On one of the world's most dangerous migrant routes, a cartel makes millions off the American dream

The Darin Gap is a treacherous jungle connecting South and Central America. Many people resort to this route to make it to the United States.

On one of the world's most dangerous migrant routes, a cartel makes millions off the American dream

Editor's note: The new CNN Sunday Primetime Series, The Whole Story With Anderson Cooper, will premiere 'The Trek' on April 16, at 8 pm ET/PT.

Darien Gap, Colombia CNN

It can be lonely, even though there is always a lot of people around.

They risked everything to get closer freedom.

Hunger and murder.

You have to decide who you want to help, and who you don't.

One of the most dangerous and popular walks in the world is the trek across the Darien gap, a remote stretch of mountainous, roadless rainforest that connects South and Central America.

Nearly 250,000 people crossed the border in 2022, driven by economic and humanitarian disasters. This is 20 times more than the average annual crossing from 2010 to 2022. Early data from 2023 show that six times more people made the journey between January and March, 87.390, as compared to 13.791 last year. This is a record according to Panamanian officials.

All of them have the same aim: to reach the United States.

They keep coming no matter how difficult it becomes to achieve the dream.

In February, a team of CNN reporters made the nearly 70 mile journey on foot, interviewing migrants and guides as well as locals, officials and officials to find out why so many people are willing to take the risk and brave the unforgiving terrain and violence.

The five-day journey began outside a Colombian beach town. It then took the group through farming communities and up a steep mountain before cutting through mud, dense rain forest, rivers, and muddy terrain. Finally, they reached a government camp in Panama.

The cartel that controls the route makes millions of dollars from a highly-organized smuggling operation. They push as many migrants as possible through a small hole in the fence, with the American dream as their sole guide.

Day 1: Sendero Acandi Seco to La Ye camp

The dusty, arid camp near Acandi in Colombia, buzzes with anticipation at dusk.

On a farmland near the Colombian border, dozens of disposable tents are home to hundreds of people. The road ahead will be dangerous and arduous.

Many are unaware of what is ahead. Many have been told to pack lightly and that trekking days are few.

Money, and not prayer, is what will determine who survives the journey.

The cartels are now more interested in people than drugs. These human packages are able to move on their own. Rivals don't try to steal these human packages. Each migrant must pay at least $400 to gain access to the jungle passage, and they are responsible for all risks. CNN calculated that the smuggling business earns the cartel millions of dollars each year.

On April 11, the US, Panama, and Colombia announced that they would launch a campaign to end illegal migration through Darien Gap. They said it 'leads directly to deaths and exploitation of vulnerable individuals for profit'. The countries said in a joint press release that they would also be using 'new flexible and lawful pathways' for tens and thousands of refugees and migrants as an alternative to illegal migration. However, no further details were provided.

A senior US State Department Official declined to provide a number for cartel profits. The official stated that 'this is definitely a big business but there is no consideration for safety, suffering, or well-being... only collecting money and moving people'.

The cash has made a cartel that was already powerful even more so. The Colombian government seems to have no interest in this area. The last time they were visible was in Necocli - a small beachfront town a mile away that was crowded with migrants and supervised by a handful of police.

Acandi Seco gives pink wristbands to migrants at its camp, similar to those given out at nightclubs. These wristbands indicate that they are allowed walk around the camp. The organization of the cartel is evident and it may be because they are so sophisticated that the cartel allowed us to walk along their route.

CNN has changed the names for the safety of the migrants who were interviewed for this report.

Manuel, 29, his wife Tamara and their two children decided to leave Venezuela after struggling for years to get food and other necessities. One in four Venezuelans has fled the country since 2015 due to a socioeconomic crisis caused by President Nicolas Maduro’s authoritarian regime, worsened further by the pandemic, US sanctions and the global economic crisis.

It's because of our beautiful president...the dictatorship-why we're in the sh*t...We had planned this for some time when we heard the news about the US helping us, the immigrants. We are here now. Manuel said, "We are living the journey." It was not clear to what he was referring.

Tamara interrupted, 'Trusting in God to go'. Manuel added, 'It is all of us or none', regarding the decision to bring along their two children.

Recent changes to Washington's immigration policy will have a major impact on their fate.

