Crossing the Darien Gap: Migrants Risk Death on the Journey to the U.S.

Tens of thousands of migrants from Haiti, Venezuela, and elsewhere risk their lives each month to cross the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama. Images from along the journey show the dangers they face.

John Moore/Getty Images

The Darien Gap is an imposing obstacle on one of the world’s most dangerous migration routes. The remote, roadless crossing on the border between Colombia and Panama consists of more than sixty miles of dense rain forest, steep mountains, and vast swamps. It is the only overland path connecting Central and South America. Over the past few years, it has become a leading transit point for migrants in search of work and safety in the United States, as authorities have cracked down on other routes by air and sea.

View of the Chucunaque River snaking through the forest with in the bottom left of the image the La Penita village.
DARIEN PROVINCE, PANAMA: Migrants cross the Chucunaque River by boat to the Indigenous village of La Penita. There, they are offered medical care at a government-run reception center before continuing their journey north. Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images

However, migrants face many challenges on this land journey northward, including treacherous terrain, exposure to disease, and violence at the hands of criminal groups. As the number of migrants grows, so too does the impact on Indigenous communities whose lands they often traverse. Government officials and international organizations have sought to manage the crisis by setting up temporary housing and providing basic services to those arriving in Panama, where resources are rapidly being depleted.

Migrants Under Pressure

Economic insecurity, political upheaval, violence, and climate change are driving record numbers of migrants from their home countries, according to UN experts. At the same time, the lifting of COVID-19 border restrictions has reopened many travel routes across Latin America. Most migrants are ultimately headed for the southern U.S. border, where they hope the Joe Biden administration will grant them asylum. But many coming from the Caribbean and South America first have to cross the sixty-mile-wide Darien Gap, the only break in the Pan-American Highway that otherwise stretches uninterrupted from Alaska to the southern tip of Argentina.

According to the Panamanian government, approximately 134,000 migrants crossed the Darien Gap en route to the United States in 2021, up from just a couple hundred people a decade ago. Nearly thirty thousand of them were children. The majority were from Cuba and Haiti—including Haitian children born in Brazil and Chile—but some hailed from as far away as Angola, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan.

DARIEN GAP: After spending the night at a base camp in Las Tekas, Colombia, hundreds of Haitian migrants begin their hike through the dense rain forest. Some of them had paid the Gulf Clan, a Colombian paramilitary group, upward of $80 to drive them to the camp. John Moore/Getty Images

Experts say the number of people risking their lives to cross the gap is expected to increase as socioeconomic conditions worsen across the region. Since a devastating earthquake rocked Haiti in 2010, for instance, tens of thousands of Haitians moved to South America, where they have faced discrimination and economic difficulties. In 2021, roughly two-thirds of migrants traversing the Darien Gap were from Haiti, which is facing gang violence, political instability, and the continued repercussions of a recent earthquake. So far in 2022, overall numbers continue to rise, including a record amount of Venezuelans crossing the gap as the humanitarian situation in their home country grows more dire.

Beginning the Journey

The first stop on the journey north is the coastal town of Necocli, Colombia, on the shore of the Gulf of Uraba. Most migrants already in the region travel on foot or take local transportation to get there. But for those coming from Africa and the Caribbean, the route is more complicated. Under mounting pressure from the United States to contain illegal immigration, the Mexican government has expanded its visa requirements, making it more difficult for people to fly directly to the U.S.-Mexico border. Instead, they will now often fly into Brazil or Ecuador, where visa policies are more lax, before heading for Necocli.

Photo of boats and migrants' tents on the beach in Necoli, Colombia.
NECOCLI, COLOMBIA: Thousands of migrants, mostly from Haiti, camp out on the beach as they wait to take a boat to Panama. Some are left waiting for weeks in precarious conditions and with few possessions. Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

Necocli is a major transit point for migrants seeking to enter Panama. While the number of migrants crossing the border slowed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the relaxation of travel restrictions across the region has seen thousands of migrants flood the small town. According to Necocli’s mayor, the sudden influx has fueled a public-health emergency that began in August 2021: the town’s health-care system has collapsed, and there is a continuous shortage of food and water.

NECOCLI: The lifting of many COVID-19 border and travel restrictions across Latin America has resulted in an influx of migrants to the coastal town. In August 2021, the mayor’s office declared a state of emergency after the town’s water and sewage systems became dangerously stressed. Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

While waiting to take an hour-long ferry ride to Acandi, a town about five miles from the Panama border, migrants take shelter in hotels or makeshift camps on the beach. Most have few possessions; any leftover money is often spent buying food and camping gear from street vendors.

NECOCLI: Left: With the little money they have, migrants often buy food from local street vendors, who have hiked up their prices. Right: Migrants wait to board the ferry to Acandi. Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images
NECOCLI: Migrants from Haiti board a boat headed for the Colombia-Panama border. Overcrowded boats have capsized while carrying migrants across the Gulf of Uraba. John Moore/Getty Images

Some have been forced to wait weeks for the ferry. The Ombudsman’s Office of Colombia, a government agency responsible for overseeing the protection of civil and human rights, has been tasked with addressing the backup in Necocli.

