• Sat. Jun 8th, 2024

66 Miles Through the Darién Gap – CNN One Thing

66 Miles Through the Darién Gap - CNN One Thing

This is what the waiting room at immigration is looking like right now. In the gates of America. Thousands of people waiting to be processed.

When you think about the immigration issue at the US-Mexico border. What comes to mind? Probably border fences, the Rio Grande processing facilities. Plenty of politics and policies to know.

President Joe Biden


We now have a record number of personnel. Working to secure the border. In fact, you’re going to be hearing a lot about this in the next few weeks.

The Biden administration is expecting an influx of asylum seekers once that pandemic era public health policy, known as Title 42, officially ends next month. But what happens before these people, men, women and children reach the border? What is that journey actually like?

Nick Paton Walsh


Well, startling is the sheer number of children on this trek as it begins on a route. Sometimes adults don’t even survive.

My guest this week is CNN chief international security correspondent Nick Paton Walsh. He and his team recently experienced part of that journey, a grueling, dangerous five day hike through the jungles of Colombia and Panama. We’re going to talk about the people he met along the way and why they risked everything just to get one step closer to America. From CNN, this is One Thing. I’m David Rind.

So, Nick, you’ve been looking into the journey migrants take well before they even get to the border between the U.S. and Mexico. What did you find?

Nick Paton Walsh


Well, the key and probably the most arduous part of this journey is something called the Darian Gap, which takes place when they leave the bulk of South America up into the north. And it’s essentially the only way you can cross by land from those two parts of the Americas. Now, the daring gap is dense, dense jungle. It’s 66 miles, essentially as a walk, and it is only possible by foot because there’s no highway there. It’s too overgrown. It’s just crazy, wild jungle. And so there’s been for four years migrants trying to cross from south to North America through this perilous jungle crossing. But in the last year, the last two years, the numbers have grown exponentially, possibly as more organized smuggling cartels get involved to try and make money out of this. But we saw remarkable numbers on our journey.

Who are the kind of people that would take a trip like this? Who did you meet?

Nick Paton Walsh


Nationalities. It’s simply Haitians, Venezuelans. Very new introduction of Ecuadorians whose country is experiencing significant cartel related violence. And also, interestingly, too, Chinese have started joining the walk to and it’s so often children, so many parents bringing their kids, very young kids walking through exceptionally dangerous and difficult terrain for days, facing snakes, other dangers as well. Quite extraordinary.

So where does this journey start now?

Nick Paton Walsh


At the start, you get to a stretch of farmland in Colombia, which is essentially controlled by a cartel.

The first ones will be the last. The last ones will be the first..

Nick Paton Walsh


Who are charging people for the privilege of being in that particular overnight camp. And they’re living in cheap tents that are being sold in large numbers to the migrants who’ve often started their journey a couple of 20, 30 kilometers back. But it’s really the work that gets under way in earnest when you get to one of these camps in the farmland. And it’s a it’s a bizarrely organized process because there you have so many different strands of humanity all camping out in the middle of nowhere.

Don’t be afraid of the terror in the night…

Nick Paton Walsh


But you get a cartel that tells everybody when it’s time to get up and begin walking. Tell them when together, play them at one point religious songs to try and boost morale. Explain the rules for the walk and then eventually tell them when they’re allowed to start walking.

Nick Paton Walsh


Been going a matter of hours. An endless series of river crossings.

The conditions are just. Constantly.

Nick Paton Walsh


Pretty exhausting.

Nick Paton Walsh


Once you begin going off on this walk, you immediately realize quite how physically arduous this is going to be because it involves extensive and endless river crossings.

Nick Paton Walsh


This route is insanely steep and so many of the people that we’ve spoken to on the way are complaining about how this was nothing like the easy route they were promised.

Nick Paton Walsh


And at times very steep climbs where you’re struggling through sort of swamp ish conditions. It’s utterly bizarre.

Nick Paton Walsh


And then the first thing I think that strikes you on these climbs is just how young some of the people are who were doing it.

“No, with the other. With the other foot. With the other one….

