Inside the Darien Gap: Desperate Haitian migrants make a terrifying trek as U.S. efforts fail to deter them

Freddy Pestana Herrera holds signs that he and his community group will post along a route migrants take through the Darien Gap, a treacherous jungle crossing between Colombia and Panama.Photography by Yader Guzman/The Globe and Mail

From a house on a verdant hill, Freddy Pestana Herrera overlooks the path that has taken thousands of migrants into the untamed jungle – and the dozens of people working with him to guide and profit from the migrants’ passage.

For months, Mr. Pestana, a local community leader who lives in this roadless corner of northwestern Colombia, has kept watch as people pass by, their backs laden with packs and their eyes trained on a muddy, slippery path intersected by tangles of roots and torrents of running water. These are the opening steps into the Darien Gap, a wild, water-soaked region that divides South America from North America – and a popular destination for migrants seeking to make their way overland to the United States. About 80 river crossings must be navigated to arrive at the Panama border, after which more untamed jungle awaits. This year, 95,000 people have made the trip, more than ever before.

Among them are people from countries in Africa, the Caribbean and South America, some even from China, a local church says. But many are Haitian migrants. They are midway through a journey – many intent on reaching the U.S. – fraught not only with dangers, but also with the cost of satisfying the demands of people like Mr. Pestana.

They are also pressing against the efforts of a U.S. administration that has reached far beyond its own borders to slow their path. The success of that effort is now starkly visible in this part of Colombia, where the number of assembled migrants waiting to move north has shrunk from as many as 22,000 earlier this fall to several dozen at the beginning of November.

Yet those who remain continue to move northward, a group of strangers whose collective desperation is perhaps most visible in their most frail. Not long ago, Mr. Pestana watched a blind man walk northwards, setting out on 105 kilometres of paths through the roadless Darien. He holds out a phone to show a picture of him cradling a baby born after her mother had begun the jungle trek. Days after delivery, the family resumed their journey, infant in hand, returning to a route that will take at least 2,000 kilometres to the Mexican border – where authorities have halted Haitians – and another 2,000 kilometres to the border with the U.S., the destination most continue to seek even if they have friends and family who have already been deported.

The obstacles are profound. The walk through the jungle is physically gruelling. Some must cross a dozen borders before they arrive at the doorstep to the U.S., and authorities across Colombia and other parts of Latin America have actively sought to slow and frustrate movement. Mexico has strengthened border controls, scrutinized transportation companies moving migrants and deported Haitians. Colombia, too, has sought to slow the movement of Haitians.

But perhaps the most significant blow has come from the U.S., where the Joe Biden White House has adopted a tough approach to migrants that was for many crystallized by images of mounted U.S. Border Patrol agents swinging reins and pushing migrants back into the Rio Grande in late September.

That image provoked fury in the U.S. and fear among Haitians. It “was very aggressive, very impressive for all the migrants,” said Lucas Gomez, a special envoy on border issues in the Colombian presidential office. The Biden administration took power promising a warmer welcome for migrants but has maintained elements of the Donald Trump approach to those arriving at its borders. That “political message has gone through Chile, through Brazil and I think the migrants have started to understand that [the U.S.] wasn’t as open as they believed in the past,” Mr. Gomez said.

But the U.S. has also shown some success in pressing other countries to help, too. In late October, Secretary of State Antony Blinken came to Bogota for a regional meeting of foreign ministers in which they discussed creating “better co-ordination” on migrants, Mr. Gomez said.

Those measures appear to be working, after months of fear in the U.S. that a tide of migrants would continue to head north.

At top, a towel styled like the U.S. flag hangs on a wire fence at the Las Tekas migrant camp in Acandi, a Colombian town on the Gulf of Uraba. On the opposite, eastern side of the gulf, dogs walk on a beach in Necocli where thousands of migrants once camped.

