These Journalists Traveled Through Panama's Jungle With U.S.-bound Migrants

March 3, 2021

By Rohini Thakkar and Gianluca Corinaldesi

Crossing the Darien Gap with U.S.-bound Migrants _ Ducigs Event at Duke University

Independent journalists Nadja Drost and Bruno Federico followed the journey of dozens of migrants crossing the Colombian-Panamanian border through the dangerous jungle of the Darien Gap. With Panama’s authorities making it illegal to cross the border without a Visa—and smugglers' boats being too expensive—the migrants’ only choice is to find clandestine routes through the Darien Gap, an unforgiving jungle where they are left without guides, with little or no food to find along the way, and under the constant threat of getting robbed by bandits. It is a desperate journey, but one many migrants are willing to undertake. “Whether you make it migration legal or illegal, however dangerous you make it, migrants, when they are forced out of their countries, they are going to do whatever it takes to reach safer ground,” Drost says.

The two journalists decided to show to the wider public what migrants have to go through to reach the United States. 

Duke’s Piotr Plewa hosted Drost and Federico at Duke on February 24, at the virtual event “Crossing the Darien Gap with U.S.-bound Migrants.” The event was produced by the Duke Center for International and Global Studies (DUCIGS), the Duke Center for International Development (DCID), the Duke Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (CLACS), and the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke (CDS.) 

When the journalists embarked on this project, they were based in Bogota, Colombia. They had noticed an unusual increase of international migrants transiting through Colombia, a country that had, until then, mostly only received migrants from neighboring Venezuela. “We had always known this route existed, but it was just a trickle,” Drost said. The estimates were just a few hundred people going through the Darien Gap every year. But all of a sudden, they started hearing stories of people coming from all over the world. 

Drost and Federico joined the route with a crew of eight people and met different groups of migrants who had been on journeys of years that started in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Cameroon, Haiti. As the days went by, the crew had to make the conscientious choice of sharing their provisions with the migrants, a decision that challenged the journalistic principle of objectivity. “We were coming across people who hadn’t eaten food for days,” Drost says. “So this was a different situation. We wouldn’t have felt comfortable as human beings, us having food, walking with people watching us eating food, and they haven’t eaten for days. We are journalists but we are also human beings.”

The journalists got the support of the Pulitzer Center and produced three remarkable video-reports for PBS NewsHour under the title: “Extra-Continental Migration: The Longest Journey to America.

The reports not only show the brutal conditions of the journey, but they are also a reflection on the policies that force the migrants through deadly routes.

“This is not a natural disaster. It’s a tragedy produced by policies,” concluded Federico, an Italian filmmaker and journalist. “The migrants would never do this path if they could choose.” 


Piotr Plewa, a Visiting Research Scholar at Duke who specializes in international migration, offers here a brief on the migration trends in Latin America. 

Miguel Rojas Sotelo, Adjunct Professor of International and Global Studies at Duke, provided an introduction on the indigenous culture in the region. His remarks in the excerpts below.

Watch the full webinar:




Piotr Plewa

A unique feature of Panamanian migration system is that the Panamanian authorities refer to it as a quite managed system, as opposed to other countries in the region. Migrants who enter from Colombia to Panama are received in one of the 30 reception centers set up by Panamanian migration authorities in the south of the country. They are screened there; their biometrics are taken. A part of the operation is done in collaboration with the US authorities who want to know who is coming towards the United States. They are housed there; although, housing has become a problem as the numbers of migrants have risen. Then, from there, they are bussed to the north of the country where they await admission to Costa Rica and proceed further north to the United States and Canada. With COVID19, the system got stalled with the border closures. We are witnessing a humanitarian crisis, whereby there is increasingly more migrants accumulating in the reception center in southern Panama, who cannot proceed further north. This has created some tensions among migrants.


Nadja Drost 

We started noticing that the frequency of the travel through Darien Gap really started picking up probably about three or four years ago. We decided that we wanted to take a look at this kind of growing phenomenon of migration through the Darien gap to understand what migrants were going through to make this journey not only from a physical perspective but also what were the policies that they were fighting up against that was impacting their journey. That's why we decided to expand our look and not just cover what they were going through in the Darien gap, but then how they were basically butting up against the ripple effects of US immigration border enforcement as it moved southward.


Bruno Federico

There is a possibility of transit by the sea but it is far more expensive. This area is heavily controlled by coastguards to prevent narcotraffic smuggling.

