The family that traversed thousands of miles from Venezuela’s farmlands to Takoma Park last year
Content warning: This article contains graphic accounts of physical and sexual violence.
Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identity of the sources.
The family's last name will be referred to as "Castillo" to protect their identity.
Quotes from Jadel have been translated from Spanish to English.
"It was like a movie," Jadel recalls.
Jadel, his wife Yenesis, their two kids – their son is in kindergarten and their daughter in second grade – and the two of us are all sitting around a dinner table in suburban Takoma Park. His kids are digging into a carton of mini cupcakes. He can't resist and grabs one for himself, smiling.
The Castillos are political refugees to the United States from Venezuela. As outspoken opponents of Nicolás Maduro's regime, they had no choice but to embark on a months-long trek through nine different countries and two continents. They hoped that they would survive long enough to make it to, in Jadel's words, "the country of opportunity."
The family started their journey on January 30th, 2022, traversing through the Darién Gap, the impassable jungle separating Columbia from Panama teeming with armed bandits and human remains.
After five days in the Darién, they dangerously made their way through South and Central America to Mexico's cartel country, narrowly escaping men looking to harvest their kids' organs for the black market.
Upon arriving at the US-Mexico border, the Castillos became living evidence of Operation Lone Star, the Texas government's bussing of tens of thousands of migrants to sanctuary cities.
As more and more fuel is added to the fiery debate on US immigration, an important perspective is increasingly distanced – that of the immigrants themselves. Told through interviews with the Castillos and several local Silver Spring-area elected officials, this is an account of the perilous journey of a family of four from Portuguesa, Venezuela to the United States.
Why they left
Even in the absence of political crisis, life was difficult in Portuguesa, Venezuela. As a largely agricultural state, over 97 percent of its population falls below the poverty line. While Yenisis worked at a flour factory and Jadel ran a supermarket stand with his father, they collectively earned 80 to 192 Venezuelan Bolívar Soberanos (VES), which converts to 5 to 12 US dollars a month.
However, life was not always like this for the Castillos and other Venezuelan families. Such extreme economic hardships were not as present until around 2014. Before then, the nation had a relatively stable economy and democracy due to its abundant oil reserves, which produced tens of billions of dollars for the government (around 80 percent of Venezuela’s GDP). Using this revenue, the socialist government under President Hugo Chavez spent astronomical amounts on social programs, almost completely nationalizing the economy.
Consequently, the socialist government’s spending spree led to major overspending when their GDP plummeted. This resulted in a complete economic collapse in 2014, which caused a total inflation rate increase of 53,798,500 percent since 2016.
Due to hyperinflation and the nationalization of the economy, government aid became critical to survival. And the only way to receive this aid is to openly support the Venezuelan government. For those who oppose the government, like the Castillos, this means that economic hardships are only exacerbated.
The government provides aid in the form of permits that reduce store item prices and monthly food packages from the Comité Local de Abastecimiento y Producción (Local Committees for Supply and Production, or CLAP). These CLAP boxes are weaponized by the Venezuelan government for political purposes – those who openly support the government receive them, while those who oppose it do not. For many, these food packages are often the only difference between going a day without eating and seeing food on the table for dinner.
Jadel describes the challenges his family encounters as a result of their political beliefs. "If you are against the government, they discriminate against you. You had to have a [permit] from the government to be able to buy many things, like cake," he says, pointing to the carton of mini cupcakes that his kids are already enjoying. "And if you are not in favor of the government, like us… it was very hard to buy basic things in any store," he explains.
The carton of 12 mini cupcakes on the dining room table would have taken the Castillos a month of work to afford. "It costs probably four, five dollars to buy a cupcake... or something basic for the house... We earned $12 [USD] a month," Jadel says.
However, the economic struggles the Castillos encountered due to their political opposition to the government was not the only factor that pushed them to flee Venezuela. Besides the raised cost of goods and limited food supply, those who oppose the Nicolás Maduro government are targets of extrajudicial killings. In other words, President Maduro orders Venezuelan military groups to seek out and execute many non-supporters of the government, many of whom live in Venezuela’s poorest communities.
