The Society of Jesus has been playing a crucial role providing aid and support to migrants around the world. As we narrow our focus to Latin America, we see the number of migrants moving north from Central and South America increases. Individuals crossing the treacherous Darien Gap continues to rise. The Jesuits, in particular, have been providing much-needed assistance to those making this perilous journey.

We recently had the amazing opportunity to interview Father Marco Gomez, S.J., a Jesuit priest from the Central American Province, who is the country director of Fe y Alegria Panama. He shared with us some of his work in the region. Watch the video below to learn more.

What work are the Jesuits doing in Panama to help migrants?

Fe y Alegria Panama is the third oldest Fe y Alegria in the world. The original school in Panama dates from 1963 and still exists, however it is no longer part of the international federation of Fe y Alegria since the education system in Panama has been institutionalized and is now run by the government. Today, Fe y Alegria Panama has three centers to help migrants in Panama, including a women’s shelter and educational facilities. In addition to these centers Fe y Alegria Panama works with international organizations monitoring conditions of migrants who cross the treacherous Darien Gap on their way from Colombia north.


What is the Darien Gap

The Darien Gap area is home to numerous hazards, including venomous snakes, jaguars, mosquitoes carrying deadly diseases, and treacherous swamps and rivers. There are dangerous armed groups inside the jungle taking advantage of migrants desperate to cross the gap. Stories of dead bodies being found along the trails are real. Even with all of the life-threatening obstacles, people continue to cross the gap each day in hopes of a better life.

The Darien Gap is approximately 150 miles south of the Panama Canal. It is a region of dense tropical jungle, over 100 miles in length, between Panama and Colombia. And, it is one of the few remaining stretches of undeveloped land in the region. There are no roads or infrastructure connecting the “gap” between North and South America.

The lack of infrastructure and difficult terrain makes crossing the Darien Gap a true life-threatening challenge and a very dangerous undertaking. Migrants who attempt to cross the Darien Gap face several risks, including getting lost, running out of food and water, and falling victim to robbery or violence at the hands of criminal groups operating in the area.

Crossing the Darien Gap has become one of the most perilous journeys in the world, with many migrants losing their lives in the attempt to migrate to North America.

Migrants Crossing the Darien Gap

Migration to North America is a phenomenon that is happening right now, and many in North America have the perception that it is just a phenomenon of individuals from South or Central America making this journey. But as we found out that is not the full story.

The migrants that move north from South America are forced to traverse the thick Panama jungle. Those who are crossing the Darien Gap include individuals hoping to reach the United States from such faraway places as Nepal, India, Etruria, and Haiti, as well as many individuals from Ecuador, Venezuela and other South American countries.

Each of these individuals’ circumstances are different, in many ways this journey of hope for the migrants has become a business for others taking advantage of their hopes for a better life.

The cost to be transported north ranges can be in excess of $15,000. Families crossing the Darien Gap typically do not have that kind of money, and if they make it to their destination they are burdened with an enormous debt as they start their new lives.

Twenty percent of people crossing the Darien Gap are minors. Children usually cross with their parents, but unfortunately, they often lose their lives making the journey that their parents are hoping will provide them with a better future.

Several pregnant women make the seven-day journey by foot. Sometimes they give birth on their journey. When they make it across the Gap with their newborn baby and exit the jungle, they still have a very far way to go. Migrants first arrive to an indigenous community along the river and from there they must take dangerous boats rides to reach the main route to continue north.

These are some of the reasons why the Panamanian government has set up migrant stations on the border of the jungle to provide medical assistance as well as food and shelter for those who arrive on the other side of the Darien Gap. These migrant stations offer support, but they do not always offer free services. Migrants need to pay for their transportation to reach these facilities by boat which typically cost $25 per person, and then it typically costs an additional $40 per person to take the bus from north to reach the border with Costa Rica.

From there it can take several more days to cross Central America. The journey from the Darien Gap to North America can take a family between two weeks to several months, depending on their resources.

Learn more about Father Marco Gomez, S.J.’s work at Fe y Alegria in Panama by watching our interview with him and if you want to know where to donate to help migrants on their journey, you can support Fe y Algeria’s work by making a donation to Magis Americas.