Nadja Drost 

We never saw any evidence of the smuggling route being able to avoid the Darien gap entirely. What I think is more common is that there are smugglers who take migrants in the nighttime to cross the border into Panama, but then they literally dump them on a beach in the Darien gap and they still have to walk through the rest of it. The frequency of that really depends on shifting internal policies. For example, Colombia, some years it considers the transit of migrants illegal. Sometimes it gives them a permit to transit for 30 days. And so that also really impacts whether  migrants have to do a part of the journey illegally or not.


Nadja Drost 

There is a real focus on trying to prevent migration from happening at all by prosecuting the smugglers themselves. There is also a discourse about the concern for the migrants’ wellbeing and that concern translating into trying to protect them by cutting out the smugglers from the equation. What we observed is human traffickers were actually a very important and essential part of the survival of a lot of migrants in making this journey successful.

Bruno Federico

I feel that the same thing I found in different countries like in Europe, Mexico etc. The discourse by conservative politicians is that we want to stop migration because migrants are terrible people. The discourse from liberals is that we want to save the migrants from the human traffickers. These speeches are just a game of words because the policies at the end, are normally the same.


Piotr Plewa

Different countries in the region have different visa policies. Certain countries have more lax or liberal policies than others. What's important for the migrants is ability to break the journey in half, earn some money and then proceed North.


Nadja Drost 

On the Panamanian side, the reception really varies. Different communities are impacted at different times. There have been communities that have found themselves, suddenly, the receptor of hundreds and hundreds of Cuban migrants for three months at one point. The town began to feel quite hostile towards them because there are so few resources in the first place for the permanent inhabitants. The two settlements that we ended up walking to, were quite surprising at how warmly receptive locals were of the migrants. I think it's for two reasons. One is, they are acutely aware of the dangers of walking through the region. They can physically see the depth of suffering that people have gone through. But for some of these towns. it's been a little bit of an economic boom in the sense that, when migrants are staying there, they end up buying food, water at the local stores and they end up staying in people's homes for a couple dollars a night. So, it really helps to kind of boost the local economy. The tensions arise when those limited resources are extra stressed.


Bruno Federico

We were always very clear in our conversation that they can stay with us but they are not obliged to be filmed.

Nadja Drost 

The ethical decisions that we had to face on a daily basis, were far more challenging than the physical challenges of doing the trip.

Because, as journalists, we were cognizant that our principal objective and an obligation is to bear witness, and we need to do that in such a way that doesn't intervene with the story. That being said, we were coming across people who were very badly injured, people who hadn't eaten food in in days. pregnant women and children. There was no relief for days. This was a situation where it was actually life or death for a lot of people with no relief available. So, we tried to approach a lot of these situations with a combination of basically trying to maintain our journalistic integrity with humanity.


Piotr Plewa

Tere aren’t really good statistics because of the illicit nature of the of the movement. The number of registered migrants crossing for this border has increased by 16 times from 2010 to 2020 from around 500 at the very beginning. There was a kick in the flows in 2016 or 2018 and when there were 30,000 people registered and then of course the numbers declined. They declined with COVID 19 and with the border closures, but the migration didn't stop altogether.


Miguel Rojas-Sotelo

Indigenous intellectuals in the early 1990s got together to rename a continent, AMERICA, that obliterated their histories and ways of life. The Darién is at the heart of the continent. The linguistic expression of Abiayala, which literally means ‘land that bleeds’, arises in the Gunadule peoples of the Urabá and Darién (Colombia and Panamá) as an ancestral reference to the American territory. As Rocha Vivas (2018) points out, at present the term has assumed different meanings according to the geo-cultural contexts: the Aymara leader Takir Mamani (Boliva) assumes the notion of Abiayala as a 'land in full maturity', in opposition to America as "no man's land" proposed early on from a colonial point of view. On the other hand, Armando Muyolema from the Kichwa (Ecuador) suggests an interpretation of Abiayala as an epistemological and social form, an alternative of Western civilization. Finally, in the linguistic reading proposed by the Gunadule scholar Mani-binig-diginya [aka. Abadio Green], Abiayala carries in its etymological entrails the meaning of “birth, blood-bone of the earth, and, at the same time, blood of the confrontations on the continent because of the European invasion” (2018). Hence the term that comes from the Darién Gap is alive and bloody, capable of absorbing the history of the conquest, and the post-colonial conditions of repression, displacement, and extractive industries at the heart of many of the migration stories; but it also shows forms of cultural resistance across the continent and beyond.


Miguel Rojas-Sotelo

It is a female practice at the core of the Guna Dule of the Darién that underlines their relationality with the forest (the human and non-human dialogs), and also as forms of subsistence, resistance, and cultural affirmation in the Darién Gap now exported elsewhere.

More Resources: