A US-backed campaign between Panama and Colombia aims to stop migrants crossing the Darién Gap from South into Central America, as UN groups warn that the number of people attempting the journey could rise to a record 400,000 this year.
More than 100,000 people have already crossed the 66-mile stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama this year, the UN High Commission for Refugees and International Organization for Migration (IOM) said in a joint statement on 14 April: six times more than in the same period in 2022, according to Panamanian government data.
By the current trajectory, the number will reach 400,000 people this year, compared with last year when 250,000 migrants and refugees “risked their lives crossing the Darién”, the organisations said.
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What is the Darién Gap?
The tapón del Darién (plug of Darién) is a break in the Pan-American Highway, the network of roads that spans the continents of the Americas, from Alaska down to the southernmost point of Argentina.
The only overland route connecting South and Central America, it is the world’s longest motorable road, according to the Guinness World Records – but it is not all technically drivable, as there is a break of about 106km (66 miles), across the border between northwest Colombia and southeast Panama. The name derives from Panama’s region of Darién.
Attempts to complete construction in the 1970s failed, and further plans have been halted by environmental concerns, as well as exceptionally difficult terrain in what is one of the world’s rainiest areas, where the governments of Colombia and Panama have little control.
The “remote, roadless, mountainous rainforest” is a “minefield of lethal snakes, slimy rock and erratic riverbeds, that challenges most adults”, said CNN, which sent a team of journalists to hike the gap in February, who encountered dead bodies along the way.
The Colombian cartel controlling the route “is making millions off a highly organised smuggling business”, the report said, charging at least $400 per person to enter the pass.
The stories from people who survived “attest to the horrors of this journey”, said Giuseppe Loprete, the IOM’s chief of mission in Panama. “Many have lost their lives or gone missing, while others come out of it with significant health issues.”
According to the IOM’s Missing Migrants Project, 36 people died in the gap last year, although “anecdotal reports” indicate that many deaths go unreported, “so this figure presents only a small fraction of the true number of lives lost”.
Why are numbers increasing?
The number of people entering Panama via the gap last year was almost double that of 2021, said the IOM, and roughly 20 times the annual average from 2010 to 2020.
There has been a seven-fold increase in the number of children crossing, said a Unicef report in March, with 9,700 minors arriving in Panama so far this year. “Children now represent one in five migrants walking through the Darién jungle”, it said. The previous report last year said that half the children crossing were under five years old.
Deteriorating conditions in several Latin American countries, especially Venezuela, have contributed to the record numbers. More than half of those who crossed last year (150,327) were Venezuelan nationals, a 50-fold increase since 2021.
The socioeconomic crisis in the country was exacerbated by the pandemic and US sanctions against President Nicolás Maduro, contributing to extreme rates of hunger, poverty and violence.
In October, the US blocked Venezuelans from entering the US “without authorisation” under a pandemic-era restriction called Title 42, which suspended the right to claim asylum at the US-Mexico border. Title 42 is set to expire on 11 May, which the US fears will increase the surge in migration.
Migrants told the paper that increasing repression had pushed people into “runology”, or runxue, taking advantage of the relaxation of border controls in December to flee China.
What is the new plan?
People attempting the five-day hike face dangerous terrain, deadly animals, disease, exploitation and violence. Most come from Venezuela, Ecuador and Haiti, and continue through Central America to the US, the agencies said.
The 60-day plan hopes to “prevent the risk to human life, disrupt transnational criminal organisations, and preserve the vital rainforest”, said the statement from Colombia, Panama and the US on 12 April. The countries will offer “new lawful and flexible pathways”, but did not explain what those would be.
The plan “will likely fail”, migration experts told The Guardian, and push “desperate people further into the hands of merciless people-trafficking”.
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