WORLD EXCLUSIVE: What would you risk for a better life? Dateline journeys through one of the world’s most dangerous jungles, a route populated by drug traffickers, bandits and migrants searching for a new beginning.
This wild and shadowy jungle is a keeper of secrets. The Darien Gap is home to rare species and Indigenous villagers. It also hides people smugglers and drug runners and the discarded bodies of those they have murdered. Many who enter do not come out, but for people who dream of living in the United States, it's still a risk worth running.
Throughout my career, I have reported from dangerous places, but the story of the Darien Gap has been on my mind for as long as I can remember. It's a black zone to the extreme. If something goes wrong, you're on your own. I've been prepping for this story for more than nine months.
Waterproof matches. All-purpose knife. Eating tool. Anti-mosquito arsenal here. I'm hoping to meet migrants who fled their homelands to attempt this journey. I'm leaving behind my partner Susie and my daughter to join them as they cross the Darien. It's a 150-kilometre jungle wilderness between Colombia and Panama that no sane person would dare enter and yet each year, thousands of people do. Migrants and refugees from around the world, including Syria, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Nepal, are willing to risk everything for a long-shot chance at reaching the USA.
In many ways, their story is the story of my family, my father took a gamble of his own to reach the United States. In the years running up to the revolution of the late 70s, he left Iran. Unable to get a visa to the US, he bought a ticket to Canada and faked an illness during a layover in New York. His go for broke stunt secured a safer life for us, free from threats and oppression.
SUSIE: How many days will you be off the grid and in the jungle?
REPORTER: It's hard to say. It just depends on the conditions and the security on the route.
SUSIE: Can you please just drink a lot of water, even if it’s humid. You need it for strength.
I'm taking my chances in the Darien Crossing, because I want to experience first-hand the struggle of migrants. The United Nations estimates globally, more than 65 million have been uprooted due to war, poverty and terrorism. Ordinary people thrust into a dance with death as they brave deserts and seas, and now, the jungle where I'm going.
If migration is the story of our time, the Darien Gap is its crucible. My first stop is Bogota, the capital of Colombia. The streets are plastered with reminders of the violence that's gripped the country for more than five decades. Colombia is known for being the cocaine powerhouse of the world, producing the drug in greater quantities than any other country. But today, Colombia hides another secret trade - migrant trafficking. I meet up with a friend and colleague, Carlos Villalon, a veteran photojournalist.
REPORTER: We're here!
We've both been documenting migration issues for years and we both chase stories in places most would rather avoid. Carlos is well connected in Colombia after covering the drug war for more than a decade.
CARLOS VILLALON, PHOTOJOURNALIST: Things change like this in the field, you know what I mean?
And I'm relying on him and his connections to get us through the journey safely.
CARLOS VILLALON: So you understand what type of a place we’re going to go to?
REPORTER: I'm getting the picture.
CARLOS VILLALON: We're going to take a look and talk to super reliable sources. That's why if we make the decision it's a no-go, we are really going to be saving our asses. I mean, it's not a joke, that’s what I’m telling you, you know.
REPORTER: We’re going to be smart.
CARLOS VILLALON: Yeah.
REPORTER: We've done our home mark. Could we have a look at the map? Even a Google map we could look at?
Many of the places we'll visit aren't marked. There are no roads. It's lawless and uncharted.
CARLOS VILLALON: Basically, from here to here, to Bijao it’s just a boat. Then we are going to get to the Wounaan Village in a boat, walk, walk and then boat.
We're basing our trip on a hand-drawn map from our local contacts. To our knowledge, no film crew has ever made it through the Darien before. Carlos and I, along with our cameraman Roger Arnold, will attempt the trek alongside migrants on their way to the United States. We want to walk in the shoes of those fleeing persecution, to document a migrant journey few have heard of. Drug runners, leftist rebels and cut-throat criminals also use the same route we'll take. It's risky.
CARLOS VILLALON (Translation): Three boxes is one dose, for a small bite, yes?
Then there's nature. The Darien is rife with jaguars, crocodiles, venomous spiders and snakes.
