Jan 18, 2023, 11:12am EST
South America

Why more people are crossing the Darien Gap, one of the world’s most treacherous migration routes


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The News

Almost 250,000 people migrated through the Darien Gap last year, a treacherous stretch of mountainous jungle that connects Colombia to Panama, with most attempting to reach the U.S.-Mexico border.

Thomson Reuters Foundation/Fabio Cuttica
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The Numbers

  • The number of migrants traveling through the Darien Gap — the only stretch of land between Alaska and Patagonia without a road — grew tenfold from 2019 to 2022, noted Latin America expert Adam Isacson.
  • At least 18 people died attempting the journey last year, data from Panamanian migration authorities showed, though the real figure may be far higher.
  • The vast majority of migrants came from Venezuela, where GDP has collapsed by almost 85% since 2015 and the murder rate remains one of the world's highest.
  • Unprecedented numbers of Ecuadoreans also attempted the journey northward: Almost 30,000 crossed the Darien Gap last year.
  • At the U.S.-Mexico border detentions reached a record 2.4 million last year. The number only began dropping in late October after U.S. President Joe Biden's administration started using Title 42 — a pandemic-related deportation program — to expel Venezuelan asylum seekers back to Mexico while their cases are processed, reported Isacson.
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Step Back

The 60-mile Darien Gap is one of the “world’s most dangerous migration routes,” according to the Council on Foreign Relations.

Traversing it is a severe test of human endurance that can take weeks: migrants must trek across mountains, cross imposing rivers, and battle temperatures that often reach 95ºF (35ºC) all while carrying everything they’ll wear, eat, and drink en route.

Other dangers abound too: the route is dotted with human traffickers and members of Colombia’s guerrillas and drug cartels. “Deep in the jungle,” said UNICEF’s Jean Gough “robbery, rape and human trafficking are as dangerous as wild animals, insects and the absolute lack of safe drinking water.

But migrants persist in making the journey in search of better jobs and security in the United States.


Since Mexico imposed tourist visa restrictions in 2021, under pressure from the United States to limit illegal immigration, more people have been making the trek through South and Central America.

For instance, most Ecuadorean migrants attempting to reach the U.S.-Mexico border used to travel to Mexico as tourists and would then cross the border to the U.S. illegally.

But it is not only Latin American migrants attempting the journey.

In 2022, Indians made up the 6th largest migrant group traversing through the Darien, while at least 1,300 people from China — including children — crossed last year, nearly three times as many as the previous decade, the BBC reports.

Other routes exist, however, such as flying to Nicaragua’s capital Managua — thus leaping the Darien — but they can be prohibitively expensive: According to El País, Ecuadoreans would have to pay smugglers up to $20,000 for this service, roughly twice the country’s GDP per capita.

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The New York Times' Andes Bureau Chief Julie Turkewitz, and Colombian photographer Federico Rios, followed a group of migrants traversing the Darien Gap last year.

It took them nine days to complete the journey.

Rios’ harrowing images show exhausted migrants wading through knee-deep mud and chest-deep water, holding hands to avoid being swept by strong river currents. The reporting also follows the extraordinary story of a mother and her six-year-old daughter, separated mid-way through their crossing.


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