At first they appeared only as weary silhouettes emerging from the dense foliage on the other side of the Tuquesa River.

Three women, one leaning on a stick for support, and two others carrying their few belongings on their heads accompanied by a 2-year-old boy. Two men, one carrying a machete, arrived soon after to ford the waters to safety in this village, the first populated place on the Panamanian side of the unforgiving Darien Gap.

After trekking for days from Colombia, migrants arriving at Bajo Chiquito, feel relief. It’s a place to rest, seek sustenance, let loved ones know they’re OK and recover their strength. But they’re not out of the woods yet, figuratively or literally — ahead lies one last trek to safety by boat or by foot, and each option entails its own deadly risks for a sudden and unexpected surge of thousands of migrants traversing Darien, where authorities have almost no presence and armed men prey upon travelers.

In this May 25, 2019 photo, a migrant carrying a girl walks near the Tuquesa river, in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela said last week that at least 4,000 migrants were in Bajo Chiquito, Penitas and in western Panama near Costa Rica, the next stop on the road north to the United States. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a migrant carrying a girl walks near the Tuquesa river, in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela said last week that at least 4,000 migrants were in Bajo Chiquito, Penitas and in western Panama near Costa Rica, the next stop on the road north to the United States. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

The most perilous way forward to the next village, Penitas, is overland, hugging the Tuquesa and the Chucunaque rivers. Alexis Bello Vargas, a 25-year-old who recently made that trek with his wife, and 12 other Cubans can attest to that.

They had already been robbed in the heart of Darien and, like many who attempt the last stretch on foot, had no money to pay the $25 river voyage. Just 15 minutes after setting out from Bajo Chiquito they were set upon by two men with hunting rifles who ordered them to stop and hand over their belongings.

“We kept on walking — we had nothing because we had already been robbed — and they shot us,” Bello Vargas said. “We had to give them our backpacks, and they left.”

In this May 24, 2019 photo, a group of Embera indigenous children play on a boat while swimming in Tuquesa river, in Darien province, Panama. A handful of indigenous villages dot the riverbanks of the Tuquesa and Chucunaque rivers, used by migrants on the end of their trek through the Darien gap on their way north. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 24, 2019 photo, a group of Embera indigenous children play on a boat while swimming in Tuquesa river, in Darien province, Panama. A handful of indigenous villages dot the riverbanks of the Tuquesa and Chucunaque rivers, used by migrants on the end of their trek through the Darien gap on their way north. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

One bullet passed through the leg of a woman who was part of the group, before lodging itself in Bello’s knee. Fellow migrants helped him the rest of the six-hour journey to Penitas, where workers applied a bandage to immobilize his foot and help reduce swelling in the knee. Sitting on a folding chair and clad in shorts, a tank top and a single flip-flop, he told The Associated Press he didn’t know whether he would have surgery to extract the projectile.

The alleged attackers were detained, but the alarming incident illustrates the lawlessness of the Darien and migrants’ vulnerability to robbery, sexual assault, illness and the extreme elements. More than 7,300 migrants had made the crossing this year through mid-April, according to figures from border police, on pace to be the most since a previous surge in 2015-2016. Authorities did not respond to a request for updated numbers.

Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela said last week that at least 4,000 migrants were in Bajo Chiquito, Penitas and in western Panama near Costa Rica, the next stop on the road to the United States. Varela acknowledged the difficulty of dealing with the migrant surge, which has left authorities scrambling to impose order.

In this May 25, 2019 photo, a migrant woman carries her child on her shoulders after wading across the Tuquesa river in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. The woman and her child had walked for many days in the jungle before arriving in Bajo Chiquito. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a migrant woman carries her child on her shoulders after wading across the Tuquesa river in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. The woman and her child had walked for many days in the jungle before arriving in Bajo Chiquito. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

Simply closing the border with Colombia would be “difficult” and wasn’t an option, Varela said: “That would put the lives of these people in jeopardy.”

