“The Trek: A Migrant Trail to America” premieres on April 16 at 8 p.m. ET on CNN’s new Sunday primetime series, The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper
To get closer to freedom, they have risked it all.
Masked robbers and rapists. Exhaustion, snakebites, broken ankles. Murder and hunger.
Having to choose who to help and who to leave behind.
The trek across the Darién Gap, a stretch of remote, roadless, mountainous rainforest connecting South and Central America, is one of the most popular and perilous walks on earth.
A team of CNN journalists including Chief International Security Correspondent Nick Paton Walsh, Field Producer Natalie Gallón and Cameraman Brice Lainé made the nearly 70-mile journey by foot in February, interviewing migrants, guides, locals and officials about why so many are taking the risk, braving unforgiving terrain, extortion and violence.
The route took five days, starting outside a Colombian seaside town, traversing through farming communities, ascending a steep mountain, cutting across muddy, dense rainforest and rivers before reaching a government-run camp in Panama.
Along the way, it became evident that the cartel overseeing the route is making millions off a highly organized smuggling business, pushing as many people as possible through what amounts to a hole in the fence for migrants moving north, the distant American dream their only lodestar.
But many are naïve to what lies ahead. They’ve been told that the days of trekking are few and easy, and they can pack light.
But money, not prayer, will decide who will survive the journey.
People are the new commodity for cartels, perhaps preferable to drugs.
These human packages move themselves. Rivals do not try to steal them.
Each migrant pays at least $400 for access to the jungle passage and absorbs all the risks themselves.
According to CNN’s calculations, the smuggling trade earns the cartel tens of millions of dollars annually.
Just this week the US, Panama and Colombia announced that they will launch a 60-day campaign aimed at ending illegal migration through the Darién Gap, which they said “leads to death and exploitation of vulnerable people for significant profit.”
In a joint statement, the countries added that they will also use “new lawful and flexible pathways for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees as an alternative to irregular migration,” but did not elaborate any further.
At one of several huts where locals sell cold soda or clean water with cartel permission at a mark-up, is Wilson.
Aged about five, he has been separated from his parents. They gave him to a porter to carry, who raced ahead.
CNN has changed the names of the migrants interviewed for this report for their safety.
Wilson shakes his head emphatically when asked if he is going to the US. “To Miami,” he tells Paton Walsh.
“Dad is going to build a swimming pool.” Asked about his future there, he says: “I want to be a fireman. And my sister has chosen to be a nurse.” He calls back down the trail: “Papa, Papa!” His father is nowhere to be seen.