Panama March 2001

The Forgotten Highway

Why you still can't drive from the top of the Americas to the bottom

Illustration by Gregory Manchess

Panama's image abroad is defined by the Panama Canal, which the United States formally handed over to Panama at the end of 1999. But the Isthmus of Panama is also a land bridge, linking North and South America. Oddly, the foreign powers that dominated the country—first Spain, then France, and then the United States—neglected to build a route that would open this land bridge to traffic. Today Panama has no highway or railroad running its entire length. The so-called Pan-American Highway, a hemispheric network of roads that includes our national highway system and those of other countries, has only one missing link from end to end—in Panama's unruly 6,400-square-mile eastern border province of Darién.

By the early 1960s it was possible to drive on a continuous road from the Arctic Circle in Alaska to the southern part of Central America, and then from the northernmost fingers of the Andes to Tierra del Fuego. Darién remained untouched, its swampy terrain hardly mapped. By the end of the decade, however, reconnaissance teams and engineers anticipated that the construction of a road could be finished in ten years. Work on the Darién highway began.

Then planners in the U.S. government, which was providing most of the funding for the highway, became concerned about an ugly issue that had somehow gotten little attention. Opening the Panama-Colombia border would mean exposing Panama, and eventually the countries to the north, to foot-and-mouth disease, the scourge of the South American cattle industry. North and Central America had eradicated foot-and-mouth at great cost. Darién constituted a self-sustaining and highly effective barrier against a new outbreak. In 1975, when about half of the highway was finished, a U.S. judge blocked completion of the project, citing the foot-and-mouth problem, among other concerns. Three years later Washington let the project die.

In the years since the United States withdrew support, political obstacles to completing the highway have increased, especially in Panama. Most Panamanians are mestizo, and harbor mixed feelings about Darién, the majority of whose residents are black or Indian and retain strong cultural ties with Colombia. Thinly populated and nearly impenetrable, because of its steep coastal mountains and exuberant rain forest, Darién is an attractive refuge for drug traffickers and guerrillas. The discovery of a cocaine laboratory in Darién in 1984 became a key part of the case the United States later built against Panama's military leader, Manuel Noriega, because of his connections to the Medellín cartel. In 1993 three American missionaries were kidnapped from a remote Indian village in the province, reportedly by Colombian rebels; to date no one knows what has become of them. Four years ago, and then again last October, Darién was swept by Colombian death squads hunting for rebel sympathizers. Panama's police force is reluctant to enter some areas of the province.

Isolation and a wretched infrastructure may be contributing to Darién's lawlessness, but they have also been keeping Colombia's chronic violence at a safe distance from the western part of Panama, where 95 percent of Panamanians live. The difficulty of traversing the province works against another intrusion: immigration from the south. Isolation has also helped to preserve Darién's old-growth rain forest to some extent and has allowed Indian tribes who do not want to be integrated with the outside world to remain separate. Panamanians like to say that Darién is abandonado, and although they express concern about its social problems, most of them prefer that the province remain essentially as it is: a buffer zone.

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