In the mountainous wilderness that spans the Colombia-Panama border, in an area where only wildlife, paramilitary groups, and migrants often tread, Abdul Majeed lay awake unable to sleep. By his count, there were about seventy others with him spending the night, the most varied group of nationalities he has seen together in his lifetime. “Somalis, Indians, Senegalese, Nepalese, Ghanaians, Bangladeshis, Cubans, Haitians and Nigerians,” he recalls.
All were migrants heading north to the United States of America to seek a better life, although each had gotten to this point differently. To pass the night here, the group formed a circle of bodies. They lit a log fire, which lay in their midst. The fire kept Majeed’s attention, but every chirp and turn in the jungle beyond rattled his nerves. It was a cold January night in 2016.
To get this far, Majeed – a tall, 27-year-old Ghanaian with a ready smile on a calm face – had sought the services of a smuggler in Turbo, the port town that sits near the border on Colombia’s northern coast. He paid $700. In exchange, the man facilitated his transportation to Panama without detection by immigration or state security officers. The smuggler, Santiago, is known for helping migrants like Majeed navigate the difficult terrain from Turbo to Capurganá, the last town on the Colombian Caribbean coast before the border with Panama. He provided a guide to lead Majeed and other migrants into the Darien Gap – the wilderness that separates South and Central America. The guide pointed them in the direction of Panama. “Keep going this way. It’s not very far,” Majeed recalls him telling them as they set off, although it would take one week of walking in the jungle before they reached Panama.
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