American policies have forced thousands of migrants to take dangerous migration routes, among which the tropical forest of the Darien Gap, that separates Colombia from Panama. According to a recent UN report, over 50,000 people from 50 nationalities have crossed this region since January searching for the “American dream.” Jean-Beltran has overcome hunger, fatigue, and harassment from armed groups, and has crossed this lawless area successfully.

Darien National Park is a jungle-like buffer zone bordering Colombia and Panama

At least 53 migrants died in a truck from dehydration or asphyxiation in San Antonio, Texas, in late June. This tragedy illustrates the limits of American migration policies, which are aimed at preventing hundreds of thousands of migrants from reaching the United States. The United States are increasingly outsourcing their borders further south on the continent, in an attempt to turn Mexico, plagued by a drug war, into a buffer state. Representatives from Central American countries and Colombia have been meeting to control the departure of migrants at source. The budget allocated to the US Customs and Border Protection Service continues to increase, reaching 17.7 billion dollars for the 2021 fiscal year alone.

But neither technology nor political efforts can prevent people from fleeing the structural violence of the Latin American region. On the contrary, migrants have been taking increasingly dangerous and hostile migration routes. The tropical forest of the Darien Gap, which separates Colombia from Panama, is one of the most significant. This national park has been crossed by over 50,000 people from 50 different nationalities since January, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In the same period, three times more than in 2021. In this context, the testimony of Jean-Beltran, a Creole translator who had himself crossed that high-risk area, is particularly heartbreaking.

There were people from different countries: from Haiti, Cameroon, Congo, Cuba, India, Guinea, and even people from Nepal”

“I wouldn’t go through the Darien again.” When we first met Jean-Beltran* in Tapachula, on the southern border of Mexico, he was volunteering as a Creole translator to help thousands of his Haitian compatriots who were stranded in that Chiapas city. Like the other exiles, Jean-Beltran has also mentioned the name pronounced on everyone’s lips, Darien, a real jungle between Colombia and Panama.

The Mapping of the “Without-Visa”  

Since 2015, the Darien Gap has been one of the most dangerous routes taken by migrants. “I infiltrated to Colombia. Haitians cannot easily get the visas required (to travel by plane) directly to Central America”, explains Jean-Beltran.

He manages to obtain a safe crossing to the Colombian city of Medellin, which allows him to reach the coastal port of Capurgana, the first step towards the meandering Darien. Migrants of all nationalities, rushing to the beach of Necocli to prepare for the crossing, draw a unique mapping there. Jean Beltran recalls “people from different countries, including Haiti, Cameroon, Congo, Cuba, India, Guinea, and even people from Nepal. There were also people from Sri Lanka and Eritrea”. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, these people were only able to apply for visas to Brazil, Bolivia, Haiti, or Ecuador, countries with more flexible migration policies.

“Some of my friends have told me about a man lying on the ground”. He was from Sri Lanka. He was freezing”



Unlike many people, Jean Beltran knew the dangers of crossing the Darien and spoke Spanish fluently: “My brother had done it in 2016, and told me how dangerous it was.” My cousin had already left 15 days before me”. However, rules and prices change over time: “Every group has its surprises in the Darien”, says Jean-Beltran. Hunger, fatigue, and disease are not the only challenges to deal with on the road. There are also armed groups and criminal gangs operating in the tropical forest.

Jean-Beltran has joined a group of 51 people, mostly Cameroonians. They each had to pay 100 dollars for their first group of guides. “Out of 50 people, they could make about 5,000 dollars”, our translator recalls. He explains that the Panamanian border is actually very close, but that the guides “did not take the right path so that we would pay” for their services again. Following a two-day walk, Jean-Beltran’s group was handed over to other guides. “We have felt like hostages,” he has asserted. Those Colombian guides were equipped with weapons. They have requested a new payment of 15 dollars per person. Among the migrants, a young Guinean has lost his temper: “They wanted to shoot him. But they have fired over his head. It was one of their ways to scare us.

If you’re hungry, you’re going to stop walking, and your Darien story will end tragically”

“We have experienced another nightmarish episode.” Jean-Beltran recalls the extortion of his group in the tropical forest of the Darien. “We have been held by eight or ten heavily armed individuals. They have asked if there have been any Colombians in the group. There haven’t been any. And Cubans. There have been some. They have separated them. I have heard that for them, Cubans meant wealth”, he explains.

Migrant Women: Double Suffering

Migrant women in the tropical forest of the Darien suffer more. They also face the sexual violence of criminal gangs that roam the area. At the Tapachula café, where many African migrants rest, Zoueb testifies, alongside Jean-Beltran, about violence perpetrated against women during the journey. This Moroccan, documents his trip on YouTube.

In a video about the Darien, which has received over 1.6 million views to date, Zoueb shows the blurred body of a young woman found near a river. Undoubtedly dead from hunger, nevertheless, she was partially naked. He identifies “the mafia” as acting ruthlessly in the region. Jean-Beltran agrees: “You will always encounter a woman who has been raped, in the DarienIn Panama, there have been two girls in our group from Eritrea. They have been raped,” he recalls, mentioning that they have been separated from a small group during the hostage-taking.

“We have experienced a nightmarish episode. Eight or ten heavily armed people have held us… They asked, Are there any Colombians here?”

After a five-day journey, Jean-Beltran’s group reached the first rest camp in Panama. He had to travel for another month and a half to get to Tapachula, on the southern border of Mexico. Over two additional years were needed to legally enter the United States from the Mexican city of Tijuana.

Migration containment strategies do not seem to be successful in curbing the flow of people fleeing their home countries. Tragic events such as in Tripoli (North Lebanon) in April, San Antonio (United States) and Melilla (border between Morocco and Spain) in June, indicate only one thing: lacking improvements in the structural conditions in their countries of origin, would-be emigrants continue to leave. Even if that means taking the most perilous and deadly routes.