Colombian police push back angry Haitian immigrants.
NECOCLI: A crowd of Haitian migrants pleads with Colombian police after the ferry ticket office temporarily closes. John Moore/Getty Images

Faced with Danger

Once in Acandi, migrants will head for the Darien Gap jungle, a dangerous hike that can take ten or more days. Many pay to be led by local guides, or “coyotes.” Along the route are smugglers and criminal groups, including members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Gulf Clan, a paramilitary group and Colombia’s largest drug cartel. These groups often extort and sexually assault migrants. “Deep in the jungle, robbery, rape, and human trafficking are as dangerous as wild animals, insects and the absolute lack of safe drinking water,” Jean Gough, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said in an October 2021 news release. “Week after week, more children are dying, losing their parents, or getting separated from their relatives while on this perilous journey.” UNICEF estimates that half of the children who crossed in 2021 were under five years old, and at least five children were found dead that year.

LAS TEKAS, COLOMBIA: Left: Migrants settle in at a base camp ahead of their hike through the Darien Gap, a trip that can take ten or more days. Right: A woman from Haiti spends the night in a tent. John Moore/Getty Images

The environment presents an equally large challenge. The Darien Gap is one of the wettest regions in the world, and frequent rainfall can trigger landslides in the mountainous terrain. Temperatures can reach 95°F (35°C) with high humidity, exacerbating persistent thirst and hunger.

DARIEN GAP: Migrants travel by foot through the jungle as there is no road. Many of them will pay guides to accompany them for part of the journey. John Moore/Getty Images

“The journey was really quite hard, especially when the rain came. It was just mud, rivers and going up mountainsides non-stop,” one Haitian migrant told Al Jazeera. “There were pregnant women, we had to walk in rivers … children were fainting, and even men, at times, who couldn’t continue.”

Photo showing two young migrants from Haiti, one helping the other climb a steep mountain trail.
DARIEN GAP: The rough terrain and steep trails of the gap make the journey even more challenging. John Moore/Getty Images
A Haitian man helps a Haitian woman cross a river, in company of other Haitian migrants.
An immigrant mother from Haiti collapses after climbing a steep mountain trail
DARIEN GAP: Left: The journey requires crossing several rivers, where the water can reach waist high. Strong currents have swept away some migrants. Right: Frequent rest breaks are needed as migrants face the breaking point of exhaustion. John Moore/Getty Images

Aside from Senafront, Panama’s national border service, there is no police force in the area and no formal road, making it difficult to stop arms and drug trafficking, or find help. In 2021, the Panamanian government reported that at least fifty-one people died trying to cross the gap, though the actual figure is likely to be much higher.

AGUA FRIA, PANAMA: The bodies of fifteen migrants who died trying to cross the Darien Gap are buried at the Guayabillo cemetery. Arnulfo Franco/AP Photo

Heading for the United States

While the route is evolving, migrants usually exit the jungle at Bajo Chiquito, a small village in eastern Panama. There, they are met by international humanitarian organizations such as Doctors Without Borders and UNICEF, which have set up reception centers to provide medical care and mental health services. Access to clean water and bathrooms remains limited.

A group of migrants arrive through the Tuquesa river in the village of Bajo Chiquito
BAJO CHIQUITO, PANAMA: A group of migrants arrives by boat at the village, exhausted and in need of medical care. Ivan Pisarenko/AFP/Getty Images

Panamanian authorities have also set up infrastructure to temporarily house migrants and provide them with basic services, but officials say more assistance is needed. According to Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes, the government lacks the money needed to provide long-term humanitarian support to migrants. Rather than deport them, Panamanian authorities and international organizations, with financial assistance from the United States, focus on providing migrants with essential services. It is in Panama that they are registered as migrants and biometrically screened by authorities for the first time on their journey. Most then quickly resume their trek to the north.

BAJO CHIQUITO: Left: Migrants camp in the village while they prepare to continue north. Right: Panamanian authorities transport migrants to a reception center, where they are offered temporary housing and basic services. Luis Acosta/AFP/Getty Images, Ivan Pisarenko/AFP/Getty Images

But to get to the United States, migrants need to cross half a dozen more borders, where they face the risk of being stopped or deported. Even if they reach the southern U.S. border—a journey of roughly 2,500 miles over Central America alone—many are expelled back to their home countries under Title 42, a pandemic-era public health order. At the same time, hundreds of thousands of migrants are also fleeing worsening poverty and unrest in the so-called Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In May 2022, U.S. border patrol agents apprehended 239,416 people at the border, the highest monthly total on record.

A family from Haiti is crossing the Rio Grande at night, reaching the border wall separating Mexico from the U.S.
JUAREZ, MEXICO: A family of Haitian migrants crosses the Rio Grande on their way to the United States, where they hope to receive asylum under the Joe Biden administration. David Peinado/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Recommended Resources

This Backgrounder examines how foreign intervention, political instability, and natural disasters have stymied Haiti’s development.

This video by PBS NewsHour follows special correspondent Nadja Drost and videographer Bruno Federico as they travel through the Darien Gap in August 2020.

For Foreign Policy, Panamanian Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes lays out several ways in which Western Hemisphere nations can address increased migration.

Piotr Plewa, a visiting research scholar at Duke University, provides context and data on migration trends in Central and South America.

At this CFR event, panelists discuss climate change’s implications for mass migration.

This CFR InfoGuide examines the global migrant crisis and the strains it is placing on the international refugee system.