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Story Publication logo September 15, 2016

Colombia: Beware the Gap

Darién Gap

In their bid to reach the United States, a growing number of migrants fleeing poverty and conflicts...

A smuggler guides travelers up the Cacarica River into the heart of the Darien Gap. Photo by Jason Motlagh.  2016.
A smuggler guides travelers up the Cacarica River into the heart of the Darien Gap. Photo by Jason Motlagh. 2016.

You don't want to go there. A lawless 150-km wilderness of jungle and swamp between Colombia and Panama is the missing link for desperate migrants from around the world trying to reach the US. It's life or death, dodging drug smugglers, kidnappers and snakes. Follow the unprecedented journey of a Dateline film crew through the Darién Gap. To view the multimedia presentation, click here.

The Darién Gap is one of the last remaining 'black zones' in the world; a liminal space beyond control, where people must count on themselves to survive. More than any other trip I've made in my ten years as a journalist, including many into active conflict zones, this one demands an extraordinary level of preparation to mitigate dangers known and unforeseeable.

I've always preferred to travel fast and lean, but this is expeditionary reporting. There can be no half-measures in the Darién.

Bogota: Gearing up for Danger

When cameraman Roger Arnold and I arrive, we haul with us an arsenal of gear: multiple video cameras and laptop computers, a heap of extra batteries and power packs to make up for an absence of electricity in the jungle; satellite phones and a GPS tracking device to communicate with our handlers abroad; camping and first aid equipment (tourniquets, quick clot gauze, syringes) in case of harm from predators animal or human; pills and meds for any malady imaginable; and bug juice 100 percent DEET-strong. Loads of it.

Of course, nothing is more valuable than good information, and that is where our photographer and local producer, Carlos Villalon, is integral to a successful passage. With a decade of experience covering civil conflict in Colombia, Carlos has developed contacts with indigenous guides and commanders of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Marxist rebels who control much of the Colombian side of the Darién Gap.

For the past nine months, Carlos has been talking with them to secure permission to travel with the migrants passing through their turf to Panama, and on the United States. We nominally have approval, but nothing is to be taken for granted in the Darién. Fighting is fluid in the area to which we're headed. Rival drug gangs and rebel defectors are potential spoilers. "If we make a decision not to go, we're gonna be saving our asses," Carlos reminds us minutes after we meet up. "It's no joke."

The last, critical errand we have to take care of before leaving is to pick up a refrigerated anti-venom kit from a lab on the outskirts of the capital. Having worked in conflict zones without insurance, this feels excessive. But a quick tutorial at the clinic sobers me up. The Darién is home to all kinds of poisonous snakes, most of them lethal. If one of us is bitten, we have ten minutes to inject the anti-venom before death. We can only carry six vials. If a larger pit viper were to strike, the expert concedes no amount of anti-venom would be enough to save us. We might as well lie down and smoke a cigarette until the lights go out.

Turbo: Crossing by Boat

Turbo is the northern terminus of the Pan-American highway in South America, the gateway to the Darién frontier. Armed government soldiers greet us on the airport tarmac, a sign of troubled times. A month before we turned up, three policemen and an Army captain were shot dead by a drug gang called the Urabenos.

Sprawling banana plantations line the road into town, but the region is better known for cocaine trafficking up the Caribbean coast. The Urabenos' networks have allowed them to control key routes for people-trafficking, which has become more profitable as the volume of US-bound migrants surges.

No migrants were to be seen on Turbo's streets in the daytime, only daytime drunks and fishermen mending their nets. After checking into our guesthouse, we walked to a cemetery with a dozen graves labelled "No Name"; the final resting place of Somali migrants thrown overboard by smugglers. Others pay $500-700 to travel across the water and overland, forced at times to hustle cocaine along the way. Some are left for dead or murdered in the jungle.

A local shopkeeper told us the migrant influx was welcome in town because it brought money to an otherwise forgotten corner of Colombia. "We love the chilingos," he said, using a slang term for migrants. He claimed his business in t-shirts and jeans was up 70 per cent thanks to the traffic.

After dark, we visited a flophouse where migrants are known to hole up before making the crossing. In the walk-up lobby, I found two Haitian teenagers who did not want to speak with me, unsure of my motivations. After Cubans, Haitians have lately accounted for the largest portion of trans-Darién migrants. A wiry middle-aged man I met on the balcony insisted he was trying to find work in Turbo as a mason, with no intention of going any further. I smiled back. This didn't make any sense, but I couldn't blame him for lying.

The next morning, a boat departure across the Gulf of Uraba drew the migrants out from their hideouts. Seated next to Western holiday-makers headed to the Caribbean beaches were a mix of Nepalis, Haitians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Haitians. The mason from the hotel was there, clutching a black trash bag with all his worldly possessions. But it was the Afghan who stood out.