Title 42, a Trump-era restriction on pandemics, was invoked by the US government to block entry for Venezuelans who arrived 'without authorization" at its southern border in October last year. Since then, the Biden administration expanded Title 42 to allow migrants who would otherwise be eligible for asylum to either be expelled or sent back to Mexico. The measure will expire at the beginning of May.

The government said that it would allow a limited number of Venezuelans, Nicaraguans, Haitians and Cubans to apply for legal immigration if they had an American sponsor. This is 30,000 people per month.

As with many other people CNN interviewed, these policy changes did not affect Manuel and Tamara’s decision to move north.

The cartel's mechanics get going as dawn draws people out of their tents. Christian pop songs are played at the starting line to motivate those waiting for their guides. One organizer says through a megaphone, 'Patience is the virtue for the wise'. The first ones will be last. The last will be first. This is why we should not run. Racing causes fatigue.

No one pays attention. Everyone jostles as if they were sprinters about to enter the starting blocks. What is convenient to carry now, such as a small backpack, a bottle of water and sneakers, will not be enough in the dense jungle.

Then, they can begin to walk.

The sun revealed a crowd of more than 800 people this morning, the same daily average for the months of January and February according to the United Nations' International Organization for Migration. The dry season months are usually the slowest, as the rivers are too low for boats to transport migrants. But the massive increase in numbers is raising concerns that more records will be broken.

It is staggering to see the number of children. Some children are carried and others dragged. The 66-mile Darien Gap route is a minefield with lethal snakes and slippery rock. It also has erratic riverbeds. Most adults find it difficult, as they are left exhausted, dehydrated or even sick.

The number of children continues to grow. Panamanian migration statistics show that a record 40,438 people crossed the border last year. UNICEF said late last year half of the migrants were under five years old, and that around 900 were not accompanied. Panama reported 9,683 minors crossed the border in January and February this year. This is a sevenfold increase from 2022. In March, this number reached 7,200.

Jean-Pierre carries his sick son Louvens. Louvens was already ill before the illness began. He is weak and coughing while strapped to his father’s chest. Jean-Pierre continues, their fee paid. It is too late to turn back. They have left behind their home in Haiti, where gang violence and a failed government make life unbearable. They face impossible choices.

Water is the first obstacle to be overcome. The path, which crosses the Acandi, Tuquesa and Canas Blancas rivers, is always wet, muddy and humid. The majority of migrants wear synthetic socks and cheap rain boots, which cause their feet to curdle. These boots are not very supportive and can fill up with water. Some people cut holes into the rubber to drain it.

The cartel sees physical distress as an opportunity to make money. Porters are available to help when the riverbeds become a steep climb up the mountain to reach the border with Panama. Porters wear the Colombian soccer team's yellow or blue jerseys with numbers to make it easier to identify them. They charge $20 for a bag or $100 for a child.

Hey, my kings and queens! One shouts, 'Whoever feels tired I'm right here!'

The cartel opened the new route just 12 days ago. The older, main route via Las Tecas was littered by discarded clothing, tents and refuse, as well as corpses. Locals say that the cartel was looking for a safer, more organized alternative, which would give them more chances to earn money.

Wilson is at one of the huts that locals use to sell clean water or cold soda with cartel approval and a marked-up price. He is about five years old and has been separated by his parents. He was given to a porter who carried him.

Wilson is asked if he will be going to the US. He shakes his head firmly. He says, 'To Miami'. Dad is building a pool. When asked about his future, he replied: "I want to become a fireman." My sister chose to become a nurse. He shouts back: "Papa, papa!" He is not able to see his father.

The constant advice from the cartel guides is always in the background. Jose, a cartel guide, says: "Gentlemen please take your time." We won't make it to the border today. There are two hours left of climbing. He encourages them to use the nearby stream, which is already packed with people. Fill up your water. He points up the hill and says, 'One bottle of water costs five dollars. I know that many of you do not have the money for that. So, better to bring your water to this place.

The steep climb is especially punishing for Jean-Pierre's sick son Louvens. Breathing is a difficult task. Other migrants suggest: "Perhaps his thick wool cap is causing him to overheat." Perhaps he needs to drink more water. Even his father has trouble moving uphill.

