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The Tragic Fate of Unclaimed Migrants Buried in Panama

Under a scorching sun and the gaze of half a hundred people, two cars of the prosecutor’s office, with the remains of 13 migrants killed a month ago in a bus accident in Panama, advanced slowly to the bottom of the cemetery.

Shortly before, a machine had dug a common grave about 20 meters long and three meters deep, among weeds, nance trees, guava trees and small guaiac trees.

A small religious ceremony led by Cardinal José Luis Lacunza bid farewell to the migrants, who were buried in the municipal cemetery of David, some 450 kilometers west of Panama City.

“There are 13 people who are today in this solemn burial, five of them were duly identified through international scientific means and eight have not been identified,” says the senior prosecutor of Chiriqui, Melissa Navarro.

Among the identified migrants there are “two Haitians, a Brazilian, a Nigerian and a person from Eritrea”, adds Navarro, who was present at the funeral along with officials from Migration, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Red Cross and personnel from the Haitian embassy in Panama.

Right to be buried

The two cars with the bodies arrived escorted by the Police, who also deployed anti-riot units in the cemetery, whose access was restricted to the curious.

The bodies were buried in white bags and individually in a common grave, belonging to migrants who have not been claimed by their families or who could not be identified by the Panamanian authorities.

“For some reason or another they have to be buried because their relatives have not come looking for them, that’s life,” Aneis Montenegro, a neighbor in the area who was waiting for the funeral procession, tells AFP from the terrace of her home.

“Everyone on the planet is equal and we have the right to be buried in a cemetery,” Ramiro Adames, a 73-year-old retiree who left the hospital for a few minutes to watch the motorcade pass by, added to AFP.

At the cemetery, some Haitians were looking for information about relatives. One of them fainted as the bodies were being buried.

More bodies still unidentified

On February 15, a bus with 67 migrants on board went off the road on a curve and fell down a slope in the Panamanian town of Gualaca, in the province of Chiriqui, some 400 km west of Panama City.

The vehicle was transporting the foreigners from the Darien, the dangerous jungle bordering Colombia to the south, to a hostel in the western Panamanian town before resuming their visa-free journey to the United States.

The accident killed 37 migrants and two Panamanian drivers. In addition, more than twenty people were injured.

Among the dead were Haitians, Cubans, Venezuelans, Ecuadorians, Colombians and Africans, among others. Due to the seriousness of the accident, some bodies were mutilated.

Due to lack of space in the morgue, the bodies had remained in a refrigerated truck for more than a month. “At this moment there are people who have not been fully identified scientifically,” acknowledges prosecutor Navarro.

A mother’s dream

A few kilometers from the cemetery, some of the survivors are trying to overcome the tragedy. Interned in a Catholic center, they are looking for resources to continue their journey.

“I lost my mother and stepfather and I thought for a moment that I was going to lose my siblings,” Adriana Quinto, a 27-year-old Venezuelan who left her country, along with 10 adults and 5 children from her family, in search of opportunities in the United States, told AFP.

As she recounts, they all made it across the Darien jungle, but her mother and stepfather were killed in the accident, while her two brothers, Dionman, 17, and Dional, 16, were seriously injured.

“My mom came with a dream to accommodate my grandmother, to accommodate her house, for my brothers to study and have a better profession,” says Quinto.

Overcrowded buses

The bodies of his mother and stepfather have already been cremated in Panama and in the next few days their ashes will be sent to Venezuela.

“I wanted to go crazy because I didn’t see any of the people who came with me. I saw people lying on the ground, passed out, unconscious,” said Dional, who was sitting next to his deceased mother.

However, “as they cannot fulfill the dream now we want to fulfill it for them, it is a goal for us now,” said Dional.

So far, investigations have not determined the causes of the accident, which has already led to a lawsuit against the company that owned the bus.

However, some witnesses speak of the fact that buses transporting migrants from the Darien to the shelter near the Costa Rican border often carry more passengers than allowed.

“We know and it is no secret that most of the buses leave overcrowded” with migrants, said Jannette Vásquez, a lawyer for some survivors.

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