Skinny and soft-spoken, Zia ul-Haq told me he came from Nuristan, a remote province ruled by proud tribesmen. I'd visited in 2009 while embedded with US Army forces at a combat outpost at the bottom of a ravine routinely pounded by insurgents. Zia wanted to become a doctor, but the Taliban was making life unbearable at home. His goal was to join his uncle in Las Vegas, Nevada.

"America is a peaceful country," he told me in halting English learned from watching bootleg American DVDs. He had heard there was a jungle ahead, and that's all. His backpack contained potato chips, Oreo cookies and an Islamic prayer book for travellers. When his boat pulled away toward the open water, he took it out for the first time.

Atrato: River Road to the Darien

When we got on the water the next day, we charted a course west across the gulf and up the Atrato, the river highway that runs astride the southern edge of the Darién. The inland detour was necessary to meet up with our FARC contact in a hamlet six hours up river, but first we had to pass through two Colombian Army checkpoints and skirt towns controlled by Urabeno gunmen. Keeping a low-profile was essential.

The Atrato basin skirts Los Katios national park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site home to many threatened animal species and endemic plants. Sporadic violence has kept visitors down to just several hundred a year. The river's virgin banks are overgrown with vines and trees that shake with howler monkeys. The rumble of our outboard motor sends birds of prey soaring toward the jungled hills of the Darién that loom in the distance. Panama is on the other side.

There are still so many variables to contend with. Will we ever find migrants? Will the right guides materialise to accompany us? Will we come out the other end? But lingering doubts are off-set by the gravitational pull of the unknown, the promise of raw adventure. It's exhilarating to finally be here on the cusp of the Darién, ready as we'll ever be to attempt the crossing and share a story that's never been told.

Blasted by a fierce midday sun, we stop in Rio Sucio to change boats, quickly, to avoid any potential encounter with Urabenos. There are rumours circulating that a young man was recently beheaded in a nearby village. Our escorts, two young men with facial tattoos sent by the FARC, motor us away to our rendezvous in Domingodo, another hour upriver. They don't look all that trustworthy, either.

Domingodo: Edge of the Jungle

If there was ever a dead-end village, this is it. Clapboard houses on stilts line Domingodo's mud alleyways plied by foraging pigs. Over coffee on his porch, our grizzled FARC contact, Elber, explains this is one of the poorest corners of Colombia, a place without basic services, peopled by the black descendants of African slaves brought over centuries ago to work the plantations and mines. In the absence of education and jobs, drug trafficking and illegal logging are common occupations. Or joining the FARC, as he did more than 30 years ago.

Today Elber serves as a rebel political operative, keeping eye on Army patrols that occasionally come upriver, and ensuring that law and order are enforced in line with the FARC's diktats. Though he is the unchallenged leader of the community, his efforts to jumpstart an abandoned sawmill built by the government a decade ago have gone nowhere. "People don't want to work hard for a living when there's easy money to be made in drugs," he says. "This is the reality here."

Elber has been expecting us. He pledges to facilitate our trip any way he can. But there are permissions to confirm with the commander of the 57th Front, which controls the area through which we want to travel. We also have to prepare a smaller boat to navigate the shallow waters of the Cacarica River, a murky tributary of the Atrato that will take us north, deeper into the jungle.

Supplies and Sharp Edges

As well-equipped as we are for the journey, we still have to stock up on food and other basic provisions to see us through the Gap. Elber reckons that, best case scenario, the traverse could take as few as three days. But the Darién is notorious for thwarting plans, so we'll pack plenty extra.

Sardines, tuna, pasta, rice, biscuits, cooking oil, coffee, sugar, powdered milk, onions. The manager of the local dry goods store can barely keep tabs as we ransack the shelves. We pick up black gumboots for Carlos, giant sheets of plastic tarp to lay over our hammocks when it rains, fishing line and hooks and a pair of machetes. Much as I'd like to swashbuckle through the jungle like Indiana Jones, we agree that inexperience with large blades under wet, slippery conditions is a recipe for self-inflicted disaster. These will be given to our guides.

Cacarica: Mouth of the Migrant Routes

At the mouth of the Cacarica, we stop to rest in Puente America and ask about migrants. None have passed through in weeks, but the walls of a vacant school house attest to the heavy traffic that has passed through this route in recent years. Travellers from places as far-flung as Pakistan's Swat Valley, Eritrea and South Africa have been here, their graffitos a mix of pride for home and longing for the USA:

Ghana 50 Cent and his group moving to USA … May almighty Allah guide us … Proud to be Indian … I love Bangladesh … Enjoy the Journey.

Turning up the Cacarica, the river narrows and the jungle canopy closes in. Elber's son, Elber Jr, drives the boat skilfully through the shallows, but it's not long before the water is less than a foot deep in places. We run aground several times and are forced to get out and push through the shadows, where jaguars are known to prowl. These swamplands are ideal for smuggling of contraband of all kinds: cocaine, weapons, rosewood, beer, you name it. But where are the migrants?

Bijao: Coyotes and Crocodile Stew

A key waystation on the trail north to Panama, the backwater village of Bijao has made a business out of catering to the migrants who pass through. In addition to the contraband they hustle through the bush, local men act as smugglers, or coyotes, part of a network that begins in Turbo and escorts groups of migrants from Puente America up the Cacarica and onward into the jungle toward Panama.

Several shops offer food for marked-up prices, and lodging at a spartan hostel for several dollars a night. Some might call the trade exploitative, but in a region with no services for travellers, it is vital.

Elices, a village representative who meets us on the river bank, explains that many locals know the terror of being a refugee. In 1997, Bijao was attacked by right-wing paramilitaries in a government-backed operation. Thousands fled into the Darién, to Panama, where they remained for several years. One local man who did not leave in time was beheaded, his head used to play football in a clearing by the river to send a message. It's not been forgotten. Elices took me to the site and affirmed that a deep mistrust of the state endures. Today, the area is a FARC stronghold where rebels come and go at will.

When I asked Elices if his experience as a refugee made him more sympathetic to the plight of migrants, he nodded. "That's why we offer our support to those passing through here... It's a humanitarian action, it is our way to help these people survive, the same way we were helped when we fled to Panama." In a forgotten part of Colombia's poorest province, I thought, it didn't hurt to make a little extra money, too.

A day earlier, we learned that Panamanian authorities have closed the border to migrants. While there's no telling what this will do to their travel plans, local smugglers figure this will compel more to reroute from the Caribbean coast in our direction, to find a back door through. It makes sense. Plus, we don't have any better ideas.

As we settle into the hostel where the migrants usually stay overnight, I notice the upstairs walls are scrawled with more messages of hope and defiance. No problem here, God will help us all… Haiti is with us! It is now May 2016 and some of them are dated just a few months before, another positive sign we're on track. It will be another five days before we cross paths with some of their fellow travellers.

One morning, still groggy from sleep, I was drawn to a hacking sound down on the riverside. A local woman was making quick work of a caiman that local hunters had speared during the night-time hours. Wielding her machete with precision, she stripped the animal's entrails, trimmed the fat and cut the dense pink flesh into pot-ready cubes. The skin was already laid out to dry.

I picked it up the severed head stared into eyes that seemed alarmingly alive. Our guides had warned us that the region was home to crocodiles large and aggressive enough to sometimes flip over canoes when they attacked. We were lucky never to have any such encounter on either side of the border. Instead, after a bland diet of rice, eggs and beans, we were treated to a hearty stew of curried caiman, courtesy of our friendly machetista.

The Meeting

When we finally encounter a group of migrants on the river, they maintain they are tourists on a northbound jungle adventure, turning an already surreal moment into a farce. I grin back and assure them we're journalists here to tell their story, but understandably, they refuse to tell the truth. "Yeah, man! Panama," a slight man named Jafar exclaims behind fake Ray-Ban aviators.

The act didn't last long. Frayed from days without sleep and sick from gulping dirty river water, their forced smiles break into tears. All of the Bangladeshis and Nepalis we meet have been robbed at some point on their three-week journey that has taken them from South Asia to Brazil by plane, then overland through Peru and Ecuador to the Colombian frontier. A gnawing fear that this could be the end of the line overwhelms their efforts at cool.

In a bid to win our sympathies, they flash injuries and the political strife that pushed them to leave. "Cut, cut," says one, pretending to hack his harm. Jafar is crying for his mother and sisters, and the group refuses to budge, much to the frustration of the smuggler, who cannot pull them any further. When they calm down, I try to explain that in Bijao they will have real food and a roof over their heads. The first phase of their ordeal is nearly over.

Trekking: Trials of the Trail

I've trekked in jungles from Burma to Borneo. In terms of menace and isolation, none compare to the Darién. Within minutes of stepping under the canopy, one feels sealed off from the outside world, beyond retrieval, which is at once thrilling and jarring. Travelling as a group gives the comfort of strength in numbers, but that's an illusion. Every man is really alone out here, a lesson that sinks in within hours of setting off.