Scared for their lives and their kids' futures in Venezuela, the Castillos made the decision to embark on a journey to the US, crossing through some of the most dangerous passages and countries on the way. The first step of this journey began with the infamous Darién Gap.
Content warning: this section of the article contains graphic accounts of physical and sexual violence.
The Darién Gap has been described as "a nightmare with 1,001 demons."
It's an impenetrable rainforest that stretches 100 miles through the mountains of Northern Columbia and Panama. "From when you enter the mountains, it rains day and night," Jadel says. "Everything you see on the internet about the Darién Gap is true."
Steep, muddy, slippery climbs and descents, towering cliff faces and raging rivers with shoulder-high water fueled by the incessant downpour in which migrants are regularly swept away – these are but some of the dangers that reside in the jungle. A twisted ankle or knee is a death sentence. There are no roads or marked paths through the forest. The Darién is the only gap in the more than 18,000 mile pan-American highway that stretches from the Northern tip of Canada to the Southern coast of Chile.
“We walked with bags, a tent, and a kid on our back… every day we were always weak. Five days in the mountains, walking everywhere, you feel tired,” Jadel says.
But nature is not the deadliest aspect of the Darién. The jungle is teeming with armed bandits, cartel operatives and organized crime syndicates that prey on desperate migrants like the Castillos. Numerously throughout the Castillos' journey, these individuals and groups were the biggest threat to the family's safety.
There are several campsites that migrants stay at when attempting to pass through the forest. To get to their first camp, the family paid $400 USD/person to hire a coyote that would guide them there.
There was no designated path to the campsite, so they were forced to clamber up a steep mountain for an entire day, putting all trust into the coyote that he would lead them to safety. Coyotes are notorious for misleading migrants away from safety, where they assault them, rob them of all their belongings, rape the women and girls and kidnap the children.
Along the way, they walked past reminders of those who fell victim to the jungle. "There were many people that died on this part… they were just decomposing," Jadel recalled. Skeletons and human remains littered the trail. They recall stories of walking past numerous sick and dying people on all fours trying to crawl the rest of the trek. "It was hard to tell these people that we can't help them, because your body is already so tired and you can't carry anything else," Jadel says.
After a day of climbing, they handed their coyote $1600 USD and he departed. Coyotes refuse to guide migrants further north into Panama because they can face years of prison time if caught.
After a sleepless night of pouring rain, the Castillos and the other 140 people at the campsite planned to depart the following afternoon for a trek through a dangerous section of the Gap. The journey would take them to a boat that they would pay to travel two hours north up a river through the jungle.
"We were ready to go then. One person told us, 'you guys got here late last night, you seem a little tired. What would you prefer? Go now or stay here until the morning and we will take you tomorrow?'" Jadel recalled.
And so the four of them made the decision to spend another day at the island while the rest of the group went ahead. This choice ended up saving their lives.
The following day the Castillos made the trip to the boat. During the trek, they ran into a huge group of migrants on the trail. Some were wounded. Some were bleeding out. Some were dying or already deceased. They realized that this was the group that went ahead of them the day prior.
Video courtesy of Jadel and Yenesis Castillo. Video editing courtesy of Trini Szell.
"140 people went in the 4 p.m. group. [The bandits] kidnapped them in the jungle, all 140. They raped the women. They raped two twelve-year-old girls. They killed people. They robbed them," Jadel says. "It was because of God's grace that we didn't go with this group."
They were robbed of all possessions, including food and money. Without money, they were unable to pay for the boat. These people were stranded, and help was certainly not coming.
A few days later, they ran into a group of bandits with bags of cash and phones. "They were armed and sitting on the ground. They had a large bag full of… phones, cameras, iPhone, Samsung, every kind of phone there is, all stolen from the migrants."