REPORTER: What are the most common symptoms of the bites that are treated in the region? Necrosis, neurotoxins, haemorrhaging.
CARLOS VILLALON: Lots of sweat.
REPORTER: So it's multifaceted?
CARLOS VILLALON: Yeah.
There are no medical facilities in the jungle, so our survival may depend on this snake-bite training course and our limited supply of anti-venom which we'll carry with us.
REPORTER: Most of the snakes - 99% of the snakes, it's one shot to each butt cheek then the IV in the arm?
CARLOS VILLALON: The most dangerous one it's a verrugoso, which is like 2m long up to 6, bites you on the vein, you have 10 minutes to live. So we’re not gonna use this thing on you, we’re gonna keep it for the next one.
REPORTER: At that point I’m dead weight.
CARLOS VILLALON: Good luck brother.
REPORTER: Save yourselves, save yourselves.
CARLOS VILLALON: You have ten minutes, here’s your shovel.
REPORTER: No, in that case you take the machete and just hack the limb off.
We've prepared as much as we can, taking sat phones, trackers and medicines. Resources the migrants go without. So we travel north to the tip of Colombia, to Turbo, the hub for drug and people traffickers. Migrants fly into Latin American countries like Ecuador and Brazil where entry visas aren't required. It's here, on the edge of Colombia, where they board boats and enter the void that is the Darien Gap. But not all the boats departing from Turbo make it.
As with many refugees coming to Australia by boat, drownings here are not uncommon. We're told that a lot of migrants who died on the water when they were travelling in really rickety boats were buried here anonymously. If you look here is just says N, N, no name. Looks like there are about a dozen or more migrants buried here in the mausoleum.
Out on the river, our journey into the Darien jungle truly begins. This remote region is largely untouched by the modern world, smugglers have long used this route to move timber, guns and cocaine.
REPORTER: Just made the turn up the Cacarica River that a lot of the migrants take up to the Panama border. It's pretty much virgin jungle from here on out.
Our driver grapples with the foliage that's choking the river. This area is controlled by the notorious Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC. For more than 50 years, the leftist rebel group has been fighting to overthrow the Colombian government. Both sides are now in peace talks, but the rebels can be brutal, they murdered a Swedish backpacker in the same area just a few years ago. Many migrants have also vanished on this route.
REPORTER: So... This might be the end of the line for us for now. The water in some places is less than a foot deep and the bottom of the boat is trying to scrape a little bit. The guide is trying not to grind the rotor blades on the motor. It looks like we might have to get out and pull pretty soon.
We arrive at a small ramshackle hamlet, where we hope to gain permission to pass through FARC turf. Our safety depends on their good favour. We meet with Elber, a FARC representative.
CARLOS VILLALON (Translation): So this meeting now, what is it about?
ELBER, FARC REPRESENTATIVE (Translation): To talk to the bosses.
These men and women call the shots in this part of the Darien. They tell us that one of the few ways to earn a living out here is through drug and people trafficking. Then... They ask us to leave with them. Elber has just invited us to a clandestine meeting of the local FARC political committee. So we're just going to follow these guys and see what they have to say. They're not comfortable with our cameras but a few hours later, we're given permission to proceed through FARC territory in the Darien.
ELBER (Translation): Need anything from here?
REPORTER (Translation): No, I’ve got everything.
But can we truly trust them? We push on, motoring further up river, hoping to cross paths with migrants bound for the United States. The deeper into the Darien we go, the more vulnerable we become. We stop at the village of Bijao. Bijao is known as a way station for migrants about to enter the most difficult part of their journey to America. Our plan is to wait here until the next group of migrants arrive, in the meantime we immerse ourselves in local life, including the delicacies.
LOCAL (Translation): Yesenia, this is for the backbone soup, those are for my Toby.
Locals here hunt crocodiles for fresh meat and hearty stew.
LOCAL (Translation): Am I being filmed? Hopefully you are not showing my face with this hair!
REPORTER (Translation): I’m hungry guys.
LOCAL (Translation): He speaks Spanish? Where is he from? Take me to the USA.
