Shella Jean was part of a new migration path from Haiti to the relatively prosperous nation of Chile. But she has since left behind her "Chilean Dream" on a perilous journey northward toward the U.S.-Mexico Border. This is her story.
I met Shella Jean in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in July 2017. The first time I saw her, she was standing next to a gas station in the blazing sun. I remember her face: the almond-shaped eyes, the thick lips, and eyebrows as thin as two strands of thread. Shella took me to her home.
We climbed a steep stone street until we reached a concrete room. It was used as a dining room during the day and a bedroom where she slept with her mother, a cousin and a nephew whom she had to take to Chile to reunite with his parents.
Indeed, accompanying her nephew was not only the mission entrusted to her by her relatives but also her chance to start a new life, away from the misery of her homeland.
That year, Shella Jean was one of the 105,000 Haitians who entered Chile, according to data from the Chilean Investigative Police (PDI). That was the year in which more immigrants from the Caribbean nation came to the relatively prosperous South American country, prompted in part by the tightening of immigration policies in the United States after Donald Trump entered the White House, which put a brake on the main migratory destination.
The Chilean Dream
Tales of the so-called "Chilean Dream" began to spread from the first group of Haitians who arrived in Chile after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, and by the furor of moneylenders and travel agencies that multiplied like mushrooms, offering trips, and even part of the necessary documentation, to enter the country as tourists.
Most of those flights were from the questionable airline Latin American Wings, which would shutter the following year after a series of accusations about administrative scandals and scammed customers.
But back that July afternoon in 2017, Shella and I boarded one of the new airline's old Boeings in Port-au-Prince. Upon arrival in Santiago, her nephew was reunited with his parents who had been in Chile for a few months. I watched as they embraced.
Since then, we had sporadic contact with Shella on WhatsApp. So I learned that a few weeks after arriving, she sought her own destination and went to Talca, 255 kilometers south of Santiago, with a friend.
A few weeks ago we spoke again. I asked her if she knew of any Haitians planning of migrating from Chile to the United States, alerted by the increasing flow of Haitians detected in unauthorized passages in the north, in transit to Peru and Bolivia, but with a common destination: that of the better known "American Dream."
Several organizations and governments have highlighted the phenomenon. In Chile, the Undersecretariat of the Interior already reports an 81% increase in Haitians who have left the country through authorized borders. NGOs are also concerned due to the dangerousness of the route, which exposes men, women and children to long stretches by bus, lack of food, and a walk of several days along the border that separates Colombia from Panama. Known as the Darién Gap, this route extends for 108 kilometers of the jungle where migrants must make their way through vegetation, wild animals and criminal gangs.
Shella saw the message and answered almost immediately "me, my friend. I'm not in Chile. I got to Mexico now. I'm going to the United States".
Shella Jean is 33 years old now and is in Tapachula with her 25-year-old husband Herby Charles, and their daughter who has just turned one year old. Herby is a former employee of Chilean food companies conglomerate, Agrosuper.
Tapachula, Mexican port of entry
Tapachula, on the border with Guatemala, is the first city of entry for migrants to Mexico. The National Migration Institute (Inami) of that country already estimates there are 147,000 undocumented immigrants stuck there, including 18,883 Haitians who have submitted requests for humanitarian asylum to the Mexican Commission for Refugee Aid (Comar).
That now makes Haitians the second most numerous community seeking entry in Mexico, surpassed only by the Hondurans. Obtaining a refugee card is the only way to move freely and move towards the border with the United States, without being deported to Guatemala.
Shella and her family are still unable to apply. She says that they have been living for a few days in an empty room, where their only belongings are a pillow and the blanket that they put on the floor to sleep on.
From there, over WhatsApp, she reconstructs her life in Chile and explains the reasons why she finally left.
In the fruit-packing enterprise where she worked in Talca, she met a man named Samuel. Shella says that she fell in love with him and that when he proposed to go with him to Rosario, south of the Chilean capital, she accepted without hesitation.
That's when my struggle began.
However, the relationship quickly collapsed after a series of episodes of psychological abuse. Shella says that Samuel would not let her work and kept her in a room dedicated to housework. The only reason he didn't hit her, Shella says, was because of her partner's fear of the police. One day without any notice, Samuel left.
"He left me alone during winter," says Shella. "He never came back. That's when my struggle began, because there came a time when I couldn't pay my rent, and I couldn't eat because when it gets cold in Rosario there isn't much work in the fields. I only had a few savings that I saved to send to my mother, instead, I had to spend it on food ".
The community helped her support herself while doing small jobs that paid for her room. Until Herby Charles arrived, a Haitian with big eyes, a wide gap-toothed smile, who came from Santiago in search of work.
Herby rented a room in the same house where Shella lived, and they soon fell in love. In April 2020, when Shella was five months pregnant they got married at Rengo's civil registry, where they had lived since 2019, in a shared but larger house.
