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Panama’s Darien Gap, a Mediterranean Without Boats or Headlines

Panama’s Darien Gap, a Mediterranean Without Boats or Headlines /
14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez

14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Panama, 23 October 2016 — If anything deserves
to be called “tropical” it is the Darien jungle in the south of
Panama. Humidity, mosquitoes and heat makes moving within the dense
vegetation of the area a superhuman task. Through the dense jungle
extends one of the most dangerous migratory routes of the world. A
Mediterranean without boats or headlines, but one where opportunity and
death also converge.

Where Central America joins in a narrow embrace with South America, is
is the deadliest and most feared stretch along the route to the United
States. Crossing from Colombia to this area in Panama are
migrants arriving from nearby or distant countries, such as Cuba, Haiti,
Ivory Coast, Ghana, Somalia, Bangladesh, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

This piece of land has lodged in many migrants’ memories as the most
difficult in the long march toward a dream. However, for migrants from
other continents, coming from Asia and Africa, overcoming it is a major
effort. There are those who cross the Atlantic at the mercy of the human
traffickers, hidden in the cargo holds of ships that often depart a
Europe incapable of confronting its own immigration crisis.

Without speaking a word of Spanish, nor knowing the least cultural
details of this area of the world, the recently arrived collide with a
region where reality oscillates between the marvelous and the sinister.
In most cases, they carry no identity documents and only a few know
words such as “water” and “food.”

Those who manage to cross the thicket of vegetation and danger,
celebrate on the other side, now in Panamanian territory, with the joy
of reaching a final destination, but with the crossing of the rest of
Central America and Mexico still ahead of them, some of it semi-desert.
But conquering the Darien comes to be seen as winning a medal in the
most difficult Olympic disciplines… one in which the athletes play at life.

There are no half measures in this strip of rough terrain. A coyote
might be an experienced guide who leads a group of travelers toward the
next frontier, or a criminal who delivers the group into the hands of
extortionists, rapists and thieves.

Through the jungle, the migrants appear in groups, some with children
riding on their shoulders, stumbling through the mud and branches along
makeshift routes. Their stories are barely told in the foreign media,
and international organizations have been parsimonious in highlighting
the humanitarian crisis that is taking place in this narrow waist of
land that enhances the curves of America.

It is also a path marked by simulation. Many Haitians cross the jungle
passing themselves off as Africans. The citizens of the country in this
part of the world hardest hit by natural disasters and poverty are
considered as pariahs, with little appeal even to the human traffickers.

In no other place on the continent, as in the Darien, are the
deficiencies of Latin American diplomacy in coordinating common policy
more apparent. Meanwhile, Nicaragua continues to keep its borders closed
to migrants, Costa Rica seeks to stem the flow of foreigners flooding
it, and the president of Panama warns that those who enter the jungle
area separating his country from Colombia “are going to be given
humanitarian assistance to continue their journey.”

The Darian Gap incarnates the fiasco of regional integration, delayed by
the short-sightedness of the politicians and the successive attempts to
create select clubs of countries, united more by ideological
conveniences than by the urgent needs of their citizens. The greatest
failure is the fault of the Central American Social
Integration Secretariat (SISCA), incompetent to implement an effective
contingency plan for the situation.

It has been of little use that James Cavallaro, President of the
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (CIDH), made a call to the
United States of America to act “immediately to open channels that
allows these people to migrate legally and safely.” In the government
palaces, everyone seems more focused on lighting their own fires than in
supporting joint efforts.

This diplomatic selfishness didn’t escape Cavallaro, who also said that
“the fact that the migrants resort to irregular channels and human
traffickers is explained by the lack of legal and safe channels to
migrate,” a situation that increases their vulnerabilities to the abuses
and extortion of criminal organizations, human traffickers and corrupt

The landscape worsens every day with a Europe overwhelmed by the massive
arrival of migrants and a “destination America” appearing as an option
for those fleeing armed conflicts: the poor and the desperate. Like a
river that starts with a thin trickle of water, the flow of those
crossing the Central American isthmus grew and grew, swelled by
thousands of Cubans who fear the repeal of the Cuban Adjustment Act and
the benefits it offers them in the United States.

The drama takes place beyond the photographers’ lenses. The images of
the boats filled with refugees coming from Myanmar and Bangladesh trying
to get to Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand filled the newspaper
headlines in the middle of last year, while the Darien hid its most
terrible scenes. It barely appeared in the international press.

To those who boast of living in a hyper-connected world, with every inch
already explored and with the eyes of satellites crossing it
foot-by-foot, they would do well to visit this jungle. One of the last
natural redoubts that terrorizes men, stops the most daring expeditions
and seems to laugh at adventurers in the style of Indiana Jones.

A descent into the abyss of humidity and insect bites could shade the
reading of news about space probes that reach distant planets and
collect images of other galaxies. The region remains as stark as in the
days of the Spanish Conquest.

The Pan American Highway, which runs from Alaska to Argentina, is
interrupted here. A situation that has helped to preserve the natural
diversity of the area but that certainly increases the deadliness of
this stretch for migrants.

In September of this year, a family of three drowned in the Turquesa
River. Fishermen in the area reported the body of a child not yet four
years old floating in the water. Then they also found his parents. All
had “foreign-features,” according to the Panamanian border service.

They are just a few of the many victims claimed by the Darien Gap. This
jungle is so thick that not even screams escape it.


Editor’s note: This text was published on Sunday 23 October in the
newspaper El País.

Source: Panama’s Darien Gap, a Mediterranean Without Boats or Headlines
/ 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez – Translating Cuba –

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