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CNN  — 

American perceptions of immigration policy tend to focus primarily on the southern border with Mexico.

Crossing the border might seem like the beginning of an immigration story from inside the US, but it’s not. Migrants may have already traveled many thousands of miles, fleeing lack of opportunity or violence at home, risking their life savings and their safety.

For some idea of how difficult the journey is, take a look at “The Trek: A Migrant Trail to America,” the first episode in CNN’s new in-depth Sunday night series – “The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper.”

A team of CNN journalists made the trek through the Darien Gap, 66 miles of muddy jungle. CNN’s Nick Paton Walsh, Natalie Gallón, Brice Lainé and Carlos Villalón describe the Darien Gap as “a stretch of remote, roadless, mountainous rainforest connecting South and Central America.”

See their full report here with videos, maps and photos. It is worth reading.

Here are some of the things that stuck out to me after watching the full video and reading the digital report:

Organized by a drug cartel

The journey begins with guides from a drug cartel in Colombia. The cartel is making money providing passage, for a fee, to the Colombian side of the border. That organization ends days later, in Panama, where migrants run out of food and money and still have thousands of miles to travel to get to the US border.

More and more people are coming

Almost 250,000 people made the crossing in 2022, nearly double the figures from the year before, and 20 times the annual average from 2010 to 2020.

The numbers are only growing, according to CNN’s report: “Early data for 2023 shows six times as many made the trek from January to March, 87,390 compared to 13,791 last year, a record, according to Panamanian authorities.”

“This is a large, voluntary trafficking operation run by a drug cartel who control the route and are the law in this part of the Colombian border near Panama,” Paton Walsh said in the video report. “You pay to get here, you pay to overnight here, you pay to walk on.”

Migrants from around the world

CNN’s team began the walk with just over 800 people. They met migrants from Haiti, Venezuela, Ecuador, China and India.

Paton Walsh said he was most shocked by the number of children on the grueling route.

The cartel identifies those who have paid for passage with colored wristbands.

Porters along the route wear numbered sports jerseys and charge to carry bags and children uphill, frequently separating children from parents.

Paton Walsh spoke in French to one young boy separated from his parents. They were headed to Miami, according to the boy. Asked what he wants to be when he grows up, the boy said, “to work.” (The boy was later reunited with his parents, but CNN lost track of them on the journey).

Clearing more space

At the first night’s camping spot, the team saw cartel workers clearing more space with chainsaws to make room for tents. This was a relatively new route they’ve opened up.

“The people are coming faster than they can make space for them,” Paton Walsh said.

People making the trek are warned by an organizer to take care of their children. “A friend or anyone could take your child. And sell his organs,” a cartel guide named Jose shouts to a group of migrants. “So take care of your children. Don’t give your children to strangers.”

Losing shoes in the mud

Multiple people end up hiking barefoot or in socks after their shoes were swallowed by the muddy trail.

A young woman, helping her 58 year-old mother, told Paton Wash she was a university student back in Venezuela and left after some of her fellow classmates were killed.

The group crossed into Panama on the second day, leaving the cartel and any semblance of organization behind.

Misled by rumors, getting information from TikTok

A Chinese man from Wuhan said he researched the Darien Gap on TikTok. He told Paton Walsh his journey has taken him from Hong Kong to Thailand, to Turkey, and Ecuador before he arrived in Colombia to make the hike.

Many of the migrants said they felt misled about the length and difficulty of the journey and didn’t bring enough food or water.

Lawlessness in Panama

Not everyone makes it through the Darien Gap. CNN’s team encountered decaying bodies along the route, but no evidence of the Panamanian government doing anything to investigate.

A man trying for a second time to make it to his brother in New Jersey said masked men on the route in Panama demanded $100 for passage and refused to let those who could not pay proceed.

But there were also moments of inspiring kindness. Strangers fashioned a stretcher to carry a Venezuelan man who twisted his ankle.

Fleeing ‘incredibly unpleasant’ places

“It just strikes you how incredibly tough all these people are and the sheer grit that they’re showing to get this far, but also how incredibly unpleasant the places they must be fleeing from are to make them endure this kind of torture, to some degree, over many days,” Paton Walsh said.