14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Panama, 23 October 2016 — If anything deserves to be called “tropical” it is the Darien jungle in the south of Panama. Humidity, mosquitoes and heat makes moving within the dense vegetation of the area a superhuman task. Through the dense jungle extends one of the most dangerous migratory routes of the world. A Mediterranean without boats or headlines, but one where opportunity and death also converge.
Where Central America joins in a narrow embrace with South America, is is the deadliest and most feared stretch along the route to the United States. Crossing from Colombia to this area in Panama are migrants arriving from nearby or distant countries, such as Cuba, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Somalia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
This piece of land has lodged in many migrants’ memories as the most difficult in the long march toward a dream. However, for migrants from other continents, coming from Asia and Africa, overcoming it is a major effort. There are those who cross the Atlantic at the mercy of the human traffickers, hidden in the cargo holds of ships that often depart a Europe incapable of confronting its own immigration crisis.
Without speaking a word of Spanish, nor knowing the least cultural details of this area of the world, the recently arrived collide with a region where reality oscillates between the marvelous and the sinister. In most cases, they carry no identity documents and only a few know words such as “water” and “food.”
Those who manage to cross the thicket of vegetation and danger, celebrate on the other side, now in Panamanian territory, with the joy of reaching a final destination, but with the crossing of the rest of Central America and Mexico still ahead of them, some of it semi-desert. But conquering the Darien comes to be seen as winning a medal in the most difficult Olympic disciplines… one in which the athletes play at life.
There are no half measures in this strip of rough terrain. A coyote might be an experienced guide who leads a group of travelers toward the next frontier, or a criminal who delivers the group into the hands of extortionists, rapists and thieves.
Through the jungle, the migrants appear in groups, some with children riding on their shoulders, stumbling through the mud and branches along makeshift routes. Their stories are barely told in the foreign media, and international organizations have been parsimonious in highlighting the humanitarian crisis that is taking place in this narrow waist of land that enhances the curves of America.
It is also a path marked by simulation. Many Haitians cross the jungle passing themselves off as Africans. The citizens of the country in this part of the world hardest hit by natural disasters and poverty are considered as pariahs, with little appeal even to the human traffickers.
In no other place on the continent, as in the Darien, are the deficiencies of Latin American diplomacy in coordinating common policy more apparent. Meanwhile, Nicaragua continues to keep its borders closed to migrants, Costa Rica seeks to stem the flow of foreigners flooding it, and the president of Panama warns that those who enter the jungle area separating his country from Colombia “are going to be given humanitarian assistance to continue their journey.”
The Darian Gap incarnates the fiasco of regional integration, delayed by the short-sightedness of the politicians and the successive attempts to create select clubs of countries, united more by ideological conveniences than by the urgent needs of their citizens. The greatest failure is the fault of the Central American Social Integration Secretariat (SISCA), incompetent to implement an effective contingency plan for the situation.
It has been of little use that James Cavallaro, President of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH), made a call to the United States of America to act “immediately to open channels that allows these people to migrate legally and safely.” In the government palaces, everyone seems more focused on lighting their own fires than in supporting joint efforts.
This diplomatic selfishness didn’t escape Cavallaro, who also said that “the fact that the migrants resort to irregular channels and human traffickers is explained by the lack of legal and safe channels to migrate,” a situation that increases their vulnerabilities to the abuses and extortion of criminal organizations, human traffickers and corrupt police.
The landscape worsens every day with a Europe overwhelmed by the massive arrival of migrants and a “destination America” appearing as an option for those fleeing armed conflicts: the poor and the desperate. Like a river that starts with a thin trickle of water, the flow of those crossing the Central American isthmus grew and grew, swelled by thousands of Cubans who fear the repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act and the benefits it offers them in the United States.
The drama takes place beyond the photographers’ lenses. The images of the boats filled with refugees coming from Myanmar and Bangladesh trying to get to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand filled the newspaper headlines in the middle of last year, while the Darien hid its most terrible scenes. It barely appeared in the international press.
To those who boast of living in a hyper-connected world, with every inch already explored and with the eyes of satellites crossing it foot-by-foot, they would do well to visit this jungle. One of the last natural redoubts that terrorizes men, stops the most daring expeditions and seems to laugh at adventurers in the style of Indiana Jones.
A descent into the abyss of humidity and insect bites could shade the reading of news about space probes that reach distant planets and collect images of other galaxies. The region remains as stark as in the days of the Spanish Conquest.
The Pan American Highway, which runs from Alaska to Argentina, is interrupted here. A situation that has helped to preserve the natural diversity of the area but that certainly increases the deadliness of this stretch for migrants.
In September of this year, a family of three drowned in the Turquesa River. Fishermen in the area reported the body of a child not yet four years old floating in the water. Then they also found his parents. All had “foreign-features,” according to the Panamanian border service.
They are just a few of the many victims claimed by the Darien Gap. This jungle is so thick that not even screams escape it.
Editor’s note: This text was published on Sunday 23 October in the newspaper El País.