During a recent visit by AP, about 1,000 migrants mostly from Haiti, Cuba and African or South Asian nations were in Bajo Chiquito, home to some 300 inhabitants from the Embera indigenous group. The migrants slept in the wood-siding and zinc-roofed homes of the locals, paying $3 a day for the privilege, in tents or on mats spread out under a shed-like structure.

Sitting on the ground, they sipped morning tea and hunched over bowls of a milky gruel. On a wood plank wall, many who passed through had scrawled their names and places of origin: “Kamal Hossain Bangladesh.” ”Kamaldeeb — INDIA.” Around nightfall a local antenna caught a signal that let migrants — at least those who weren’t relieved of their cellphones along the way — chat with loved ones back home.

In this May 24, 2019 photo, Cuban migrants look for cellphone signal in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. The group wanted to contact their relatives and report on their progress. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 24, 2019 photo, Cuban migrants look for cellphone signal in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. The group wanted to contact their relatives and report on their progress. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

“I spoke with my relatives, who are worried,” said Alioska Peña, a 32-year-old from Matanzas on Cuba’s northern coast who arrived May 23 with her husband and 9-year-old daughter. “They asked how we were doing.”

Migrants complained of a shortage of medicine to treat common maladies such as diarrhea. Men, women and children bathe and defecate in the river, which is also the village’s source of drinking water.

In Bajo Chiquito the migrants also register with police for the first time in the country. About 100 leave each day for Penitas. A border police official who was not authorized to discuss the issue and did so on condition of anonymity said most opt to wait for a place on one of the boats — perhaps mindful of the perils of continuing on foot, after having seen death and danger elsewhere in Darien.

In this photo May 24, 2019 photo, a flashlight beam points to a dead snake in a field near in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. The snake had been killed earlier, on the foot path between Bajo Chiquito and the Tuquesa river. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this photo May 24, 2019 photo, a flashlight beam points to a dead snake in a field near in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. The snake had been killed earlier, on the foot path between Bajo Chiquito and the Tuquesa river. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

It’s a wait of about 10 days, for a trip that takes a couple of hours. But the river holds its own perils.

AP journalists accompanied a group of four narrow, wooden boats as they ferried nearly 50 migrants to Penitas. They sat single-file, wearing olive green life vests provided by police, packed as many as 13 in each vessel.

Javier García, another Cuban, said he had left his pregnant wife back in Peru and they hoped to meet up somewhere in Panama. In the heart of Darien, he had run-ins with several dead bodies, a panther and robbers who stole $70 and his phone.

In this May 25, 2019 photo, a Haitian migrant woman carries her 4-month-old nephew as she peers out of the door frame of a house belonging to an Embera indigenous family in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Locals charge migrants $3 a day for the privilege of lodging in their homes. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a Haitian migrant woman carries her 4-month-old nephew as she peers out of the door frame of a house belonging to an Embera indigenous family in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Locals charge migrants $3 a day for the privilege of lodging in their homes. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

Just before boarding the boat, García made the sign of the cross: “We will see how it goes for us.”

The boat drivers frequently lifted their outboard motors to keep them from colliding with the shallow, rock-filled riverbed, steered toward the brush-lined shore in search of deeper waters and veered to dodge enormous tree trunks ripped out at the roots by previous flash floods.

According to border police, a crowded boat recently capsized after colliding with another while making the voyage. Fortunately nobody died — the water was shallow at the time — but authorities know that at least a dozen migrants, likely more, have been killed recently by fast-rising rivers elsewhere in Darien.

In this May 25, 2019 photo, the mugshot of an unknown migrant lays on the ground in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. As migrants surge on the country's borders, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela acknowledged the difficulty of dealing with problem, which has left authorities scrambling to impose order. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, the mugshot of an unknown migrant lays on the ground in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. As migrants surge on the country’s borders, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela acknowledged the difficulty of dealing with problem, which has left authorities scrambling to impose order. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

A handful of indigenous villages even smaller than Bajo Chiquito dotted the riverbanks, and the sound of birdsong was near constant. This trip went without incident, and the migrants arrived two hours later to a muddy berth at Penitas. García bought a soda and something to eat.

Here they would face another wait, along with over 1,000 migrants in an overcrowded makeshift camp, for buses to the Costa Rican border. But finally Darien was behind them.

Nguatem Michael, a 39-year-old from Cameroon, said his group was ambushed twice in the Gap. Robbers took their money and passports, and shot one of the migrants.

In this May 25, 2019 photo, Cuban migrant Alexis Bello Vargas is carried by fellow migrants after he was shot in the leg, in Peñitas, Darien province, Panama. Bello said that as his group walked in the jungle they were intercepted by a group of armed thieves, who opened fire on them after stealing what was left of their meager belongings and wounding him in the leg. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, Cuban migrant Alexis Bello Vargas is carried by fellow migrants after he was shot in the leg, in Peñitas, Darien province, Panama. Bello said that as his group walked in the jungle they were intercepted by a group of armed thieves, who opened fire on them after stealing what was left of their meager belongings and wounding him in the leg. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

“They raped the women in front of their husbands while pointing guns at their heads,” Michael said.

Bello Vargas, who traveled from Havana to Guyana — which a number of Cubans said has become an increasingly popular first stop for — hoped ultimately to reach an uncle living in Texas. For now, he planned to seek temporary refuge in Panama, rest and save up money before resuming the trek north.

“It was hard,” Bello said of the eight-day jungle trek. “You go up mountains, you go down mountains. And every day it rained.”

In this May 25, 2019 photo, a Haitian woman reaches the shore after wading across the Tuquesa river, holding her child, in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. About 1,000 migrants mostly from Haiti, Cuba and African or South Asian nations were in Bajo Chiquito. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a Haitian woman reaches the shore after wading across the Tuquesa river, holding her child, in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. About 1,000 migrants mostly from Haiti, Cuba and African or South Asian nations were in Bajo Chiquito. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

