It wasn’t until our eyes adjusted to the lack of light beneath the thick canopy of jungle that we saw the rifles leaning against the trunk of a palm tree.
“Hola, buenas dias,” we said walking across the clearing, making sure to maintain eye contact with the three men sitting on upturned buckets and not at their armoury.
‘Buenas,” they replied giving us the scantest of looks.
We walked further on into Panama to find a deserted beach, idyllic save for the swathe of rubbish mixed in with the driftwood: a montage of plastic bottles, flip-flops and bleached wood arranged on the sand. At the far end we encountered another ridge to climb, the path steep with steps cut into the natural bedrock. From the top the path descended steeply through dense jungle and was pocked and muddy. Detouring to the side to see if there was another way down, we passed a crude wooden shed filled with young chickens. Beyond, in the midst of a stand of banana palms we were startled by half a dozen vultures who took off from behind a dense thicket. Their lazy, ragged flapping stirred up the hot air and we were hit by the stench of rotting flesh that had been their dinner. Gagging we retreated and returned to the beach to swim and cool down after the exertion. Out in the water we noticed rocks which seemed to be strewn with clothing left by a previous tide: they hung taut and tattered, tissue-like on the sharp coral outcrop.
Later that day we sat on our verandah looking out over the corrugated iron rooftops of the tiny village in the extreme northwest corner of Colombia where we were staying: a mere 200-metres from the border with Panama. Viewed through the lens of a camera the village of Sapzurro is the quintessential Caribbean idyll, a cerulean blue sea, soft sand, warm clear water and palm trees swaying gently in light breezes. It is picture postcard perfect, on the surface, and many travellers will come and go without a glimmer of what is slipping past them in the night. Looked at on a map it seems as if the whole of the South American continent is trying to squeeze itself through a pipe thin nozzle into North America – which in human terms is exactly what is happening. Without plan or design we had landed slap bang on the narco and human-trafficking conduit between South and North America.
In the evening, over cool tomate de arbol juice, we chatted to Jeff from Canada. His afternoon walk had taken a turn towards the sinister when on a quiet beach on the Colombian side of the frontier he and a friend, Thierry, had spotted a family watching them from the cover of the jungle. Something about the furtive, almost fearful way they had been watched prompted Jeff and Thierry to approach cautiously speaking to the family in Spanish to reassure them that they were ‘Amigos’. The family consisted of a young couple from the Ecuadorian Amazon region with their two girls, aged 8 and 9-years old. They had been hiding out on the beach for two days, without food, and were waiting for a boat to take them on to Panama, skirting the infamous tract of impassable jungle known as the Darien Gap. Their ultimate goal was the United States of America, nearly 5,000-kilometres away and would involve the crossing of six countries, and their borders, before coming to the final and biggest challenge, US Border Control.
Jeff and Thierry had returned to Sapzurro and bought food and water: this, together with some money, they had taken back to the family who only had what they were wearing and whatever was contained in a small plastic sack that the father carried. They learnt that in spite of seeming to be woefully unprepared the family had faith that the boat would arrive some day soon: that faith placed in the fact that they had paid US$12,000 to an organised gang in Ecuador that had links the length of Central America and a guaranteed method to get them into the Unites States.
Jeff expressed deep concerns for the family having read a story of a mass grave discovered in Mexico that month: men and women, all of South American origin, but no children as they were often kept to be sold on as slaves, girls being particularly valuable. At the mention of this Grace and I looked at each other and knew we were thinking of the same thing from our walk: the vultures, the ghastly stench of death, the clothing on the coral by the sea shore. I somehow felt as though I should have checked to see what the vultures were feeding on, as though that would have made any difference to whatever was dead, a ridiculous feeling of guilt by omission.
We later learnt that over half the people in Sapzurro participate in either the movement of narcotics or people up the coast. A one-way stream that is only getting stronger, and will continue to do so as climatic conditions caused by global warming force people to abandon their land and homes and head north towards what they think is a better opportunity.
Walking through the village that evening was not such a pleasurable experience. Who was involved in what? What was going on all around us? Paradise is rarely what it seems.