In the Darién, temperatures hover around 32 degrees Celsius, and with humidity at 90 per cent and a 20kg pack shouldered, thoughts go foggy. The mud-slick ground shifts beneath you, causing you to stumble so often in waterlogged boots that an ankle injury seems inevitable. There is a temptation to discard them altogether, snake bite be damned. Thorns snag on my clothes and slice at my arms. And though I'm slathered in bug repellent, the mosquitoes are punching through. From head to toe, the jungle wants to consume its guests.

The constant physical torment is amplified by the psychic pressure of entering no man's land where vision is sometimes limited to just a few feet forward. Despite the FARC's assurances, the Darién jungle is vast and it's impossible to fully secure territory. As peace talks gain traction with the government, the likelihood of defectors from within the ranks increases. We're also carrying a lot of valuable gear and cash, a huge temptation for our guides no matter what we've agreed. Numerous stories of kidnapping and images of bodies on the trail float around my head. Making someone disappear out here is easy.

So is getting lost. When I become separated from the guides and the rest of the group, my shouts go unreturned and I feel more alone than I can ever remember. Without any landmarks to use as beacons or a view of the sun to gauge my direction, I have no idea whether I'm going the right way, back in the direction I came, or down a trail to nowhere. Absent a signal, the satellite phone and GPS I carry are as useful as a pair of bricks. I'm lost for maybe an hour, but it seems interminable.

Making camp for the night, we build a fire and eat a stew of tuna and rice. I'm feeling nauseous, possibly due to tainted water, but manage to force the food down and fall into my hammock. The mosquito-proof netting is one luxury I'm glad to have brought. I nod off fast. The migrants all sleep out in the open, some of them on mattresses made of banana leaves, fanning smoke to screen away the flies. In the morning, I spot one of them up a tree.

Borderlands: Salvation in Panama?

The prospect of reaching a new border has everybody up early and in better spirits. Of all the countries the migrants in our group have passed through so far – in some cases seven or eight – Colombia roundly ranks as the most challenging. Everyone I speak to has been robbed or shaken down by police before being allowed to continue onward. With Panama just hours away, the migrants are possessed of a second wind. "I just want to get out of here," says Ebrima, one of the Gambians, echoing a widely shared sentiment.

Less than two hours later, we reach Palo de Letras, an unmanned stone obelisk that marks the Colombia-Panama border, the line separating two continents. The surrounding jungle is overgrown, the only sign of human traffic the trash – energy drink cans, hydration salt packets, bits of clothing – discarded on the ground. Some of the migrants raise their hands in celebration and exhale, "Thank God." Others snap pictures with their smartphones to capture the moment.

Given Panama's reputation for accommodating illegal migrants who travel this route, there is a sense of imminent salvation. There's no telling when we'll run into Senafront border guard forces that patrol the Panamanian side of the Darién, but the unspoken expectation is we're home free. With the border now closed, however, we can't be sure of what the encounter will bring.

Meanwhile, our guides become edgy. They don't want to be anywhere near the migrants. With the border closed, they are worried they could be arrested for helping them. One insists on heading back home right away, which could be disastrous for us. We don't know these trails and it's easy to go astray in our fugue state.

Picked up in Panama

Having wandered an alien jungle for hours alone and without water, unsure of when it will come to an end, a sudden encounter with armed Senafront soldiers brings an overwhelming sense of relief. As I drop my bags and mumble pleasantries in Spanish, their guns stay levelled and they demand ID. I dig my passport out of my bag and an officer tells me they've been expecting us. Minutes later, Carlos and Roger emerge from the bush. We're through.

The migrants are all sitting in a nearby clearing under armed guard, their faces bearing a mix of fatigue and confusion; this was not the reception they'd hoped for. I try to approach them but the soldiers block my path and motion us away toward the Senafront camp. I have no choice but to follow. "Don't forget about us, brother!" Ebrima calls out after me.

We are fed a hot meal of spaghetti and chicken, washed down with coffee and lots of water. The same hospitality is not extended to the migrants. We're told the border was closed on the president's orders, and it will be enforced across the frontier. All of the migrants will be sent back toward Colombia.

A hard rain falls over our hut in Paya village that night. Sweet as it is to be safe and dry, sleep escapes me. I'm disturbed by thoughts of the migrants out there somewhere in the wet darkness, weary and afraid. The walls of our lodging are scribbled with more messages from migrants who successfully crossed the Darién, their timing a matter of good fortune. It's crushing to think the party we travelled with was just a few days too late.

Will they attempt to sneak across further along the border? Or will they have to head back to Bijao, and on to Turbo, to regroup? I recall the fierce determination many of them showed to make it through to the US at any cost. The Darién was one of many grim trials they have endured, and perhaps none is worse than what compelled them to flee their homes and loved ones in the first place.

As Ebrima once said to me: "There is no going back, only forward."



teal halftone illustration of a family carrying luggage and walking


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