Nick Paton Walsh


You know, some seem to be two, three, four, even carried by their parents. And one child we met along the way, we’ll call him Wilson here. We’ve changed of what his name is because it’s sort of safer for them that way. But he had been separated from his parents. Not really abandoned. What they’ve done is. Is give him to a porter. And part of what the Colombian cartel do is offer sort of a porter service for people who’ve got the money. And that’s essentially just young local men, some possibly even migrants themselves, who are making money by helping migrants along their way, carrying their bags and carrying their children. Now, Wilson had been given to a porter, but the porter kind of raced off and got way ahead of the parents and he’d been separated.

Nick Paton Walsh


Nick: Are you going to America? Where are you going? WILSON: To Miami Nick: What do you like about Miami? WILSON: Dad is going to build a swimming pool. Nick: He will build a pool for you?

Nick Paton Walsh


And I sort of spoke to him about why he wanted to get to America. He told me he wanted his dad to make him a swimming pool. And we were worried, deeply worried for him that he may never get reconnected with his father and his sister, in fact, who he said wanted to be a nurse when she got to America. But we did very thankfully a couple of days later see them reunited and not quite sure how that happened. But it it seemed like it was impossible. Just 48 hours earlier.

Nick Paton Walsh


People as they walk, just discarding their shoes, a real sense of the atmosphere changing. Now we’ve crossed the border into Panama, people coming together, perhaps fearing for their own safety. And this much is just possibly going to get your feet out of it.

Nick Paton Walsh


And also to there are people you meet who you you wonder why on earth they’re here in the first place. And in one instance, there was a girl who will call Ana. She was about 12 years old and disabled and suffered from epileptic convulsions. Now, you might ask yourself, why would a parent ever bring somebody with those problems on something as physically exhausting and arduous as that? Well, they were from Venezuela. And we did eventually say, look, you know, why are you here? To the mother? And she explains that the medicine she needed for her daughter was exceptionally hard to come by in Venezuela or, in fact, unaffordable. So she kept having to cross into Colombia to get it. And so faced with those conditions, the idea of putting her daughter through four or five days potentially of of, you know, possibly physically arduous conditions seems like a comparatively easier choice.

Nick Paton Walsh


So we kept meeting Ana along the route because her mother was struggling to move her. She couldn’t really walk for herself. And they got to the summit where you cross from Colombia into Panama.

He was the only one who helped because everyone else just passed by.

Nick Paton Walsh


She managed to find some help to keep moving her and her daughter along, but that help would stagger and they’d be left behind.

She’s okay. We haven’t given her too much food because we’re not sure since she is special, you know? We’ll get there and give her juice. I have to wait for the lady – the girl’s mother…

Nick Paton Walsh


And so we kept seeing moments where complete strangers would step in and help Anna and her mother along the way. And I think it’s the the stark desperation of a mother choosing to put their daughter through something so utterly dangerous but terrifying and exhausting as that shows you how hard life must have been for her. Just trying to get her daily medicine for her daughter in Venezuela.

Nick Paton Walsh


These last moments of the walk just strikes you how incredibly tough all these people are and the sheer grit that they’re showing to get this far, but also how incredibly unpleasant the places they must be fleeing from are to make them endure this kind of torture to some degree over many days.

So for the people that do manage to survive and make it all the way through, they’re only in Panama at that point. Right. So what happens next after that?

Nick Paton Walsh


Well, the first thing that happens to them in Panama is they’re brought in by Panamanian immigration. They’re processed in one count and taken to another camp, at which point they have to try and be sure they have $40 a head to get a pass on to Costa Rica. And then from Costa Rica is Nicaragua, then Central America. And then they’re on the way up towards the Mexican border. So several more countries along their way. And the feeling we got from speaking to migrants is that they believed their onward journey would be relatively easy because those countries just want to see you whisked on through towards Mexico rather than

They don’t want you to linger.

Nick Paton Walsh


Well, they don’t want the problem to become theirs. They want it to be essentially the US-Mexico border that has the the backlog or the growing numbers of migrants. They don’t want to be the people who stop them along the way and find that problem becomes theirs.