Herby Charles worked as an industrial cleaner at Agrosuper. According to Shella, if he worked extra hours, her husband's salary was around 600,000 Chilean pesos a month ($725). The pandemic, she says, did not affect them financially: Herby continued to work with a permit.
Herby and Shella
Migration began before pandemic
Carlos Figueroa, director of Incidence and Study of the Jesuit Service to Migrants (SJM), believes that it is important to discard the belief that the majority of Haitians have left Chile exclusively because of the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus.
"This migration to the United States has been taking place before the pandemic," says Carlos Figueroa. Of course, being a migrant is not the same as being a Chilean in a context in which there are social benefits that they cannot access.
In the United States it's not easy either, but at least you earn more.
One of the main motivations is the renewed promise of the "American Dream," a myth that is widely shared among Haitians, with hopes now that the Joe Biden's administration will be more open to migration than Donald Trump's.
But the migration north is also because of difficulties in Chile, including racism and the difficulty in accessing rights
Herby Charles takes Shella's phone in the room in Tapachula. He says that the idea of emigrating to the United States from Chile began when several of his Haitian friends successfully made the trip. A key motivation was also the 2021 migration regularization required by the Government of Chile to all migrants who entered through steps enabled before March 2020 and whose migratory status was irregular.
Herby Charles adds, speaking from Tapachula: "Many Haitians were never well in Chile. Many did not find a good job and lived under poor conditions," he said. "My problem was not being able to have a residency document. I was undocumented for four years, imagine. Without documents, you cannot project a family, even if you work as I did. In the United States it is not easy either, I know, but at least you earn more".
Facing the Darién Gap
In June of this year, Herby Charles quit his job. They prepared for their trip quickly. As a child, Shella Jean dreamed of this moment: heading to the land of opportunity — the real one. So Herby took what they had saved in the last year, they bought plane tickets to Arica, suitcases and a tent. In the house where they lived, they only received words of support, despite what the news constantly says: that the route is dangerous and that those who do not lose their lives in the Darién leave the jungle wishing they had never entered.
"You were aware of that, weren't you?" I asked.
"Yes. But I didn't believe it. it Haitians are like that. When I spoke to those who had passed through the jungle, they told me not to go, that it was very difficult, and I thought "ah, what you want is for me not to go, not to take your place… But after being closer to death than to life I no longer think that way."
Shella Jean tells me that they crossed into Peru at 3 a.m. Guided by coyotes they hired in Arica, thanks to the information of a Chilean woman. They arrived in Tacna after more than two hours of walking through the desert. In her bag, Shella Jean carried fried meat, fried chicken, potatoes and cookies. Her intention was not to spend money until they reached Ecuador.
The journey took almost 24 hours, and then another 20 to reach the next border. There, Shella says, she paid a guide $120 to cross them into Ecuador in a taxi. That night they slept in a hotel. The next day, they boarded another bus for a 40-hour trip to northern Colombia. The Darién was close.
"All the way through Colombia was very difficult," Shella tells me on WhatsApp. "We spent a lot of money on guides to get to Necoclí."
I just remember the fear.
That town, on the Gulf of Urabá, is the penultimate step before entering the jungle. There Shella and the other migrants boarded some boats that took them to the town of Capurganá, a tourist point, a beach, which is part of the 570,000 hectares of jungle that separate Colombia from Panama and that prevent the Pan-American highway from going from Alaska to Patagonia without interruptions.
It was a week of travel with the expectation to reach the Darién Gap. Shella Jean, Herby Charles and their daughter made their way into the jungle. They were accompanied by a group of 30 migrants, the majority Haitians from Chile, a few Cubans, and Africans. Colombian coyote traffickers, Shella says, led them.
"I just remember the fear," Herby Charles says on the phone. "I thought that my daughter was not to blame for what we were experiencing and that I would have never forgiven myself if something happened to her, she was fine in Chile."
It was six days of walking, often under the rain. "We walked in wet clothes from morning to night. At one point I was so exhausted that my daughter fell from my arms and I had to pay a guide to take her," he recalled "I didn't have the strength and neither did my wife. Our food ran out after a few days and the only thing we fed ourselves with was some powdered vitamins that we mixed with water."
Haitians demonstrating in the streets of Tapachula, Mexico
Corpses and assaults
During the nights, Shella says, the roar of jaguars could be heard prowling near the tents and during the day they had to avoid the snakes and insects that appeared on the road. The most complex step was the so-called "mountain of death." Three hours up and three hours down through narrow paths that overlook a ravine.
Stories of migrants who saw others fall over the edge in that place are common. Shella and Herby did not see it, but they did see the bodies of deceased migrants scattered along the entire path through the Darien.
The only thing they didn't lose was the cell phone.