The jungle canopy is illuminated by a bright light six hundred meters above the ground. The clearing floor is covered with wooden platforms, while the sound of chainsaws and music more suited for a festival blends together. There are drinks, shoes and food for sale. The route is new enough that the cartel wants to get its customers into the forest as quickly as possible.

Tents are pitched atop fallen branches. Gatorades can be purchased for $4. One guide with a machete warns, 'Be on the lookout for snakes' The dusk is filled with late arrivals, tents being set up, and people trying to sleep. The following day and the ones after that will be difficult.

Day 2: La Ye to Pata de la Loma de Tuquesa camp

Second dawn and the hillside looks like a mess with tents. People buy water, rice, and coffee, unaware that this is their last opportunity to purchase food along the route.

As they wait for guide Jose to signal the start, the group is now larger and jostling to get in position. The group has learned that they have to wait until everyone in front of them clears any obstacles before starting.

Jose gives a chilling warning: "Take care of your kids!" Anyone could steal your child's organs. Do not give them to strangers.

The mist that clings on the trees makes the climb seem steeper as the crowd ascends the slope. Some children are up for the challenge and bounding up to the top in a playful manner.

Three Venezuelan siblings work together to clear the slope of mud. The youngest sister tells her siblings, "I'm holding the stick for you to grab me." When the viscous mud begins to claim shoes, the older sister strips down to her socks. The mother says: "You're my fighter, baby?"

Louvens looks worse this morning. Jean-Pierre was too tired to intervene after the difficult climb. He says, "He's asleep," of his son who is lying on the ground, breathing laboriously over the sounding of boots in mud.

Some walkers seem to have arrived in the jungle with nothing but their will to move forward. One Haitian is carrying three trash bags and wearing only rubber shoes. He also has a wool sweater draped over his shoulders.

Other people are driven by the horrors they have fled. Yendri and Maria, both aged 20 years, fled Venezuela after Yendri’s friends from university were killed in a criminal attack. This was common in Venezuela, which has one of the highest murder rates in the world. It's hard to live in Venezuela. We live in a violent world. I studied with people who were killed.

Her mother Maria, a professor who earned $16 per month - barely enough money to eat - was also a single parent. She says, 'I am going little by little'. I sat to rest and eat breakfast to continue to be strong.

Ling is from Wuhan. This city was the epicenter of Covid-19. He found out about the Darien Gap after evading China's firewall and researching the walk via TikTok. He rattles off the route he took to meet me on the riverbank: 'Hong Kong first, then Thailand, Turkey, and Ecuador'

Ling continues, pausing for a moment of rest. He is also out of food. He says his decision split his parents. His father supported it, but his mother preferred a more traditional marriage and life. According to Panamanian government statistics, around 2,200 Chinese citizens have made the trip in January and Feburary of this year. That's more than all of 2022.

One father slips as he carries a son on his back, and the last piece of Colombian land is grating. Then, the sky cleared. The border between Panama, Colombia is marked by a hand-daubed flag sign at the summit of the hill. Parents rest on logs under a canopy. Selfies are taken by younger walkers. The euphoria will fade within a few hundred feet.

The Colombian cartel is about to lose control of them and they are on their way alone into Panama. One porter offers parting advice: "The blessing of Allah is with you." Don't fight along the way. You never know when help will be needed.

During the pause, they can assess who is suffering the most. Anna, a 12-year-old girl with epileptic seizures and a disability, shakes on her mother Natalia's chest. She says, 'Her temperature hasn't decreased.' I didn't have a thermometer.

Natalia, like many others, says that she was also told that the walk would only take two hours. The extent of the deception has become apparent, and they are about to be literally turned on.

As soon as the cartel reaches the border of Panama, it falls apart, and the terrain becomes firm. The steep mountainside on the other side is interrupted by rocks, roots and trees. Many people stumble or slide without control. Mud grips your feet.

Maria advances slowly. Yendri begs her not to take Maria through the steep parts.

Natalia asked a Haitian immigrant to carry her daughter, but the man soon tired. Anna sits alone on the trail shivering.

The man who carried her is making a stretcher out of nearby canes that he has cut from the jungle, but he needs help. Anna cannot be moved further from her mother who is down the trail, and knows what she needs. They cannot bring her back to Natalia.