CARLOS VILLALON (Translation): He is from the USA.
Much like the migrants who regularly pass through, these villagers also dream of a better life.
REPORTER (Translation): Would you go to the USA?
LOCAL (Translation): Yes, I would. You can find me a job!
This village lacks steady electricity, schools and clinics. People here die of treatable illnesses like malaria.
REPORTER (Translation): How old are you?
LOCAL (Translation): Eight.
REPORTER (Translation): Do you like football?
LOCAL (Translation): Yes.
Incoming migrants buy supplies here and pay local guides hundreds of US dollars to take them through the jungle to Panama. The guides risk prison if caught by Panama's border guards. But villagers see it as a service that brings much-needed money into the community. For the migrants, it's a lifeline, without a skilled guide in the jungle, death is one wrong turn away. I was just looking around this room where we're boarding now and on the window I found a message it says "Nine Somalians", there's a list of nine names here and it's dated March 10, 2014. At the bottom it says "Panama, all", it's another piece of evidence that we're on the immigrant trail. While we kill time waiting for the next group of migrants to show up, normal village life goes on around us.
REPORTER: Unbelievable. It's 9:00am the following morning. They're still at it. They never shut down the bloody music. Rough night.
It's been five days and we're still waiting to share the stories of those seeking freedom and a better life. But are we chasing shadows? Finally, my producer rings with some news, and we learn why we haven't seen any migrants. The Panama border has been shut down, the migrants' route has been blocked.
REPORTER: Things are so fluid right now, you know. I mean one thing is the migrants are going to find a way through regardless and if they're stopping them up in Capurgana, near the coast and now in the Darien, there are going to be routes, it opens up another opportunity for the smugglers. So it's like water, they're gonna keep moving and finding the openings.
It's believed some 25,000 migrants crossed into Panama last year, bound for the United States. Nobody knows how many made it all the way, but in the middle of our Dateline shoot, the country's President declares migrants will now be rejected, without exception, whether refugees or not.
REPORTER: So what do you think if we continue, get as close as we can…
CARLOS VILLALON: We’re going to, we’re going to.
REPORTER: We just keep getting intel from the locals.
CARLOS VILLALON: We’re going to do as we planned and then we’re going to go up there anyway.
REPORTER: OK. This guy says three hours.
CARLOS VILLALON: Three hours to get there.
Restless, after a week of waiting, we hit the water in search of other villages where migrants sometimes pass through.
REPORTER: A little map from above, it shows something like this.
We haven't seen anyone on the river all day, so when the driver tells us he smells migrants, I'm sceptical. But then... People.
CARLOS VILLALON: How are you doin', guys?
REPORTER: How are you guys? You speak English?
Two weary stragglers. We walk in the muddy water to catch up to their boat. Hungry and exhausted, they tell me their homes are in Bangladesh and Nepal.
REPORTER: When did you leave Bangladesh?
REFUGEE: One month.
They've come halfway around the world and as their smiles fade, their hardships tumble out.
REFUGEE (Translation): We’ve had no food for four days and only river water to drink. We’ve had so much trouble, we haven’t slept for eleven days and haven’t eaten for four. I left my father, mother, brother and sister to come here. Oh God!
REFUGEE 2 (Translation): In Bangladesh… they cut us. Here…here… They chopped us here, they chopped us and we had to leave. That’s why we had to come to the jungle.
REPORTER: Just a little bit more then we rest, sleep, rest, OK? OK, let's go, quickly.
Together, we trudge two hours up the river shallows back to Bijao village, where we've been staying. The migrants can relax for the first time in days. They've travelled overland from Brazil, through Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador, to Colombia.
REFUGEE (Translation): “Emru, Samad, Choiree, Boygo-chaad…” Name, date of birth… What’s the date?
REFUGEE 2 (Translation): The 15th.
In this migrant hostel, they read messages from those who've braved the journey before them and then, leave their mark, confident that when the next group reads their names, they will be safe in Panama, and continuing onward to the US.
REFUGEE (Translation): “Monir 12/04/2016” “Habib, father of Qais.”