They also had $60,000 in cash, all of which was robbed from the group of 140. The only reason the Castillos weren't robbed is because they were being guided by cartel members who had an agreement with the bandits not to harm their clients in exchange for cash.
Thankfully, the Castillos survived the treacherous stretch of the Darién Gap. Nonetheless, the remainder of the journey would be no walk in the park, as the family would have to voyage thousands of miles through harsh environments and multiple countries until they reached their new home.
On March 15, the Castillos arrived in Mexico. Although they had already experienced life-threatening situations throughout the previous two months of their trip, they were not prepared for what lay ahead in the final country standing between them and the United States.
When they first arrived in Mexico, they were faced with two options for traversing the expansive country. They could pay a coyote $6000 to bring them to the border of the US. However, Venezuelan migrants also have the choice to wait a month and take out a humanitarian visa given by the Mexican government, which allows migrants to move around freely in Mexican territory.
The Castillos decided that it would be safer to wait a month for the humanitarian visa to cross Mexico since they knew the risks of trusting coyotes. After receiving the visa, they were free to travel throughout Mexico but were still restricted from traveling to any cities that bordered the US. From here, they were faced with another choice.
They could either walk through all of Mexico to the border or ride “La Bestia” (the beast), the infamous train that many migrants take to ride to the border. The train is called “the beast” due to the perils migrants face on the train: thieves and bandits lurk in the train, assaulting and stealing from migrants, and many migrants have to jump on and off the moving train, at risk of losing body parts in the process.
Since the risks of riding La Bestia were too great for the Castillos, they decided to walk.
One night during their journey through Mexico, the Castillos overheard a group of men plotting to kidnap their kids and harvest their organs to sell them on the black market organ trade. Without hesitation, the Castillos split off from the group they were walking with and ran into nearby mountains to find help. Here, they met a man who was willing to drive them to the border of the US, despite the risk of getting caught.
Crossing the border would present another challenge, as the US government worked with Mexico to send back immigrants trying to cross. Nonetheless, they eventually arrived at the border, where they jumped out of the car to cross over the barricades, and then to hopefully meet the car on the other side.
Unfortunately, they were caught by Mexican immigration, who initially told the family to come with them to help them with something. Not much later, the officers told them to take the shoelaces out of their shoes. This was when the Castillos realized that they would be deported, as taking shoelaces out of shoes was a measure to prevent suicide.
After being caught, they were sent back 14 hours to Michoácan, a province west of Mexico City without a penny to their names. No money meant no hope of traveling, and thus the family had to sell candy in the streets for 10 days in order to get enough money to return to the border and hopefully cross.
Eventually, after receiving some food, money and shelter from locals in Michácan, they returned back to the border via a combination of walking and hitchhiking.
Since running through the border was unsuccessful, the Castillos planned to cross through the Rio Grande. However, they would need help due to the river’s notoriously strong currents and deep waters. So, the family paid coyotes to take them across, since the coyotes knew the shallower and safer spots to cross the river.
The coyotes hoisted the kids onto their shoulders, and the adults followed until they successfully walked across the river. This time, they were not deported. Instead, the US Border Patrol began to process them through the formal immigration process: taking their fingerprints and checking for sickness.
At last, the Castillos had arrived in the US. However, their journey was not over yet.
Once processed, federal border protection agents brought the migrants to a church in Houston. "There were so many migrants of many nationalities in a large park," Jadel describes. Here humanitarian organizations provided migrants with two sandwiches a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. Jadel emphasizes how the shelter was not a permanent housing location. "It was just a church. There was nowhere to cook, nowhere to go to the bathroom," he says.
At the park, the Texas border agents pulled aside those who made the journey alone, women and children. "They decided to put them in handcuffs… they kept them in buses practically forced, and they told them, 'Choose which bus to go on. This bus goes to New York. This bus goes to Washington [D.C].' And they take you there without your consent," Jadel recalls.
D.C, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago are the destinations for these buses. As of Nov. 28 2022, 13,500 migrants have been bussed to these cities, 8400 of them arriving in the District. These cities are "sanctuary cities," or cities and towns across the country that are less complicit to federal immigration enforcement rules and requests.
D.C. was the Castillos' ultimate destination because they had relatives living in Takoma Park that they planned to stay with, so they voluntarily boarded the bus. However, Jadel says "99%" of the other people on the bus were in an entirely different situation.
They had no place to stay, no source of income lined up, and no idea how they were going to get to their final destination. So after deboarding at D.C's iconic Union Station, migrants scattered throughout downtown Washington.
Jadel describes their situation. "We had my [relative] that lives here. But the other people, they stayed [at Union Station] for three, four, five days. And people brought them food, gifted them things, but they lived in the street. And there were women with children, all of them living outside," he says.
Lorig Charkoudian is a Maryland state delegate representing District 20, which includes Silver Spring, Takoma Park, and White Oak. She is pushing legislation and helping to coordinate the response to the influx of migrants from Texas.
"One particularly heartbreaking example that was shared with me was that this woman who had crossed the border had a miscarriage. And then within a few hours she was put on a bus and was traveling up [to D.C] with all of the both emotional but also physical damage that comes, you know, with a miscarriage," she says.
Jadel's accounts corroborate this statement. When asked if there were groups ready to provide humanitarian assistance to the bussed migrants when they arrived at Union Station, he said there wasn't any.
Charkoudian doubles down and accuses Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's administration for not working to relocate migrants to sanctuary cities that are prepared to safely take them in, and rather to create "maximum chaos" by "using human beings as pawns in their political theater," she says.
But despite these efforts, Charkoudian specifically details how Texas officials are still refusing to cooperate with D.C-Metro area local governments not working with the migrants' and sanctuary cities' best-interests in mind.
"So there's been these attempts to work with the bus companies, to work with the Texas government, to make all those attempts. Except the buses are still coming. And just, can we do this in a way that is humane? …There has just been an absolute unwillingness on the part of the Texas team [to work with us]," she says.
Maryland State Delegate David Fraser-Hidalgo represents Maryland District 15, which consists of western Montgomery County including Potomac, and is the chair of the Maryland Legislative Latino Caucus. He says he completely agrees with Charkoudian that Texas officials are deliberately causing mayhem and complicating the aid process for sanctuary cities.
"We have no idea whether they are vaccinated, we have no idea who has the flu or who has COVID, we have no idea what their physical and mental health situations are. This makes it much, much more difficult," Fraser-Hidalgo says.
For the Castillos, the risks they took to get to Takoma Park have paid off. "We came here with a dream to get ahead, to have stability, to have a future. We couldn't construct that dream in Venezuela because of the economic crisis," Jadel says.
He adds that the people of Takoma Park have treated his family with generosity and kindness. They enjoy playing soccer with high school boys in the neighborhood. Their kids go to school at Takoma Park Elementary School and have made friends and are making strides in learning English.
"Since we arrived, it has changed so much because the kids are in school. Thanks to God, they have an education." Jadel says. "Now that we are here, we feel much better. We feel much more at peace."
Great sites for more info:
PBS documentary "What migrants face as they journey through the deadly Darien Gap"
Doctors Without Borders interviews with migrants "The Darién Gap: 'A nightmare with 1,001 demons'"
How to help:
CASA is an organization that aids and lobbies for immigrant and working-class people in the DMV: https://wearecasa.org/
Sanctuary DMV is an organization that provides critical aid to migrants in the DMV. Volunteer, donate items, or purchase off an Amazon registry. Pants, socks, shoes, and childrens' clothes are the most needed items: https://tinyurl.com/97p98kh3
The Central American Resource Center sends staff to meet buses arriving at Union Station two to three times a week.
The Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington hosts in-person educational events that include training about orientation to life in the United States, immigration law, public transportation, and more resources. Donate or volunteer here: https://www.catholiccharitiesdc.org/volunteer/
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