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A reporter's journey through the Darién Gap

‘We were left completely alone.’

In the foreground we see a paper sign left by migrants warning others of gangs of thieves. The sign reads: “Están robando más arriba, formen grupos grandes!!”/“They're robbing further up, form big groups!!”. In the background we see a group of migrants walking. Peter Yeung/TNH
On the Panamanian side of the Darién, migrants are easy prey to armed groups that rob and sexually abuse them. A sign left by migrants in the middle of the jungle warns others of the danger. It says “They’re robbing further up, form big groups!!”

Dana became like my adopted Venezuelan daughter. She was two years old, had frizzy hair, big brown eyes, and was always smiling.

Her large family – including her single mother, uncles, aunts, and cousins – was from Maracaibo, a once-booming oil town in northwestern Venezuela. Now, like much of the country, it is suffering an unimaginably brutal economic crisis. After years of desperate survival mostly selling second-hand clothes, they were sometimes forced to bathe and clean with dirty water and grow their own vegetables to eat. They reluctantly left home.

I met them at a campsite the day before we began our journey across the Darién Gap, an expanse of dense and inhospitable jungle spanning Colombia and Panama that is now home to the largest migration crisis in the western hemisphere.

More than half a million refugees and other migrants from across Latin America as well as Asia and Africa crossed the Darién in 2023 – the highest number ever recorded, according to the Panamanian government’s official data. In the first three months of 2024 alone, more than 110,000 people crossed.

I’ve written about migration for many years and in 2022 I reported at the US-Mexico border, where I met people who had crossed the Darién. It had been on my mind ever since to come and report here.

The 100-kilometre route of jungle and mountain tracks, which usually takes 3 to 5 days to trek through, is riddled with all kinds of danger – from rape to robbery to the risk of becoming seriously injured or ill days away from the nearest hospital.

But it also offers the only overland path between South and North America. And for most of those fleeing war, persecution, climate disaster, and poverty, the deadly Darién is seen as the only option to reach the safety and possible salvation of the United States. 

There are no legal alternatives, and even those coming from other continents must fly to countries with visa-free entry like Ecuador and Brazil before making their way northwards.

Praying for our safety

After crossing by boat from the town of Necoclí to Acandí, we set up our tents at a campsite in the forest known as Las Tecas before beginning the trek the next day. The family were cooking a big batch of instant noodles on a gas camping stove. I offered them some biscuits. We introduced ourselves. And then I went to take a look around.

A close up of the border between Panamá and Colombia. The Colombian department of Chocó is highlighted in red. The Darién province in Panamá is highlighted in green. Walking routes to cross the border from Colombia starting from Turbo and Necoclí are marked in blue (boat routes) green (main walking routes) and brown (secondary walking route).

To my surprise, the campsite, on the far northern tip of Colombia near the Carribean coast, was like a town. About 2,000 of us slept in a massive structure with concrete floors and metal roofs. Beside it were dozens of food stalls, shops selling boots, tents, and sleeping bags. You could even buy internet access by the hour. 

Colombia’s Gulf Clan (AGC), the largest criminal organisation in the country, runs the route, including the campsites, on this side of the border. And it is extremely organised, which was reassuring to an extent. Once they pay the AGC for passage, migrants and refugees are given colour-coded wristbands, as if attending a music festival. This people smuggling brings in hundreds of millions of dollars for the organisation each year

I opted to take the route from Acandí in Colombia to the Indigenous village of Bajo Chiquito in Panama. It is the most popular because it is the cheapest – costing about $350 – but it is also the longest and most hazardous journey. Besides the transport to the start of the hike, which included a 30-minute boat journey and then a ride in the back of a truck, this apparently paid for nothing. There was no guide for us during the trek.

We went to sleep early, ready to begin walking at dawn. 

It was about 4am when we were woken by the “guides”. Blurry-eyed, we drank coffee and ate fried empanadas for one last boost of energy. Then everyone gathered at the exit gate.

Just before the sun emerged, a woman stood on a table and began to pray for our safety. Everyone raised their hands. It was an unforgettable sight.

And then, it began. 

Alone in the jungle

It was an extraordinary experience, like some kind of bizarre marathon race or an enormous group hike in a beautiful tropical jungle – except there was an underlying sense of fear and trepidation and, at the beginning, people rushed along, heads down, barely speaking with one another. 

Robberies and sexual violence by gangs roaming the Darién are common – mostly on the lawless Panamanian side. The AGC forbids it on their side as it could hurt business. And one wrong step along the treacherous terrain could easily break a bone – with no medical care for days.

Between Necoclí and Bajo Chiquito – the entire length of the route – there was no humanitarian aid at all.

A photo taken from the back showing a group of migrants as they cross the swamp rainforest of the Darién Gap. They are surrounded by folliage.
Peter Yeung/TNH
Migrants cross the swampy rainforest. The presence of a large number of families sets the Darién apart from other migration crises, where most migrants are young, single men.

