The Darien Gap — A Desperate Journey

The Darien Gap — A Desperate Journey

A 60-mile stretch of virgin jungle forms the border between Colombia and Panama. It’s the only break in more than 19,000 miles of highway that connects the Arctic Ocean and the southern tip of South America.

It’s called the Darien Gap – and it’s a fabled, legendary no-man’s land that’s bedeviled the most storied adventurers, members of the American military, and legions of would-be migrants. But it doesn’t put them off. Even today, tens of thousands of migrants a year risk their lives to cross it.

When the CBSN Originals team set out to cross the gap, we meet Shahab Shahbazi. He’s from Iran, thousands of miles from home, sitting in a smuggler’s home in the middle of nowhere, Colombia.

“I’m trying to find a life,” he tells us. “I’m trying to find out if I can have a better life or not.”

Shahab has a small bag with him, and no more clothes than those he already wears. Like many of the migrants we’ll meet, he seems hideously under-prepared for a week-long, life-threatening trek.

“But… I got to go. I need life. I need more life,” he says.

Migrants can arrive at the southern fringe of the jungle with relative ease, due to lax immigration policies in a number of South American countries. Under the cover of the jungle, they cross illegally from South into Central America. Some will pay smugglers — often known as “coyotes” — a few hundreds dollars to guide them through this notoriously difficult no-man’s land. Other options are far easier — like taking a boat or plane into Central America right up to the doorstep of the U.S. But they heighten the risk of capture and immediate deportation, a crushing setback for migrants when every step on the journey often means starting afresh from nothing.

This particular step comes with its own unique risks. Augustin, one of the smugglers we follow, says “The Darien Gap is… very dangerous. Because there are many hills, many rivers… many snakes, many jaguars. I’ve seen many people die. Not just one. Many.” Added to that, there are violent paramilitary groups who control the drug smuggling corridor that runs parallel, but deeper inside the jungle.

The sheer physical ardour of the trek, however, is the biggest challenge, as we find. Usually within 30 minutes of setting out, we’ve waded through waist-deep waters, soaking our socks for the remainder of the day. Our wet, shriveled and blistered feet are impossibly painful. Most people on the route don’t have a change of clothes.

“I don’t have anything else,” says Shahab. “One pair of pants,” he says of his belongings.

Shahab, who fled Iran due to religious persecution CBS NEWS
The daily diet is just as meagre. It’s rice, all day, with maybe a 1/4 of a can of tuna. It’s bland, but it provides the calories we need to forge ahead, and it’s relatively light.

At the end of a long day, we pepper Shahab with questions about his motivations. He speaks better Spanish than English, having spent years in Venezuela after fleeing Iran.

I ask Shahab, “What do you want to do when you get to the US? If you get to the US?”

“My professional trade is carpentry. I think I want to keep being a carpenter. If not, I’ll be a chef. I’m going to see what I can find in the US.”

He tells me about what he left behind. A family who doesn’t know he’s here in the Darien and a girlfriend in Venezuela.

“She’s my love. She’s my heart. I always think fondly of her. I miss her. And I think about where and when I can see her again.”

The next morning, we pack up camp. Our guides tell us today will be hell. There’s a steep ascent ahead — perhaps the hardest part of the journey. And they warn that we have far too much baggage.

We’ve packed for a long journey — three cameras and enough batteries to allow us to operate them for two weeks. Memory cards, backup drives to seal and secure our memories, sat phones and food. It’s too much to carry, so out go “non-essentials” like toilet paper, ‘extra’ underwear, hand sanitizer.

As I jettison weight, a group of eight migrants catches up with us — from halfway around the world, mostly India and Sri Lanka. Because of a deportation agreement between Panama and Latin American nations, the route is far less palatable to would-be migrants from those countries now. But the route is still plied daily by migrants from much farther afield who see it as a doorway to North America. Augustin, the smuggler, had told us: “Cubans, Haitians, Nepalese, Dominicans, from India, and yes, from Africa too. I calculate that I helped about 2,000. I guided them through and gave them help. Last year, they doubled in numbers.”

Finally, we summit the mountain that’s essentially the demarcation line between Panama and Colombia.