everyone is so fortunate to make it through and people die along the way, whether by drowning, infections, or because they take their own lives after losing hope. The cause of death is often unknown because bodies are found with a high degree of decomposition.

Faced with this reality, the Panamanian vicariate in August 2023 launched a project in which priests and nuns have been involved in burying the remains of these migrants.

Thanks to the donation of cemetery niches by the Red Cross, they have been able to bury 46 migrants in the municipal cemetery of Real de Santa María and no longer in common graves, as has happened previously.

“We do it with a burning desire to help these brothers out of Christian charity,” Father Claudio Guerrero of the Apostolic Vicariate of Darien explained to EWTN Noticias, the Catholic media outlet’s news in Spanish.

The priest said that it’s necessary to help migrants “not only in life, but even in death.”

Guerrero asked the faithful to pray “for the eternal rest of our migrant brothers” and that the migratory flow will decrease, because it’s a hard sight “to see how many brothers perish there in the Darién jungle.”

In cases where deceased persons cannot be identified, the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences assigns them code numbers. For those whose identity is known, there may be the possibility of repatriation.

The migration crisis in Darien was addressed by the heads of the bishops’ conferences of Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica in a meeting held March 19-22 in Panama City.

The meeting was called by the Vatican’s Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development and was also attended by the presidents of Panama’s social pastoral commission, Cáritas/Human Mobility.

In a joint statement, the prelates called for people to “raise their voices in recognition of a growing humanitarian crisis” in the region, as the Darien Gap has become the scene of acts of inhumanity committed by crime gangs against the migrants.

“The number of people who perish can’t be counted, since many of the bodies of the deceased are not recovered,” they pointed out.

The bishops urged the people of Latin America and their governments to “not close their eyes or their hearts to the suffering of the migrant brother and sister.”

This story was first published by ACI Prensa, CNA’s Spanish-language news partner. It has been translated and adapted by CNA.

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