As the younger and fitter men sped ahead, I walked with the families. And there were many families and children – which sets the Darién apart from many other migration crises: These weren’t just young, single men.

Soon, we reached the first of several dozen river crossings during the journey.

That’s when I saw Dana and her single mother Kimberly again. I offered to carry Dana across the river, whose fast-flowing currents can sweep people away to their deaths. 

I was quickly assigned this role on a more permanent basis. Dana would routinely kiss me on the cheek in return.

There were many other kids like her. Many shrieked in fear as we crossed the water, which usually reached my waist but one time required swimming.

Later on that day, we began our ascent up the so-called “Mountain of Death” – a steep hill leading to the Panamanian border. The branches and roots on the path had been rubbed smooth from hundreds of thousands of hands grasping them. It was tough going, and I saw many people sitting and gasping for air before we were half-way.

By the time we reached the summit, we were near the border. Up until this point, there had been food and drink stalls fairly regularly. These were run by enterprising locals – mostly from Acandí – who slept in the jungle in wooden structures they had built. Porters could even be hired to carry backpacks or, as I saw in some cases, babies. 

But after entering Panama, that all disappeared. We were left completely alone. The only way of knowing the correct route was to follow markers of blue plastic bags that had been thoughtfully tied to trees by previous migrants and refugees. 

Many – who were lied to by people smugglers about the extent of the route – were vastly unprepared for the perilous journey. They ran out of food and water. Some drank from the river, which was polluted with human waste, discarded clothes, and masses of plastic. I saw one feverish nine-year-old boy vomit after he drank from it.

Worse was still to come. On the third day, some migrants and refugees walking ahead of me were ambushed by a group of men in balaclavas along a jungle path. From a distance, I saw that one held an assault rifle and others machetes, as they forced people to hand over money and valuables, searching through bags and even sticking their hands into the underwear of teenage girls.

It was all done in a hushed silence. The thieves held their fingers to their lips, not wanting other migrants to be alerted. They said barely anything, perhaps wary of giving away clues to their identities. “Plata, plata, plata,” one grunted, demanding cash.

In all the commotion, I lost contact with Dana’s family.

Fleeing famine and war

A large group of us cut across the river and pushed ahead, the pace quickening in fear. From there, we just had to follow the river as it curved back and forth, passing endless makeshift campsites.

I spoke with many migrants and refugees. Some from Ecuador, China, Burkina Faso, Afghanistan, Ghana, Vietnam, and beyond. Over 100 nationalities crossed the Darién in 2023.

Frédéric from Haiti, who was travelling with some friends, told me it was his second time crossing the Darién. A year ago, he made it all the way to Texas before he was deported – caught while walking through the arid brushland. This time, he hoped to apply for legal entry to the United States through the new CBP One app – the app allowing people to request an appointment with US Customs and Border Protection – once he arrived in Mexico.

I saw a crumpled skeleton along the side of the path. A recently deceased woman was sitting propped up against a mound of mud. I stood and stared for a while, but nobody else stopped, probably numbed by the experience.

“I would live in Haiti. It’s a beautiful place with beaches on every corner,” he told me. “But there’s too much conflict and violence.”

Agisse, Youssef, and Catarina, who were pleased to find a French speaker, said they had fled famine and war in the north of Burkina Faso. “Terrorists burnt half our village,” they told me. 

They had been separated from a friend carrying their second tent, so Youssef had to sleep outside during the night. 

A group of about 10 men told me how they had fought for the Afghan army before being chased out of their homes last year by the Taliban. They had been on an epic journey from Afghanistan crossing through the likes of Iran and Turkey, from where they flew to Brazil, before moving on to Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia.

I thought I’d seen it all. Then I met Sophia from Angola. She was seven months pregnant when she crossed the Darién with her husband and two-year-old daughter. She said that a family problem forced them to leave, but didn’t want to go into detail.

All along the route, the generosity and camaraderie of the migrants and refugees was astonishing. I saw many help families with young children and babies cross rivers. I saw complete strangers share their last scraps of food and water with others. The good humour and friendliness of the many Venezuelans that I met was particularly moving.

Migrants crossing a river in the Darién Gap. They must do so dozens of time along the route.
Peter Yeung/TNH
Migrants must cross rivers dozens of times along the route. Fast-flowing currents can easily sweep people away.

But on the final day, desperation really set in. Some had not eaten for days. 

I saw a crumpled skeleton along the side of the path. A recently deceased woman was sitting propped up against a mound of mud. I stood and stared for a while, but nobody else stopped, probably numbed by the experience.

Some hours later, in the distance, we saw a crowd of people by the river. For $25, members of the local Indigenous community took us by boat to the village of Bajo Chiquito – where I was reunited with Dana and her family – before we continued to Panama’s processing centres.

The woman walking next to me started to cry.

Llegamos, llegamos, llegamos,” she wept. “We’ve arrived.”

I was relieved. But I knew that for all these migrants and refugees, their long journeys were far from over. This was just one of the many stages in their brutal and perhaps futile effort to reach the United States.

Edited by Daniela Mohor.

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