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This May 25, 2019 photo shows an aerial view of the Tuquesa river as it winds down into the jungle from Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Migrants travel by boat or follow on foot along the shore of the river to their next stop on their way north. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
This May 25, 2019 photo shows an aerial view of the Tuquesa river as it winds down into the jungle from Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Migrants travel by boat or follow on foot along the shore of the river to their next stop on their way north. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a migrant takes a bath on Tuquesa river, in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Migrants complained of a shortage of medicine to treat common maladies such as diarrhea. Men, women and children bathe and defecate in the river, which is also the village's source of drinking water. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a migrant takes a bath on Tuquesa river, in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Migrants complained of a shortage of medicine to treat common maladies such as diarrhea. Men, women and children bathe and defecate in the river, which is also the village’s source of drinking water. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a migrant from Cameroon prepares his hot tea for breakfast, in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Migrants prepare early on their way forward to the next village of Penitas, walking overland, hugging the Tuquesa and the Chucunaque rivers, or by taking a boat. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a migrant from Cameroon prepares his hot tea for breakfast, in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Migrants prepare early on their way forward to the next village of Penitas, walking overland, hugging the Tuquesa and the Chucunaque rivers, or by taking a boat. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a migrant from Cameroon rolls up his mattress in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. The migrants wait about 10 days in Bajo Chiquito for a two hour boat trip to their next stop on their way north, the village of Peñitas. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a migrant from Cameroon rolls up his mattress in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. The migrants wait about 10 days in Bajo Chiquito for a two hour boat trip to their next stop on their way north, the village of Peñitas. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a migrant from Cameroon reads the daily scripture in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. From Bajo Chiquito migrants have to decide if they will continue north by boat or foot, and each option entails its own deadly risks for a sudden and unexpected surge of thousands of migrants traversing Darien, where authorities have almost no presence and armed men prey upon travelers. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a migrant from Cameroon reads the daily scripture in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. From Bajo Chiquito migrants have to decide if they will continue north by boat or foot, and each option entails its own deadly risks for a sudden and unexpected surge of thousands of migrants traversing Darien, where authorities have almost no presence and armed men prey upon travelers. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a group of migrants from Cameroon rest in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Simply closing the border with Colombia would be
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a group of migrants from Cameroon rest in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Simply closing the border with Colombia would be “difficult” and wasn’t an option. That would put the lives of these people in jeopardy.” Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela acknowledged regarding the migrant surge. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, migrants from Cameroon eat a gruel made out of cornmeal as their breakfast in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. The migrants slept in tents or on mats spread out under a shed-like structure. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, migrants from Cameroon eat a gruel made out of cornmeal as their breakfast in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. The migrants slept in tents or on mats spread out under a shed-like structure. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a group of migrants relax in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Bajo Chiquito is village usually inhabited by approximately 300 Embera indigenous people, but now is  overwhelmed by more than 1000 migrants who want to make their way north. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a group of migrants relax in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Bajo Chiquito is village usually inhabited by approximately 300 Embera indigenous people, but now is overwhelmed by more than 1000 migrants who want to make their way north. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, two migrant women wade across the Tuquesa river as they arrive after a trip on foot through the jungle to Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. About 100 migrants leave Bajo Chiquito each day for the village of Penitas, the next stop on their way north. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, two migrant women wade across the Tuquesa river as they arrive after a trip on foot through the jungle to Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. About 100 migrants leave Bajo Chiquito each day for the village of Penitas, the next stop on their way north. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, messages from different nationalities are written on the wall of a restaurant in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. The messages and graffiti are left by migrants as they pass through the town on their way north. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, messages from different nationalities are written on the wall of a restaurant in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. The messages and graffiti are left by migrants as they pass through the town on their way north. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, migrants wait for their turn to catch the next boat that will take them to their next stop on their way north, the village of Peñitas, in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. The migrants will navigate the Tuquesa river in boat outfitted with and outboard engine. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, migrants wait for their turn to catch the next boat that will take them to their next stop on their way north, the village of Peñitas, in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. The migrants will navigate the Tuquesa river in boat outfitted with and outboard engine. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, migrants travel on a dangerously overloaded boat, on the Tuquesa river, on their way to Peñitas, from Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. According to border police, a crowded boat recently capsized after colliding with another while making the voyage. Fortunately nobody died. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, migrants travel on a dangerously overloaded boat, on the Tuquesa river, on their way to Peñitas, from Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. According to border police, a crowded boat recently capsized after colliding with another while making the voyage. Fortunately nobody died. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, indigenous children play on the Tuquesa river, Darien province, Panama. A handful of indigenous villages dot the riverbank, and the sound of birdsong is near constant.(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, indigenous children play on the Tuquesa river, Darien province, Panama. A handful of indigenous villages dot the riverbank, and the sound of birdsong is near constant.(AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a police officer count migrants in a boat that will navigate the Tuquesa river on their way to Peñitas, in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. According to border police, at least a dozen migrants, likely more, have been killed recently by fast-rising rivers elsewhere in Darien. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, a police officer count migrants in a boat that will navigate the Tuquesa river on their way to Peñitas, in Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. According to border police, at least a dozen migrants, likely more, have been killed recently by fast-rising rivers elsewhere in Darien. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, migrants travel on a dangerously overloaded boat, on the Tuquesa river on their way to Peñitas, from Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Boat drivers frequently lift their outboard motors to keep them from colliding with the shallow, rock-filled riverbed, steered toward the brush-lined shore in search of deeper waters and veered to dodge enormous tree trunks ripped out at the roots by previous flash floods. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)
In this May 25, 2019 photo, migrants travel on a dangerously overloaded boat, on the Tuquesa river on their way to Peñitas, from Bajo Chiquito, Darien province, Panama. Boat drivers frequently lift their outboard motors to keep them from colliding with the shallow, rock-filled riverbed, steered toward the brush-lined shore in search of deeper waters and veered to dodge enormous tree trunks ripped out at the roots by previous flash floods. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

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