And so you talk about how the cartel are kind of controlling this operation through the dairying cap and sometimes feeding migrants bad information. Is there anything that Colombia, Panama, even the U.S. is doing to try to dissuade some of these journeys?

Nick Paton Walsh


When we were there, it didn’t feel like there was an awful lot being done. And certainly the part of the Colombian border where the cartel operated didn’t really have much government. I mean, we saw briefly some Colombian police officers at the last port we left, but they were more about trying to maintain order around one of the boat journeys that were clearly assisting the cartel to move people. And then once you headed towards the jungle, there’s very little government presence at all. In fact, it was only when we ended the walk and got to the area where the boats run by a local tribe in Panama. Pick up the migrants, take them towards the migrant processing center that we actually saw a helicopter and I sort of Vermont. Well, that seems to be the first time we’ve seen any Panamanian government presence at all. So, yes, us, Panama and Colombia have recently come out, in fact, just last week stepped forward and said they were putting together a plan in the next two months to drastically try and reduce traffic through the Darling Gap. But we don’t know a lot about the details of that. We know that, you know, there’s a lot of hope that there’ll be more patrols along the Panamanian Colombian border. But the Colombians have a problem. They have to basically take on the cartel in that area and impose their decisions instead of the cartels. The Panamanian border force have to magically somehow patrol a vast, dense and impenetrable part of the jungle there. They don’t have limitless resources. So that’s going to be a tough one as well. And so also to any country which manages to slow or stop, the migrant flow is likely to end up with tens, if not hundreds of thousands of migrants stuck on their territory who they have to look after a process themselves. The incentives aren’t particularly large here for countries to stop this, of course, until you get to Mexico or the United States. And so I think this large announcement from those three countries is surely some way of trying to get a handle on the problem. But whether it’s successful, I just don’t know, seeing how anarchic that whole place is, I can’t see how it would be that fast.

Have you heard from any of the migrants that you met since then?

Nick Paton Walsh


The sad thing is a lot of the people on this trail, they don’t always want to be found. They don’t want journalists sort of tracking their every movement.

Nick Paton Walsh


What happened there?

It’s hard to live with all of the violence. I used to live with two people who were killed.

Nick Paton Walsh


But we did stay in touch with one mother and daughter who were from Venezuela. She was a professor. She earns $16 a month. So that’s one reason to be on the move. And her daughter, who spoke terrific English and they were hoping to get to relatives in Houston. Now, when we last spoke to them, they got as far as Mexico City, but beginning to run out of money. And that’s a common problem where people essentially get fleeced or milked for the cash that they’ve saved up to make this journey all the way through and then finally find themselves running out of cash to do jobs along the way, trying to earn extra money to make the final steps up towards the US-Mexico border. I do actually remember speaking to one Chinese migrant in one of the camps who recently messaged me saying he managed to get to San Francisco. So some success to some degree, but for the majority of people, we left a bit of a vacuum, a bit of a not really knowing what became of them. And to some degree that’s fitting because this is not an enormously intimate or personal machine here. This is a cartel churning through people thousands a day almost to move them on through.

If you want to die, the life is very short. If I wanted the 55 year old, if I wanted to die on the street, I want to come. I don’t care. I want to see my family.

Nick Paton Walsh


And so the stories we came across. Well, there’ll be other stories the next day. More stories than next week. And I miss the dark disposability of the people the cartel use, essentially, to make money exploiting their dreams.

Hmm. Incredible reporting. And if you want to see what this actually looks like, you can check out the new CNN show, The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper premieres tonight at 8 p.m. Eastern on CNN. Nick Paton Walsh, thanks so much.

Nick Paton Walsh


Thank you.

One thing is a production of CNN Audio. This episode was produced by Paola Ortiz and me. David Rind. Matt Dempsey is our production manager. Faiz Jamil is our senior producer. Greg Peppers is our supervising producer. And Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of CNN Audio. Special thanks this week to Natalie Gillon, William Bowen and Matt Sheibner. Thank you for listening. We’ll be back next Sunday. Make sure you follow the show wherever you listen so that new episode pops in your feed next week. Talk to you then.

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