Migrants cross the Gulf of Uraba before going toward the jungles of the Darien Gap


Migrants cross the Gulf of Uraba before going toward the jungles of the Darien Gap


Migrants cross the Gulf of Uraba before going toward the jungles of the Darien Gap


In the Gulf of Uraba town of Necocli, the last stop before migrants board boats toward the Darien, a beach that was once crowded with migrants has emptied of their black plastic tents. A few tourists now stroll the beaches during the day, before piling into bars at night to watch cock fights.

Among the remaining Haitians are those whose injuries or personal difficulties have kept them from moving quickly. Anouce Altidor and his family first attempted the Darien Gap in early July, but his wife slipped on wet ground and fractured her leg. Until she has fully healed, the couple and their three-year-old daughter are waiting.

But they remain determined to go, despite the forces set against them.

“We have no other choice but to continue,” said Mr. Altidor, 28.

He cited the book of Genesis, when Adam and Eve are cast out of the Garden of Eden and told it is only through painful toil that they will be able to wrest food from the earth.

“You need courage. You need patience, too. Because life is not easy,” he says.

Mr. Altidor is unlikely to be alone in that thinking. Scholars say measures to halt migrants do not commonly halt their movement. “People are still going to do it,” said Jose Padilla, a scholar at Old Dominion University who has been researching migrant movements through Colombia. “It doesn’t matter the deterrence initiatives you put in place, people are still going to be on the move.”

And the Haitians have, in ways figurative and literal, helped to pave the way through the jungle for more people to come. What has developed here offers a glimpse into the latticework of guides, coyotes, drivers and hoteliers that has made it possible for migrants to travel many thousands of kilometres – although at a cost that, for a single person, can approach $10,000, far more than any luxury traveller would pay to cover the same distance.

Decades ago, the jungles here became a focus of U.S. ambition, with Congress in 1970 approving construction of a Darien Gap Highway, with a price tag of $251-million. Pitched as a motorist’s dream, the road would have allowed a car to travel from Alaska to the bottom of South America – and opened access, promoters said, to huge new resources of timber and minerals. But environmental groups successfully staged a fierce opposition, saying the highway would spoil one of the world’s last great untouched regions. A renewed roadbuilding effort by the governments of Panama and Colombia in the 1990s also failed, after provoking opposition from Indigenous groups who live in the area.

Others, too, have made their homes in a region whose lack of roads put it beyond the easy reach of authorities. Today, the routes into the Darien Gap from Colombia pass through territory controlled by the Gulf Clan, among Colombia’s most powerful group of armed narco-traffickers, and men who once backpacked cocaine through the jungle are now guiding migrants with organizational savvy.

Mr. Pestana describes himself in civilian terms, and points out that he has 160 people working along the route. They do not carry visible arms. “We aren’t trafficking them,” he says of the migrants. “This is our home and they come here to our house. And in our house, you get our help with love and care. Because if we don’t take care of the migrants in our house, they get robbed or raped.”

As a testimonial to his good intentions, Mr. Pestana plays a video on his phone that shows the father of the infant born here before the family continued on – with guides helping to carry the new baby. “I want to thank especially you, the boss who manages this big organization,” the father says. “The service you have given to us Haitians is priceless.”

Mr. Pestana says he has 160 people working on the route through the Darien Gap.

And for a price, Mr. Pestana and others in nearby communities have indeed created a system of transportation offering some comforts to those embarking on a trip that, only a few years ago, was considered so perilous that few would attempt it.

Other, less formalized forms of transportation still exist, and with them dangers: In mid-October, an overcrowded boat capsized in the Gulf of Uraba. Thirty people were aboard. Only 21 were rescued, according to Enrique Herrerra Martinez, captain of the port in nearby Turbo. Three of those who vanished were children, he said. Navy ships have been dispatched to patrol for illegal boats.

As a result, most migrants in recent months have left the beaches of Necocli wearing life jackets and seated on tourist boats with powerful motors that roar across the Gulf of Uraba.

Many pay US$50 for a one-way seat – considerably more than the $37 The Globe and Mail was charged for a return ticket. The boats, however, observe maximum occupancy limits, and even employ people to handle baggage.

Across the region, entrepreneurs have embraced business with migrants.

Near the boat dock, a sheet of paper taped to a plywood counter offers U.S. dollar currency exchange services. Local vendors sell bottles of creolin, an inky disinfectant pitched as protection against snakes, alongside five-litre jugs of water with plastic bags wrapped around their handles to cushion the fingers that will carry them on the long walk ahead.

After leaving Necocli, the migrants shown at top are being loaded onto smaller boats off the coast of Acandi. Whey they disembark, they are sprayed with disinfectant, bottom.

On the other side of the Gulf, in the town of Acandi, migrants disembarking from boats are sprayed with a disinfectant solution by locals wearing a gas-powered Stihl backpack device – a response to local COVID-19 fears. Their numbers are recorded by Lineth, a boat company employee who gives only her first name.

In previous years, migrants typically went to Capurgana, a Colombian community a short distance to the north. But the route through the Darien from there is considerably more mountainous. Local leaders decided migrants should come to Acandi instead – although thousands have continued to use the other route – and Lineth was at first distraught by the sight of families with young children. Deep in the jungle, bandits will “take everything from them – rape the girls and kill the families trying to defend them,” she said. She personally offered to adopt several children to spare them the journey.

“At the very beginning I felt a lot of pity for them.” That feeling has long since faded, amid the constant blur of people. Her notebook filled with tallies – 561 people one day, then 551, 555, 570, 624, 539 – and she found it more difficult to muster much sentiment for the tide of passing humanity.

Even so, the numbers of young people appear to be increasing, she said. The government of Colombia estimates 20 per cent of the migrants who’ve crossed its border into Panama this year are children – numbers with no historical precedent.

But when the U.S. in September began to deport Haitians who arrived at its borders, word went out that it might be easier for families to gain a sympathetic reception. Local officials say as much as a third of those crossing recently have been children; on one small boat, The Globe counted seven children among 22 migrants.

“The collective imagination of the migrants is that they think if they get there with children, they’re going to be received and can stay,” Capt. Herrerra said. “That’s why they carry so many children and there are so many pregnant women.”

A young boy takes part in the crossing of the Darien Gap.

Cameta Domond, who is four months pregnant and travelling alone with her three-year-old daughter, first left Haiti in 2016 after being attacked by thieves. “I left my country because it’s not safe,” she said. She moved to Guyana and then Brazil, but struggled to find work. So on Aug. 19, she began to travel, crossing through Peru and Ecuador before arriving in Colombia. “People have said the forest is tough. But I think God will guide me,” she said. Down to her last $10 – not enough to pay for the camps she knew lay ahead – she took a determined stride up the jungle paths in the Darien. “I’ve already encountered too much misery on the route,” she said. “I must go.”

A short walk from the dock with the disinfectant spray, the roads lead out of town and toward the first river crossing. As migrants approach, the sides of the road fill with horse carts, dozens of them awaiting passengers. (The next day, the road will fill with motorcycles, in a recurring cycle that spreads the transportation wealth.) A man with a receipt book offers to accept payment: US$80 per person, for a trip of roughly 10 kilometres – more than half the cost of a one-way airfare from Medellin to Miami.

Those who can afford it clamber onto the carts. Those who can’t wade into the river, soaking feet unlikely to dry for days.

Djivenson St. Tilus is on foot because he and his two friends were robbed the previous night on the beach in Necocli. At 3 a.m., just hours before boarding the boat, three man came brandishing knives and took the $300 in cash they had stockpiled for the trip.

When it comes to migrants, people “want to take everything from us, in any way possible,” he says. Nonetheless, he and his friends boast something that is rare among the migrants: smiles. Young and unencumbered by children, they laugh as they chat about the perils they’ve overcome and those that lie ahead. “Difficulty is not the end of life. Difficulties are only a step toward life,” Mr. St. Tilus says, as he prepares to enter the river.

“It’s an adventure! On y va!” His friend, Alpha Amadou Diallo, offers a dimmer evaluation. “It’s Calvary here,” he says.

A migrant carries a child over a river (above) where a previous traveller has left the sole of a shoe behind.

Mr. Gomez, the presidential envoy, is critical of the way the locals have separated Haitians from their money. “They really abuse migrants,” he said. Funds are also finding their way into the hands of groups the country considers dangerous. When it comes to trafficking migrants, the Gulf Clan “are working on that,” Mr. Gomez said. “It’s a lot of money involved.”

But the efforts to profit from migration have also made parts of the trip easier. When The Globe passed through, heavy machinery was clearing earth to fashion kilometres of new road toward the jungle, a major change.

“The idea is to try to make more roads,” said Yara Vasquez, the personera in Acandi, a locally-appointed official tasked with representing human rights. “These roads help the community – and they help the migrants.” There has been local talk, she said, of building roads to Panama, an idea that remains far from concrete but raises the possibility of important change to one of Earth’s most remote corners.

For now, the first stop in the Darien for most migrants leaving Acandi is Les Tekas, a camp built in a cleared teak grove where guards watch over a field that fills with tents at night. Vendors sell food and WiFi codes to access satellite internet. Migrants are typically charged $15 to sleep on the ground. In exchange, they have a place to stay with relative safety. After they depart, crews clear and burn garbage, clearing the field for the next arrivals.

It’s part of a broader effort by Mr. Pestana and those around him to commercialize the trail. While The Globe was speaking with him, a man walked up with long boards strapped to his back. They were freshly-painted signs, made for installation on the trail to mark stops such as rest stations – and to rebrand the journey into what he calls “a very nice path where they can express feelings of happiness.”

One sign in English welcomed travellers to the “Ecological Trail.” Previous signwork has hammered words of encouragement to jungle trees, in both English and Spanish. “The secret of success is respect and teamwork,” says one.

An inspirational sign is posted on the Darien Gap path.

Those working with Mr. Pestana offer another secret to success: cash. For $20 or $30, men will carry backpacks or children for sections of the trek.

“The migrants are kind of a blessing, because our economy has gone up,” he said. “We have motorcycle taxis, business people, transport people, guides – everyone is eating off this. We are happy,” he said.

It is very different for the most penniless. Local authorities told The Globe they had received reports of migrants without money agreeing to carry several kilograms of cocaine as a form of payment.

For most, too, the rigours of the trail are heightened by the inadequacy of their equipment. Children in shoes made of artificial leather struggle against the current of rivers. Parents in canvas footwear slip on mud churned to a wet slurry by thousands of feet. Next to one stretch of river, someone has left behind a muddied pair of purple flats, with furry straps and toes decorated with bow ties. The river is called Rio Muerto, or Dead River.

Local authorities indicate the name is apt. About 60 female migrants have been raped, says Wilfredo Menco, the personero in Necocli. “A lot of them lose their lives,” he said.

But if there is death on the trail, there is also death at home. The July assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, underscored for many the universality of the country’s dangers. When it comes to threats to safety, “it doesn’t matter what your social class is,” said Ysma, who gives only her first name.

So she and others march onward, toward countries that may expel them and through places that might kill them. At Les Tekas on a recent day, Rolio Ariste lay on the ground in a field emptied of people. Hours after other migrants had left, he remained, nursing an injury that sent pain shooting through his rib cage whenever he breathed. Weakened and with little money remaining, he could do little but place his faith in divine blessing.

“I hope the same God who accompanies me everywhere can take me to a good life,” he said. “That is my hope.”

‘The greatest successes are reserved for those who embrace greater challenges,’ reads one of the signs along the route to Panama.

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