The Darién Gap: A deadly extension of the US border

As the US maniacally fortifies its borders, that sociopathic policy plays out over migrant bodies a thousand miles away.

Migrants, mostly Venezuelans, walk across the Darien Gap from Colombia into Panama hoping to reach the U.S. on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)
Migrants, mostly Venezuelans, walk across the Darien Gap from Colombia into Panama hoping to reach the US, on Saturday, October 15, 2022 [Fernando Vergara/AP]

This year, a record number of United States-bound migrants and refugees have risked their lives to cross the Darién Gap, the 66-mile mountainous stretch of spectacularly inhospitable jungle between Colombia and Panama. According to Panama’s National Migration Service, more than 151,000 people, including at least 21,000 minors, made the crossing between January and September.

The trek can take more than a week, with perils ranging from precipitous ravines and flash floods to vipers and ultra-poisonous spiders. There are also man-made contributions to the landscape, such as unexploded ordnance courtesy of the US military, which practised dropping bombs over the Darién as part of its Cold War mission to make the world safe for capitalism.

Then, as now, a world safe for capitalism is a pretty dangerous one for humans. And, as the US continues to maniacally fortify its borders to ensure that poor people will never have the same freedom of movement as corporate capital, that sociopathic policy plays out over migrant bodies more than a thousand miles away in the Darién Gap.

Because the global downtrodden are, for the most part, denied a legal and safe path to migration to the US, there is a flourishing market for human traffickers. Criminal outfits can prey with ease on desperate folks. In the Darién, rape and other violence are rampant; a six-year-old child was reportedly shot recently “for screaming as gang members sexually assaulted his mother”.

I had the opportunity to hear first hand of the horrors of the Darién when, in July 2021, I was briefly imprisoned for visa irregularities in the women’s section of Mexico’s notorious Siglo XXI migrant detention centre — which means “21st century” in Spanish and is located in the southern Mexican border city of Tapachula.

With my US passport, I was quite the anomaly in Siglo XXI, an overcrowded and abuse-ridden facility. In keeping with the US habit of forcing Mexico to perform its anti-migrant dirty work, the jail functions to thwart northward movement by Central and South Americans as well as migrants from as far afield as Africa and Asia. As I note in my forthcoming book Inside Siglo XXI, my fellow inmates were simultaneously amused and mystified by my deathly fear of being deported home to the US, the very country they were risking their existence to reach.

Still, they offered me compassion, solidarity, and half of a floormat to sleep on — an attitude of hospitality that stood in marked defiance of the 21st-century systemic inhumanity to which they were being subjected. Little did my companions know that, had they, in fact, made it to my inhospitable homeland, they might have had to endure additional inhuman absurdity by being bussed between states in the runup to midterm elections this year as US politicians vied for the heartlessness prize.

In jail, I listened as women compared notes on their respective journeys through the Darién Gap. They spoke of the ever-present fear of starvation and dehydration, of people who had gone in one side and never come out, of a 13-year-old girl who had been raped repeatedly along the way. They recalled all of the corpses they had encountered en route, which had underscored the need to keep moving. A Cuban detainee relayed an episode from a Darién ravine, in which a group of her countrymen had rescued other migrants from becoming corpses themselves.

Indeed, as was the case in Siglo XXI, it appeared that the exceptionally hostile terrain of the Darién constituted the backdrop for exceptional magnanimity, as well — not that any of this made it worth it. Another detainee reckoned that, at least in the Darién, you were focused on forward motion and general survival — whereas the indefinite limbo of migrant detention only allowed your trauma to catch up with you.

Shortly after my expedited stint in prison — from which I was released in accordance with gross imperial privilege, and was not even deported from Mexico — the Voice of America reported on the extensive psychological trauma and other detrimental health effects of traversing the Darién Gap as a migrant. A US State Department spokesperson had responded to a Voice of America inquiry about Washington’s “role in the Darién Gap” with some standard lines about working to “improve Panama’s national asylum capacity [and] ability to address irregular migration”.

These non-solutions fail to address the crux of the matter — which has nothing to do with Panama and everything to do with the US. And US responsibility for death and trauma in the Darién runs deeper than its policy of criminalising “irregular” northward migration. United States foreign policy — and decades of ransacking the hemisphere militarily and economically — created the very conditions that force many migrants to flee in the first place.

From backing right-wing dictators and death squads in Latin America to promoting subtler neoliberal hemispheric pillage, the US has never been in the business of cultivating landscapes that make people want to stay put. At the time of my detention in Siglo XXI, the most prevalent nationalities among those who had crossed the Darién Gap were Cubans, whose country was going on 60 years of an asphyxiating US embargo; and Haitians, who had spent more than a century at the mercy of intermittently violent US meddling.

Under the Barack Obama administration, the US conspired to block an increase in the minimum wage beyond 31 cents per hour for assembly zone workers in Haiti. It’s no wonder Haitians try to leave.

Now, the surplus of Venezuelans endeavouring to navigate the Darién has more than a little to do with US sanctions on the country, which affect its most vulnerable inhabitants.

Unfortunately for the human race, there is no end in sight to US violations of other people’s borders, or to the pompous conception of the US border as inviolable.

As rape and other violations of migrant bodies continue to mount in the Darién Gap, the stretch of jungle serves as a fittingly hostile extension of the US border and a reminder of Washington’s continuing depredations across the Americas.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.