"We saw the bodies of injured people that couldn't keep going and they died," Shella tells me on the phone. "Haitians, Cubans, Africans, eaten by animals. I cried a lot, I suffered a lot. Some dared and approached to check the bodies and see if they had money or any document with which they could notify their relatives."
Exhausted, and a few kilometers from the first makeshift shelter for migrants in the town of Bajo Chiquito, in Panama, Shella and Herby's group were assaulted by a group of seven Panamanians. The situation is common. Groups of criminals already recognize the routes of the migrants and await their arrival to try to rob them of all their belongings.
"They pointed guns at us," Shella recalls. "Our money and wedding rings were stolen from us. Then they stripped us all to see if we had hidden money. It was humiliating. They raped a 14-year-old girl in front of her parents."
The only thing they didn't lose, adds her husband, was the cell phone. Before entering the jungle, Herby broke the protective screen that covered the phone to say, in case of a robbery, that it was useless. Without strength, without courage, the journey continued. They arrived at the Bajo Chiquito shelter with their daughter with a fever.
Bus to Costa Rica
From that place, hundreds of migrants were deported to Colombia, after protesting demanding to continue their journey to the United States despite the closure of borders due to the pandemic. Shella and Herby were luckier, with the border open, they were able to take a bus to Costa Rica.
According to the Government of Panama, more than 20,000 Haitians have passed through that country so far this year. But it is not the only figure on the rise: 2,833 Chileans have also crossed. Carlos Figueroa, from the Jesuit Migrant Service, assumes that this is the number of children of Haitians born in Chile. Like Shella and Herby's daughter. Like the minor raped in the jungle, who, according to them, also came from Chile.
They've spent $4,000 since leaving Chile, and they still have a long way to go.
The days in Tapachula go by slowly. Shella says that the transit from Costa Rica to Mexico was the easiest, but also the most expensive. In total, she says, they've spent $4,000 since leaving Chile, and they still have a long way to go. Without money, the only way to pay for the trip is with the help of family members. Her own mother, Shella says, has had to send her money from Haiti to help.
They have been in Tapachula for more than a month, waiting to obtain the refugee card, which has become a headache not only for them but also for the Mexican government.
Wilner Metelus, sociologist and president of the Citizen Committee in defense of the Naturalized and Afro-Mexicans, explains the problem: "The Comar is the one that decides whether the person can achieve refugee status or not," says Wilner in a slow voice. But that institution today does not have the capacity to respond to the 147,000 immigrants in the city. Many have been waiting for months, and others received an appointment to start the process in March".
Wilner adds, that the situation is causing a bottleneck that threatens to collapse a small city without sufficient services to receive all these migrants. Tapachula belongs to the state of Chiapas, the poorest in Mexico, and activist organizations already register discriminatory actions against Haitians by Mexicans who see their jobs threatened. There are 36,000 policemen from the Mexican National Guard who guard Tapachula, controlling that migrants do not leave the city. And according to Wilner, this is just an action to show the United States Government that they are collaborating with them.
Shella Jean, one of the 105,000 Haitians who entered Chile
Kidnapping and crocodile risks
Wilner Metelus, president of Chile's Citizen Committee in defense of the naturalized and Afro-Mexicans, has called on Haitians in Mexico to be wary: two months ago a bus with 51 Haitians that left Tapachula for the city of Acuña, on the border with the United States, overturned halfway and 18 Haitians were kidnapped after being discharged from the hospital. Data from the National Human Rights Commission of Mexico (CNDH) speaks of 20,000 undocumented people kidnapped per year by organized crime.
He wouldn't do it again.
He asks Haitians in Chile for calm: "Please don't take the route to get to Mexico," Wilner says, raising his voice. "Right now the situation is very difficult. There is no opportunity for Haitians on the southern border. Don't go to the U.S., brothers, look for any option in Chile and hold on."
In Tapachula, Herby Charles knows that those words will not convince his fellow Haitians. If it were up to him, he says, he would not repeat the trip. Above all, for his daughter, and for the news that comes from the north. In February of this year, in Ciudad Acuña, a two-year-old girl was found alive on the banks of the Rio Grande, which separates Mexico from the United States. Among her clothes, the police found her birth certificate and her country of origin: Chile.
Weeks later, she was reunited with her parents in the United States. The girl had fallen from their arms as they crossed the river. In June this year, another minor wasn't as lucky: her body was found floating in the river, with signs of having been attacked by crocodiles.
Shella Jean, despite her fear, just wants to get out of Tapachula and keep moving north. She spends her days waiting, spending her last dollars on diapers and food, or navigating the Internet when she gets a WiFi signal that allows her to talk on WhatsApp or update her social media. A few days ago she did. She uploaded an image to Facebook: a bald eagle on the American flag.
*This article was translated with permission by the author