People join migration trails across the globe for all kinds of reasons, mostly to escape danger and persecution but some cross borders for purely economic reasons. We can't know for sure if these travelers are genuine refugees. It's late but 20-year-old Arafat from Bangladesh wants to tell me about his journey so far. With the help of a translator via satellite phone, I learn more about why he's here, risking his life in the Darien Gap.
ARAFAT (Translation): I am here in the jungle because of political problems, I left my parents and siblings and everyone for political reasons. I don’t know how my parents are and they don’t know where I am or how I am.
REPORTER: Arafat, are you scared about this journey, about what lies ahead, about all the unknowns?
ARAFAT (Translation): If you remember God, then you will always be successful.
By night fall, nine more migrants have joined us from Cameroon, Togo and Gambia. The group now totals 20. They're bound together by a shared hope of starting over in the United States. The kind of life my father envisioned and got for us. In the morning, we plan to enter the Darien Gap together. It's at least two full days' trek through the jungle to the border.
REPORTER: Goodnight, sleep well. Goodnight, man.
The riskiest part of one of the world's most treacherous migrant journeys lies ahead.
Until now, it's been a waiting game in the village of Bijao.
REPORTER (Translation): Two cans of sardines?
But today we're heading off.
CARLOS VILLALON: You want to take all this?
REPORTER: No, just this.
We've connected with 20 migrants and they're allowing us to document their journey into the jungle, where kidnappings and killings are rife. They've come from South East Asia and Africa and are risking everything for a chance at a better life in the United States. Everyone is running away from something. But what exactly, I'm yet to find out.
The Darien is a drug trafficking corridor between Colombia and Panama. It's also home to notorious leftist guerilla fighters known as FARC. Local guides will take us in boats to the end of the river and then through the jungle on foot. Our destination is Paya, a native village on the Panama side of the Darien. Once inside Panama, the migrants will have another six borders to cross before reaching the United States.
GUIDE: Give it to me, this is mine.
A local guide can mean the difference between living and dying out here.
GUIDE: 20 you give him.
As the migrants wait anxiously in the boats a dispute breaks out.
GUIDE: No! We are nine of us. Nine. That's eight. 1, 2, 3, 4... Hey, I give you the money. Give him the money.
The guides are asking for more money.
MIGRANT: We gave him 20, we gave him $20,.
Three times, they agreed-upon price. No-one has any leverage out here.
CARLOS VILLALON: $600 each. Too much?
Carlos, my local producer, and I negotiate.
GUIDE: I think it’s too little, you think it’s too much.
The migrants tell me the locals are profiting from their misery. But the villagers themselves suffer poverty, and the corrupt effects of the drug trade.
CARLOS VILLALON: 300 each. It's fine, yeah?
It's not fine. But we need our guides to keep us safe. So we pay up and head off. I ride with Ebrima, a political activist from Gambia. Ebrima tells me he fled after learning his name was on a government hit list, leaving his pregnant wife and two children behind. He has never heard of the Darien Gap. He just knows there is a jungle he must cross if he wants to reach the United States.
We leave the water and the hardest part of our journey begins. We will have to scale steep ravines and navigate muddy tracks strangled by thick jungle. Within minutes of stepping under the canopy, we feel sealed off from the outside world. There's no map. No coordinates to follow. Satellite phones rarely get a signal. We're aiming for a stone obelisk that we're told marks the border. If we're lucky, we'll get there in two days.
MIGRANT: Allah! Allah help me! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah! Allah!
Thousands of migrants trekked this route last year, some after fleeing the wars in Syria and Afghanistan. Nobody knows how many died out here. In my experience, most refugees are ordinary people forced to take extraordinary risks.
REPORTER: Ready, guys?
Like Ebrima, who's seeking political asylum in the US. Like my father, who left Iran for a chance at a better life and like Evelyn, the only woman in our group.
REPORTER: Are you scared about this trip?
EVELYN, MIGRANT: Very, very scared. But I don't have any choice. The war that we have in Cameroon, Boko Haram killing all our brothers, we have no choice than to run, to go hide ourselves somewhere.
