There’s no greater love story than the story of migration. El Darien showed me that.
At this very moment, and unbeknownst to many, there are hundreds of migrants making their way through El Darien Gap, a jungle that sits along the Colombia-Panama border. It’s the only segment of the Pan-American Highway—which stretches from Alaska to Argentina—that remains unpaved, untouched and completely ungoverned. Only two things reign over that 66-mile jungle: lethal wildlife and gangs. And, for many migrants without visas, it’s an inevitable route if they want to keep trekking northward. There’s no way around it. Inside El Darien, backpackers have been kidnapped by cartels, journalists have been attacked, women have been raped, and many migrants have lost their lives. El Darien has even been referred to in the past as a “Graveyard of Immigrants.”
In 2019, UNICEF reported that more 24,000 migrants from over 50 nationalities—including India, Bangladesh, Somalia and Cameroon—crossed the Darien Gap. Among them, there were almost 4,000 children, a huge spike compared to the 522 children that crossed in 2019. The majority of these migrants were headed to the U.S. Indeed, El Darien isn’t a new route, but we’ve become so fixated on the US-Mexico border and grown so accustomed to sensationalist news coverage of it that we’ve neglected the extraordinary lengths migrants go to before they approach our border. It’s easy to form opinions based on the static images we’ve come to see in newspapers of families waiting en masse by ports of entry. Some call that a “border crisis,” but it’s much harder to picture what’s out of sight—those same families, miles away from us, carrying three-year-olds through the unknown darkness of El Darien jungle. I call that the ultimate testament of humanity.
While I was in Colombia reporting for Vice News in January, I met a 33-year-old Cuban mother named Sury. We went to Colombia in an effort to understand, among other things, if President Biden’s election was affecting migration patterns throughout Latin America. Just a couple of months after he took office, apprehensions at the border hit a record high: In March, the Biden Administration apprehended more than 170,000 migrants. Sury will soon become part of those growing statistics. By the time I met her, she was in the Colombian coastal town of Necocli, one of the last urban towns migrants set foot in before entering El Darien. Prior to getting there, Sury had traveled from Cuba to Guyana, Brazil and Uruguay with her two young sons, ages three and six. Since 2015, Cubans have increasingly opted to undertake the treacherous overland route to the United States through South and Central America, instead of going by sea and risk being detained by the U.S. Coastal Guard.