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AP has rare access as Haitian migrants, in bid to reach US, face perilous jungle crossing of Darien Gap

Migrants cross the Acandi River on their journey north near Acandi, Colombia, Sept. 15, 2021. The migrants, most Haitian, were on their way to crossing the perilous Darien Gap from Colombia into Panama. dreaming of eventually reaching the U.S. (AP Photo / Fernando Vergara)

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Hundreds of migrants try each day to cross the Darien Gap — a thick jungle between Colombia and Panama traversed by many ultimately seeking the U.S. border — yet journalists rarely observe more than the first few steps of the journey.

But after days of negotiations with locals who participate in a human-trafficking network that shows migrants the way for a fee, the Bogota-based all-formats team of correspondent Astrid Suárez, photographer Fernando Vergara and video journalist Marko Álvarez were given exclusive access to the first hour of a treacherous six-day journey. Immigration officials say it’s a passage that is being undertaken at record levels — with some 70,000 migrants making the trek so far this year.

That single hour was enough to tell the stories of migrants willing to risk their lives in a jungle teeming with snakes,bandits and raging rivers that reached their waists and drowned out their voices. The AP team documented the exhaustion as migrants started to abandon belongings to carry less weight — leaving everything from clothes to wedding portraits strewn along the trail. And yet,they reported,the greatest danger is other humans, as armed groups control trails to traffick drugs and target migrants for theft and sexual assault.

For a stark all-formats portrait of desperation and determination in the depths of the jungle,Suárez, Vergara and Álvarez earn AP’s Best of the Week – First Winner.

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