Updated: Oct 15, 2020
The isthmus between Central and South America where Panama and Colombia touch is called the Darien Gap. Comprised of swamps and jungles, it is where the Pan-American Highway ends and lawlessness begins. Historically, migrants wanting to go northward to the US along with drug carrying mules have crossed this area by foot only to encounter armed robbers and sexual predators. Now, with the COVID-19 virus wiping out many fragile Third World economies and overwhelming health systems, the Darien Gap is seeing an upsurge in migrants willing to make the perilous trip.
Most of the crossers are from Haiti and Cuba but there are also people coming through from Africa (Congo and Cameroon) and South Asia (India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka). Those from far flung countries will commonly travel to Brazil, cross the Amazon to Peru, and turn north to Ecuador until they arrive at Colombia where they hire smugglers to guide them through the Gap. All too often, however, the smugglers take them into the jungle and then abandon them.
For those from Haiti, the dangerous crossing may be worth the risk. This densely populated island of 11 million people is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with 6 million living below the poverty level. Conditions worsened after a 2010 7.0 magnitude earthquake and cholera outbreak that sickened 800,000 and killed 10,000. The current virus threatens to destabilize the country further. Now a Global Health Advisory and US State Department Advisory are calling for restricted travel due to crime, civil unrest and kidnapping.
While the COVID 19 pandemic may have health and economic consequences, it also threatens to increase the migration of the poor and dispossessed worldwide, with travel through the Darien Gap being a harbinger of more to come.