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The Darién Gap: A “tropical hell” Haitian migrants must survive to reach US border crossings

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More than 90,000 migrants crossed the deadly Darién Gap between Panama and Colombia in 2021, according to Panamanian authorities. A majority of migrants making the dangerous trek are Haitians hoping to seek asylum in America. Adults and children rely on smugglers to transport them by boat and leave them to find their way through a 66-mile stretch consisting of rivers, forests, and mountains alone.

“There’s hardly any trails through there. I mean, you’re walking on either long streams or long rivers, or, you know, on small animal trails, animal tracks through the forest,” Professor Michael Ryan at the University at Texas at Austin said.

Ryan and about half a dozen graduate students visited the Darien Gap twice to research an unrelated topic, the Tungara frog. He shared his insight on what it’s like to navigate such rugged terrain.

“If you’re there with, you know, with food, and with hammocks to sleep in, and there’s park rangers there, it does feel like a tropical heaven, but to be able to try to navigate through that entire forest, whether you had assistance or not, then it becomes a real tropical hell,” said Ryan. 

Panamanian authorities said 20 to 30 people die annually taking this trek. But this year, that number has nearly doubled due to the increase in migrant crossings.

Neighboring communities recover and bury dozens of migrants who did not survive the journey.

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JIMMIE JOHNSON: IT IS ONE OF THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACES ON EARTH. AN INFAMOUS 66-MILE STRETCH OF RIVERS, FORESTS, AND MOUNTAINS BETWEEN PANAMA AND COLUMBIA, THAT HAS BECOME A GRAVEYARD FOR DOZENS OF HAITIAN MIGRANTS. LET ME EXPLAIN. 

THIS IS THE DARIEN GAP. THE MOST PERILOUS PART OF THE PATH MIGRANTS MUST CROSS ON THEIR JOURNEY FROM SOUTH AMERICA TO THE SOUTHERN BORDER.

PROFESSOR MICHAEL RYAN: ”There’s hardly any trails through there. I mean, you’re walking on either long streams or long rivers, or, you know, on small animal trails, animal tracks through the forest.”

PROFESSOR MIKE RYAN HAS TAKEN TWO TRIPS TO THE REGION WITH GRADUATE STUDENTS FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN. 

HE WAS CONDUCTING RESEARCH ON AN UNRELATED TOPIC, THE TUNGARA FROG. 

MICHAEL: ”Entire populations were just disappearing. In the wink of an eye.”>>

JIMMIE: HE WITNESSED FIRST-HAND THE BEAUTY AND BEAST OF ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST DANGEROUS JUNGLES. 

MICHAEL: “If you’re there with, you know, with food, and with hammocks to sleep in, and there’s park rangers there, it does feel like a tropical heaven. But to be able to try to navigate through that entire forest, whether you had assistance or not, then it becomes a real tropical hell.”

JIMMIE: IN 2021, AUTHORITIES IN PANAMA SAY MORE THAN 90-THOUSANDS MIGRANTS, MOSTLY HAITIANS, HAVE EMBARKED ON THIS TRIP. 

MIGRANT ADULTS AND CHILDREN ARE BROUGHT BY SMUGGLERS ON BOATS, DROPPED OFF, AND LEFT TO FIND THEIR WAY THROUGH THE TREACHEROUS TERRAIN.

ON AVERAGE, AN ESTIMATED 20-TO-30 PEOPLE A YEAR DIE TAKING THIS TREK.

BUT SO FAR THIS YEAR, MORE THAN FIFTY BODIES HAVE BEEN RECOVERED. 

SADLY, THE DEATH TOLL IS EXPECTED TO RISE BECAUSE OF AN UPTICK IN MIGRANT CROSSINGS.

AS A RESULT, PANAMANIAN COMMUNITIES ARE LEFT TO RECOVER AND BURY BODIES. 

BUT THAT DOESN’T DETER MIGRANTS, DESPERATE TO REACH AMERICA. 

MICHAEL: “You know, to have that kind of motivation to change your life. To brave this. What this really impenetrable forest is just amazing.”