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72-year-old martial arts instructor contracted a bacteria in the Darien Gap and lost his leg


The wild Gap of the Darién left an indelible memory for Don Jorge Asimbaya, a 72-year-old migrant of Ecuadorian-Venezuelan nationality who fled looking for a better future for his family. While he was crossing this jungle region of 575,000 hectares that separates Panama from Colombia, he began to feel pain and redness in one leg, apparently due to a bacteria.

Upon arrival in Costa Rican territory, the leg was red, hot and in great pain and upon arrival in Ciudad Quesada, medical help was already urgent. At the San Carlos Hospital they got the answer, the life of the man, a martial arts instructor, depended on having his leg amputated, according to his son, Yorman Asimbaya.

The older adult was discharged this Tuesday, September 6, after spending a month in hospital. Now, the Asimbaya family is waiting for Don Jorge to recover and his wounds to heal to continue their journey north. There they have “guaranteed” work, because relatives who already live in the United States are waiting for them.

Yorman, a Venezuelan national, undertook his journey in Ecuador together with his father, his mother Yorka, his wife Andreina and their three children, all of school age. Before he started moving, he was engaged in welding work, while his father was the owner and instructor of a Taekwondo gym.

“We lived in Ecuador for six years, but we took this journey because of the economic situation, there was no work. We left Ecuador on July 16, we went to Colombia and we stayed in the jungle for 12 days. In Capurganá the plug begins and one continues on foot, there we already had the business with a guide but he never showed up, so we decided to join a group and start the walk without a guide”, recalled Asimbaya.

“He caught us at dawn in the jungle and that was horrible. At night with only flashlights, walking along the edge of a mountain with a gap on both sides, you had to take your steps carefully because if you slipped you would fall. It was fatal, with my father exhausted and with the children, “explained Yorman.

In the first camp they were victims of robberies. Clothes and canned food were taken from their bags. They opened a hole in Don Jorge and Doña Yorka’s camping tent to take out their valuables. The Asimbaya family stayed a whole day in the first camp, with the aim of getting a guide.

“Many pass through the jungle without a guide, but a young person who walks alone and without responsibilities is different than walking with three children and an elderly person is already slower and more complicated. The guides tell you everything, but there is no security, there is no commitment, they take your money, make the group and walk. The one who has good physical condition and walks with him made it, but those who don’t, are staying, “lamented Yorman.

Since they had already walked the most difficult trails, the guide they hired charged them $50 per person ($200 total). The start-to-finish fee is $350 per person ($1,400 total), Asimbaya explained. Only adults pay. However, in each camp they arrive at, they are obliged to pay for entry and exit. Additionally, they paid a backpacker $20 to carry Don Jorge’s bag, since they had to lighten their pace.

Yorman recalls that after several days interned in the jungle, his family’s health began to seriously deteriorate. His father was lost for several hours after being left behind. His children became ill due to the humidity, the mud and the need to cross rivers. He and his wife, Andreina, lost their toenails.

“The guides take you through the most difficult areas, through the mud, but through the river, which is the fastest area, they don’t let you pass. Why? Well, because drug trafficking is handled in the jungle and they have divided the most difficult areas for migrants and the ‘prohibited steps’ for smuggling. We asked if we could go through the flatter area to go faster and they told us no, rather there was a person pointing a gun and threatening us not to cross, ”he narrated.

Yorman believes that his father contracted the bacteria in the jungle, due to the dozens of rivers and mudflats they crossed, combined with injuries from cuts, scrapes and bumps. It wasn’t until they arrived in Panama that they noticed a slight redness in the leg, but they considered it normal due to exhaustion. During his journey through Panama, everything remained the same.

However, a month ago they were in Paso Canoas, on the border between Costa Rica and Panama, and they noticed that Don Jorge’s leg was a little swollen. For that reason, they decided to rest for a whole day to continue the walk the next morning. But Don Jorge’s leg did not improve.

They boarded the bus from Paso Canoas to San José, arrived in the capital and went to the San José – San Carlos terminal to take another bus. “My dad sat up, hit his leg and felt something drain from him, like a blister. We cut his pants and we saw that he had her necrotic, contaminated, in a matter of hours, from Paso Canoas to the capital, ”lamented Yorman.

Other bus passengers assured them that there was a public hospital in Ciudad Quesada where they could be treated. That same day, Mr. Jorge Asimbaya was admitted to the San Carlos Hospital. The next day, the older adult received an ultimatum: his leg would be amputated or he would die. He underwent urgent surgery.

Since then, the Asimbaya family has been housed by the Nueva Sión Internacional evangelical congregation, located in Ciudad Quesada. This church receives around 20 migrants every night, who stay to sleep, have dinner and breakfast. According to Ángel Eduardo Castillo, also a Venezuelan and administrator of the shelter, since April they have received around 500 people. In one night, they had 60 people.

In Don Jorge, the amputation caused frustration, because “it is like taking an arm off a boxer, he can no longer practice taekwondo, which is his profession, but as a son I try to give him emotional support and tell him that the important thing is that he is alive. He is calm, collected,” Yorman concluded.

The Asimbaya family hopes to be able to rest for a few months and continue their journey north.

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