She struggles up the mud-slick hills where you can't get a foothold, enduring unbearable heat and humidity. Evelyn tells me she was a hairdresser in her home country, Cameroon. Now, she's in the fiercest of jungles, scarcely able to breathe. Rotting trees snag at my feet. I've trekked in jungles before, but here, the menace and isolation are incomparable, then... a reminder of the danger, bigger than the jungle itself.
CARLOS VILLALON: Have you ever seen anything like this? I always had dreams with a fucking skull, this is like no dreams I know exist.
The skull faces toward Panama, presumably a warning to anyone who dares enter Colombian FARC territory. We're feeling rattled and move quickly to find the others. Travelling in a group gives the comfort of strength in numbers but that's an illusion. We lean on each other, but in our minds, we're on our own.
CARLOS VILLALON (Translation): All of a sudden I got fucked. I’m completely exhausted. I thought I’d make it in perfect condition. I’ll get there but I’ll be in a shit condition. But I’ll make it.
Drenched in sweat, Carlos sucks on glucose.
MIGRANT (Translation): I’ve sweated at least ten buckets! Ten buckets!
The jungle is cruel, it soaks you as it sucks you dry. We're guzzling litre after litre of precious water. Unsure of when we'll find it again. Momir, one of the Bengalis, says he is feeling feverish and can't go on. He begs someone to help him carry his bag.
MIGRANT: Here, let me see the heavy things. Open! All the clothes, throw them away.
But there are no takers. He's forced to decide which of his meagre possessions he can do without so he can keep walking.
MIGRANT: Get rid of anything heavy. All the clothes, throw them away. No, don’t throw your shoes. Don’t throw your shoes.
We had hoped to reach the border by night fall, but our pace is slower than expected. The rows of leaf-cutter ants that line the trail make it look easy.
CARLOS VILLALON: Hey brother man.
EVELYN: Look at the forest, I have never moved in this type of forest since I was born. Even in Africa, I don’t know this type of forest. Very hard. Too difficult for a woman, it is too much for me, too much.
REPORTER: You are the only woman?
EVELYN: The only woman.
After 12 brutal hours hiking in treacherous conditions, we finally stop and make camp for the night.
MIGRANT: So we are resting.
MIGRANT: Camping,, camping until 5 o’clock in the morning. I’m so tired.
MIGRANT 2: Well, you lie down. Sleep, sleep.
The mosquitos out here are relentless…
MIGRANT: We had repellent too but it is finished.
…and as darkness falls, their appetite intensifies. Zika virus, dengue and yellow fever are all prevalent here. The migrants will sleep in the open, fodder for swarming bats and mosquitos. The Bengalis wash down vanilla cookies with the last of their water.
EBRIMA: The jungle is not easy. You have seen it with your eyes.
Ebrima has travelled for weeks to get this far. He travelled from Gambia to Ecuador, where entry visas are not required. From there, he travelled overland to get to Colombia but this, without a doubt, is the toughest part of his journey.
REPORTER: Have you ever been this tired before?
EBRIMA: No, I've never encountered tiredness like this before. Never happened in my life since. This one? Never.
REPORTER: Are you going to be OK?
EBRIMA: Sure, sure, sure, it's going to be OK. I'm going to be OK. But it's not easy, absolutely. But I'm sure it's going to be OK. I'll make it to the final destination. Yeah, amen.
Even if Ebrima makes it into Panama, there will still be five more countries to cross before reaching the United States. It's believed the 25,000 migrants crossed into Panama last year but in the middle of our journey, the country's President announces the rules have changed. Panama will no longer turn a blind eye to these arrivals. Instead, anyone crossing without permission will be rejected without exception. Tomorrow we'll push to the border. We don't know what will happen when we get there.
CARLOS VILLALON: Nepalese team ready?
The hangover of a rough night's sleep is tempered by the prospect of reaching the Panama border.
MIGRANT: Let's go!
It's a mixture of nerves and excitement. The border is hidden somewhere deep in the jungle ahead. When we cross it, we'll still have at least 30 kilometres to walk to get back to civilisation. We're anxious about meeting the Panama border police. They usually focus on drug trafficking. Now they have new orders: to stop migrants. We worry that it could cause problems for the group we're travelling with.
