The Darien Gap: About Migrants and Survival

Some migrants venture out and try to traverse the jungle on their own. But the challenges they face in these lands inhabited by the Guna, Emberá and Wounaan are innumerable. More than 152 people have lost their lives

A monumental obstacle for many migrants heading towards the American Dream is crossing the Darien Gap. A strip of about 66 miles of jungle, swamps and mountains, between Colombia and Panama, where the main challenge is to survive.

Economic instability, insecurity, repression, and global warming affecting countries in the Americas have led to a massive increase in emigration.

The Pan-American Highway, a route of around 19,000 miles that connects South America, from Argentina to Alaska, is the logical path for migrants destined for the United States. But in northwestern Colombia, in Turbo, the route abruptly ends and leaves a void. It reappears, more than 60 miles away, in Yaviza, Panama.

That almost impenetrable void of tropical jungle, swamps, mountains, rivers and the inherent dangers is what migrants must cross, with dreams of a better life, to reach someday San Ysidro, California, or El Paso, Texas.

Pan-American Highway. PHOTO: Wikipedia

Who Are They?

So far this year, US authorities have detained more than 2.3 million migrants at the southern border. Many come from South America and the Caribbean and have probably had to cross through the Darien Gap. More specifically, about 215,000 men, women, and children. Double the previous year.

The vast majority, at least so far, are Venezuelans. But Cubans, Haitians, Ecuadorians, Peruvians also come, including some 33,000 children.

How Do They Cross?

Some migrants venture out and try to traverse the jungle on their own. But the challenges they face in these lands inhabited by the Guna, Emberá and Wounaan are innumerable. More than 152 people have lost their lives since 2019, according to the International Organization for Migration. But many claim that the figure is much higher.

Therefore, most seek assistance. And around this assistance, a multimillion-dollar business has emerged that includes advertising on sites like Facebook and TikTok, guides that are organized into cooperatives, and residents of the region who offer a whole series of services, such as food and being able to sleep in a tent. Services, for which, of course, you have to pay.


According to reports published in the New York Times, a guide costs between USD$50 and $150. Crossing a river, in a journey of less than two minutes, costs $10 and protection when sleeping in an area fenced with wire, $20.

As expected, a whole series of unscrupulous people, who take advantage of the desperation of some migrants, have emerged. One company, VeneTours, has posted ads on TikTok advertising the Darien crossing as a tourist trip. The ad includes a phone in Colombia.

“Four days in the jungle with responsible guides,” states the ad. “All of Central America with VIP transportation and guides, plus a cell phone chip so you can always stay in touch. Accommodation, food, a 100% safe passage guaranteed”.

Venezuelans Deported

In October, the Venezuelans, who are the majority who cross through Darien, received the news that the United States government had just changed the rules. Until then, the immigration authorities allowed those seeking refuge to enter the country until the day of a judicial hearing that could take months or years to arrive. But starting in October, invoking health regulations related to Title 42, Venezuelans would be deported.

Although the provision has been temporarily blocked by a judge, the Biden Administration’s restriction has changed many plans. This was reflected almost immediately in the traffic of Venezuelans through Darien, which dropped from a daily average of 4,000 to around 600.

But others keep coming to the Darien Gap. Some have no options and little to lose. If they don’t take risks, even if it means losing their lives, they have to return to that world of famine and misery, persecution, lack of opportunities, from which they want to escape. For them, it’s Darien or nothing.

This article was supported in whole or in part by funds provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library and the Latino Media Collaborative.


  • Escritor y periodista de Paysandú, Uruguay, quien actualmente reside en Nueva York, EE.UU., en donde ha trabajado en diversos medios. Su corazón es charrúa y su pluma es latina.

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