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The Darien Gap Tragedy

The one unclosed gap in the route from North to South America is hazardous and economically costly.

The Americas are bisected by a landmass known as the Darien Gap, a long undeveloped stretch of terrain on the Colombia-Panama border not traversed by any paved road. This 100-mile jungle has for decades been a danger to migrants and an impediment to economic growth. It’s difficult to say what would incent development, but various efforts to build a road through the gap have been squashed.

While nominally part of a Pan-American Highway network that stretches from Canada to Argentina, there is no developed road or rail anywhere within the Darien Gap, and it’s a dangerous route. Hazards include the mountainous terrain, poisonous snakes, and formidable bodies of water. The gap is also home to narco-terrorist activity and other crime. Violent attacks on people traversing the gap are common, causing a humanitarian crisis.

The crisis stems from the fact that thousands of migrants cross annually hoping to reach North America, with that figure reaching 250,000 in 2022. This includes migrants from Latin American countries such as Cuba and Venezuela, but also those from beyond the Western Hemisphere.

32 deaths were recorded in 2022, but the actual number is certainly higher, reports the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration: “anecdotal reports indicate that many migrants die in the Darien Gap and their remains are neither recovered nor reported.” Upon reaching Central America, migrants must often work with smugglers to traverse the gap, which consists of dangerous wildlife and terrain.

In Panama, increased movement through the gap burdens the country’s social services. Erika Mouynes, the country’s foreign affairs minister, wrote in Foreign Policy that the country has been aiding migrants after they emerge from the gap.

“This surge has deeply affected small villages in Panama near the Darién Gap,” Mouynes writes, “which require significant investments to deal with the increasing demand for food, water, and sanitation.”

Along with the humanitarian tragedy of keeping the gap as a remote jungle are the economic ones. The gap makes trade less efficient between two important regions, as lack of a road or rail connection requires freight to be moved by air or water. The former is expensive, up to 5 times the cost of road freight, while the latter has as much as 14 times the time cost.

Closing the gap with a road would pay significant dividends regarding economic activity and migrant safety. Stanford University research found that when Brazil built a highway network between the national capital and other cities, “migration costs [decreased] by 11% and trade costs by 28%.”

One can imagine the opportunity costs here, given that the Darien Gap is 165 miles from one of the world’s most active trade canals in Panama. Goods that could move from there into South America do so less efficiently.

But the absence of a road isn’t for lack of interest—many public-private toll roads exist in Latin America, and there theoretically might be a market for building one here. But instead it has long been a failed governmental initiative involving many countries.

The earliest proposal to link Panama and Colombia with a road dates to the 1920s. Agitation for a road continued into the 1970s, with strong support from President Nixon. The United States advanced a plan to bridge the gap, projected at the time to cost $285 million. The project was to include measures to combat hoof and mouth disease. Another attempt was made in the 1990s, but stopped for similar reasons.

The concern in the second attempt had less to do with construction of the road itself, than with fears that uncontrolled development would result in “slash-and-burn agriculture,” according to an environmental analyst who worked on the project. Another challenge is that Darien Gap terrain makes construction difficult, and the prevalence of disease has sabotaged proposals before.

But it’s important to weigh the environmental costs of having a road against the economic and humanitarian costs of not having one (or for that matter the environmental costs, given that more freight must be moved by plane). The fact that so many people already risk their lives to cross the gap without a road speaks to the fundamental desire for traversing this territory. It’s also telling that in the absence of a formal economy, an informal one of human and drug smuggling exists, showing it’s impossible to ever truly root out commerce.

A developed Darien Gap would bring about a much more legitimate form of commerce, and it’s odd that this hasn’t occurred in an age of heightened migration, trade and globalization. Advances in right-of-way development technology also change the equation. Tunnel bores, for example, would make digging through the gap’s mountains easier than when this was first proposed a century ago.

Closing the Darien Gap in the 21st century should not be written off as impractical.

Scott Beyer is a Catalyst Columnist Fellow on a 1.5-year research project through the Global South for Catalyst’s Market Urbanism Around the World series. He is the owner of Market Urbanism Report, a media company that advances free-market city policy. He is also an urban affairs journalist who writes regular columns for Forbes, Governing Magazine, HousingOnline.com, and Catalyst. Follow him on Twitter: @marketurbanist.
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