REPORTER: Just a few more minutes to the border. This is the final push and then we're in Panama. Let's go.
At last, we reach the border of Colombia and Panama. The hinge of south and central America. A stone obelisk peeks through the trees as a marker. The migrants are now out of the Darien yet, but they enjoy the moment as they should. They've just left another continent behind.
REPORTER: How do you feel? Do you think you can make it all the way?
EBRIMA: Yeah, I'll make it, Inshallah, because of God I will make it. Because I think the hardest part of the journey is almost done. What I encounter, may I never encounter this throughout my life. It's too hard. It's too hard.
REPORTER (Translation): What’s the problem my friend, what’s the problem?
We're in Panama now and with the border closed only days ago, the guides are edgy. They could be arrested for helping migrants cross the border. They decide we should split up.
CARLOS VILLALON: We gotta tell them, look, man, if the police catch you with this guy, this guy is going to jail.
REPORTER: They say the trail is very easy to follow and it's about 2 hours to the Pyre River and the village is just after that. OK? OK. OK. See you in Paya. Take care, OK? See you. See you there.
As I wave goodbye, it crosses my mind I may never see them again. We'll travel separately to maximise everyone's safety. We stay with our guides and the migrants walk ahead. The guides set a blistering pace. And then... They're gone. I become paranoid I'm being set up for an ambush. I can't see the guides or Carlos, or Roger, our cameraman. I'm all alone. Dizzy. Lost.
We prepared nine months for this journey, taking every precaution. The migrants came with nothing. Not knowing what they were getting themselves into. Out here, the line between survival and oblivion is a slippery one. Finally, Carlos staggers in but there's no sign of the guides.
REPORTER: Wait a second, I have all the money in my bag and they know I have money, so maybe they set up an ambush or something like that.
CARLOS VILLALON: Yeah. You know, you disappear here. They bury you, who the hell is gonna find you, man? And they come back, that's it. It's hardcore place, like here, you don't want to have an enemy on these people, really because they hag you.
It's tricky, man, a tricky place. With the guides gone, we attempt to find the river in a way out of here on our own. Our satellite tracker isn't working because of the thick jungle canopy and cloud cover. We have no idea where we are, or where the migrants are. They will also be looking for a way out of here, with no guides, not even a compass.
So we've been hiking for the last 2 hours with all of our bags and we're tapped out on water, we're still up at altitude, so we're in a bit of a fix right now. We gotta get to a water source one way or the other. We've got iodine, at least we can purify it but we need to get something in our system. I'm getting a little dizzy and it's getting darker.
Carlos is getting desperate. He drinks from a dirty puddle. He's past caring about sickness and disease. And then...
REPORTER: Good morning. Hi.
We walk right into border guard soldiers.
SOLDIER (Translation): Come in, good morning.
REPORTER: Thank you, my friend. Good morning.
It's the first time in my life I'm relieved to face the barrel of an automatic rifle. The migrants are here as well. They're under armed guard.
REPORTER (Translation): Can we film? We can't talk to them or film them. Don't record.
As we're led away, I hear Ebrima call out to me. "Don't forget about us, brother." We have the right passports, which means we're free to enter Panama but in a devastating blow, an officer tells us the migrants will all be sent back into the Darien, given no chance to prove if they are refugees under the UN convention.
If they'd arrived five days earlier, their fate would be different, and they'd now be continuing north towards the US. We might've given them some water but they have to march back up the same way they came, into Colombia. He said it's a presidential order, it's out of his control, he's torn, but those are the orders, so... Looks like they're all on their way back to Colombia as we speak. It's unthinkable.
The Darien Gap is the darkest passage of the global migration phenomenon. Our reporting bears witness to this journey. But we still don't know how the story ends for the 20 migrants we travelled with. I've reached out to some of them but my emails have gone unanswered. It's been four months since I returned from the Darien and my hope of hearing from them is fading. But I hope all the same.
Production Manager & Logistics
Sikder Taher Ahmad