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Story Publication logo August 13, 2020

What Migrants Face as They Journey Through the Deadly Darien Gap

Image by PBS NewsHour. Mexico, 2019.

Where South America squeezes into Central America lies the nexus of one of the most circuitous...

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Whether fleeing war, persecution, poverty or the effects of climate change, migrants and refugees worldwide routinely find themselves in great danger. Perhaps the most hazardous migrant trail of all is the Darien Gap, a wild, lawless stretch straddling Colombia and Panama. Before the pandemic, special correspondent Nadja Drost and videographer Bruno Federico reported from this perilous path.

Judy Woodruff:

Life around the globe for refugees and migrants fleeing war, persecution, climate change, and economic misfortune routinely find themselves in great peril along migrant trails.

Perhaps the most perilous path anywhere, through the Darien Gap, a wild, lawless stretch that straddles Colombia and Panama.

Last fall, before the pandemic, and with the support of the Pulitzer Center, correspondent Nadja Drost and videographer Bruno Federico put themselves at great risk to bring us stories of people risking everything to make their ways north toward the U.S. And a warning: The images and accounts in this report may disturb some viewers.

Nadja Drost:

Where South America meets Central America lies one of the world's wildest jungles. It's roadless, lawless, and almost entirely uninhabited, its name, the Darien Gap.

Underneath the soaring jungle canopy, migrants from around the world risk death crossing the jungle, in a desperate bid to reach the U.S. and Canada. They have no map, and no instructions on how to make it through one of the world's most dangerous migration routes.

Jean Delicat (through translator):

I would like to send a message to anyone who is thinking of doing this route. It's very dangerous. If I knew this, I wouldn't have done it.

Nadja Drost:

Many migrants spend a week or even two on this trail before they reach a village and safety.

But these journeys started long before. Migrants from Asia, the Middle East, and Africa flew into Ecuador or Brazil, where visa requirements are somewhat lax. Haitians also use this route as a springboard north. But to get from Colombia to Panama, they have to cross the Darien Gap by foot.

It's the only missing 66-mile break in the Pan-American Highway from the tip of Argentina up to Alaska. Migrants go first to the end of the road in Colombia, the port town of Necocli, to head west along the Caribbean. The passenger manifest was global.

Most had little idea of what lay ahead. They dock in Capurgana, a tourist town, now a trailhead for migrants headed into the Darien.

We set out to join up with the migrant trail, and reached a makeshift camp where smugglers wait for migrants. At dusk, a group of Cameroonians and Pakistanis arrived. They were exhausted, and relieved to find the last spot on the trail where they can get hot food.

Morning broke with torrential rain. The Darien is one of the wettest places on the planet. The environment could hardly be more different from the high mountains of Pakistan this group of friends call home.

Nihal Ahmad (through translator):

The Taliban targeted our family from time to time. That is why I had to leave my country.

Nadja Drost:

We packed our food for five days, and, with guides we hired, followed the migrants as they set out on a daylong ascent of a mountain ahead.

The steep and slippery terrain was tough for everyone, but nearly impossible with an injury. This woman, from Cameroon, could barely put weight on her knee. Exhaustion took over.


The pain is too much. The pain is more than me.

Nadja Drost:

Up the mountain, the smuggler the Cameroonians and Pakistanis hired demanded payment. As we hiked, young men carrying square backpacks filled with bricks of cocaine passed us. We were told to expect their heavily armed security patrolling, so we put our camera away.


I will fall.


But she got courage.

Nadja Drost:

After a steep descent, the group made it to this river. They were almost out of food.

Smugglers won't venture any farther into Panama, where they could face over a decade in prison if they're caught. This one, who didn't want his face shown, wished smugglers weren't prosecuted, so they could help migrants safely complete their journey.

Man (through translator):

I have had to see mothers who tell their children they can't go on to give themselves up to God. For anyone who has a family or kids, that breaks your heart.

Nadja Drost:

Another smuggler, who can't be identified, told us he came across this migrant, who had been injured and spent two weeks on this mountainside.

Man (through translator):

He was only crawling, crawling like a child. It's common. Most people who injure themselves die, because there's no help for them.

