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The Darien Gap was no man's land. Now it's a popular migrant path to the U.S.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Darien Gap is a notoriously dangerous part of the world - dense rainforest with jungle-covered mountains, swamps and poisonous snakes - that separates North and South America. And it has become a major thoroughfare for migrants who are trying to reach the U.S. As John Otis reports, it is no longer a no man's land.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: On my first day in the Darien Gap, which lies on the border between Colombia and Panama, I hear no birds singing or monkeys howling. In fact, the main sound comes from motorcycles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLES REVVING)

OTIS: The passengers are migrants from Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, India and Africa. Their goal is the southern U.S. border. But to get there, they must travel overland through South and Central America and then Mexico. The hardest part is crossing the roadless 60-mile-wide Darien Gap.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOTORCYCLES REVVING)

OTIS: To cover the first few miles, migrants can pay to ride on the back of motorcycles that navigate muddy trails. But soon the jungle thickens, and they must start walking.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: On foot, it will take a week to reach the first village on the Panamanian side. The migrants carry overstuffed backpacks, babies, cooking pots and jugs of water. Yet they seem undaunted. To gain traction on a steep, muddy hillside, they crawl on their hands and knees.

Our progress has come to a halt because the going is so rough on this trail that there's now a traffic jam of migrants.

Indeed, it's a lot of traffic for a place that's famous for stopping it. Although Spanish explorers conquered most of Latin America, they shied away from the Darien jungle, which they viewed as a heart of darkness rife with yellow fever and malaria. More recently, government efforts to pave a road through this region and complete the Pan-American Highway fell apart amid fears of massive deforestation. Still, a few motorists have bridged the gap.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DARING THE DARIEN! THE GAP BETWEEN THE AMERICAS")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Luck, they know, no is needed because ahead lies the impassable jungle between North and South America.

OTIS: This is a promotional film for the Chevrolet Corvair. In 1962, an expedition equipped with machetes, winches and chainsaws tried to drive three Corvairs from the Panamanian side to Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DARING THE DARIEN! THE GAP BETWEEN THE AMERICAS")

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Every mile of progress must be fought for foot by foot and inch by inch. Again, the caravan must fight its way through the dark and narrow tunnels of the stubborn Darien.

OTIS: One of the Corvairs got stuck, and its chassis can still be seen rusting in the jungle. But two of the cars made it all the way to Colombia.

These days, the Darien is far more crowded. About 100,000 migrants have crossed from Colombia into Panama this year alone. On the Colombian side of the border, I come across a bulldozer carving a road through the jungle.

(SOUNDBITE OF BULLDOZER)

OTIS: It's illegal, but there are no police here. The area is controlled by a drug cartel called the Gulf Clan, which also makes a lot of money off the migrants.

At this jungle campground, the Gulf Clan charges $50 per migrant to stay here for just one night. In the evening, cartel members can be heard barking orders to locally hired workers who respond like obedient soldiers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Non-English language spoken).

OTIS: The flow of migrants has turned parts of the jungle into a trash heap.

The trails are littered with empty cans, plastic bottles and dirty diapers. Migrants relieve themselves in the rivers and toss camping gear and clothes into the water. That's to lighten their load, says Justin LeFleuris, a Haitian migrant heading for the U.S.

JUSTIN LEFLEURIS: This is too heavy. The bags is too heavy.

OTIS: The backpacks are too heavy?

LEFLEURIS: Yes.

OTIS: Wow, look at that. They're all throwing clothes in. So they've just thrown three pairs of jeans into the water, and they're floating by me as I speak.

Photographer Carlos Villalon, who's on assignment for NPR and has spent years reporting on the Darien Gap, is shocked by how it's changed.

CARLOS VILLALON: It's sad - I mean, all the garbage you see. You cannot drink water from the river. I mean, two years ago, I was drinking water on this same river, you know? This is not a pristine jungle anymore.

OTIS: But the worst change is that the Darien has become far more dangerous. Gunmen frequently rob, rape and kill migrants. Government officials have discussed setting up a boat service to take migrants from Colombia to Panama across the Caribbean. That would reduce the risks and help protect the rainforest. But so far, nothing has happened. Meanwhile, the once desolate Darien keeps filling up with people.

For NPR News, I'm John Otis in the Darien Gap, Colombia.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HABIT'S "NO REASON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.