Nadja Drost:

From here on, migrants are on their own. The next morning, we came across George, a Cameroonian man. Injured, he had been left behind by his group. Then, forging ahead alone, he fell and dislocated his shoulder. Our guides popped it back into place.

He was one of many Cameroonians on this trail who didn't want to be identified by name, fleeing a brutal conflict in his country.

George (through translator):

You know, when you are running for your safety, you don't care what is happening to you. You don't care what's in front of you. You just want to have a safe ground.

Nadja Drost:

Just like his group of friends had, we him behind hobbling onwards.

The trail and riverbanks were littered with signs of desperation. Before long, a large group of Haitians and Sri Lankans appeared.

Jean Delicat, a father of two:

Jean Delicat (through translator):

It's been six days that we're walking without stopping. The children cry of hunger. There's no food. There's nothing.

Nadja Drost:

There was nothing else for them to do but try to go ahead. These Haitians had been living legally in Brazil or Chile. Among them were six children and three pregnant women.

Dusk fell, and the Haitians made camp high above the river. It was hard to find wood dry enough to make a fire and even harder to find food to cook. The night's catch, a few fish.

Lying smugglers often tell migrants they're almost to their destination, which is why many, like Delicat, had already tossed their clothing and food.

Jean Delicat (through translator):

The bread is finished right now. I have brought nothing, nothing here, nothing.

Nadja Drost:

Your Bible?

Jean Delicat (through translator):

My Bible. Yes, my Bible, and my books.

Nadja Drost:

Dawn broke after a night of heavy rain. They have barely slept.

They are soaking wet and very hungry. But, in fact, we are stuck here for now. That's because, overnight, the rain made the river rise dramatically.

It was too high to cross. The rivers often pull children from their parents' arms and sweep migrants to their death. Marooned, with unwelcome time to think, worries took over the Haitians, like Rosi Bantour.

Rosi Bantour (through translator):

Sometimes, I think that, if I was not this poor, I wouldn't have got into this situation.

Nadja Drost:

The river level dropped, and we finally set out again. Later, we were joined by 15 Bangladeshi men with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. They had been robbed four times on the trail of everything.

A man we are calling Saeed, because he is scared to be identified, explained:

Saeed (through translator):

A group of five to seven mafias came to us. They pointed a gun towards us and took away our bags and everything. They left nothing for us. They even took away our food.

Nadja Drost:

The river was dangerously high, and we cut the day short and set up camp.

The next morning, eight migrants from Haiti and Ghana who began the crossing with the Haitians, but fell behind, suddenly showed up. Among them, a woman and her boyfriend from Haiti were robbed by bandits days earlier. One grabbed the boyfriend's arm, threatening to cut it with a machete.

Charlie Pierre from Haiti helped tell us what happened.

Charlie Pierre (through translator):

After, the thief said, "Go off, and leave the woman behind." And so he's walking, but looking behind, and sees these guys lowering his wife's underwear.

Nadja Drost:

One of the men assaulted her, penetrating her intimate parts with his fingers, looking for dollar bills they suspect migrants of hiding. Later, we heard many stories of this and other abuse on the trail.

After another night of heavy rain, the river is very, very high, it's going to be risky to cross it, but we simply can not wait any longer, because we have run out of food.

Pierre found a pregnant Haitian woman he had been searching for, and we got on our way, trying to sidestep the river.

After eight days on the trail, Rosina Boateng's family from Ghana had run out of food.

Rosina Boateng:

When is it going to finish? The hope — I lost hope. I really lost hope.

Nadja Drost:

Stomachs were empty, legs were quivering. Because the river was too high, we had to make a detour, winding up into the forest, and dimming all hopes of reaching a settlement in Panama by night.

The next day, minds were racing with one question: Will we make it out of here? There were foreboding reminders of those who did not.

But these migrants joined the legions of survivors crossing the Darien Gap. As the river opened up, a driver and his outboard canoe appeared. We were on our way, finally, to a village.

This night, the group made its way out of the Darien Gap, but the rest of their journey is as opaque as the black waters ahead.

From the Darien Gap in Panama, reporting with Bruno Federico, I'm Nadja Drost for the "PBS NewsHour."

Judy Woodruff:

Just incredible reporting.

And, tomorrow, Nadja will report on the uneasy waiting game in Panama for the migrants who make it through the Darien Gap.