Panama-the crossroads of the Americas
8 images Created 19 Feb 2013
A small country, but of strong strategic importance, at the crossroads of the North and South American continents. The US until 1999 controlled the Panama Canal connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In the next years Panama is widening the canal, which is more than 90 years old and operating almost at full capacity, to allow it to handle more and larger vessels. Traditionally the country faces the challenge of shaking off its reputation as a major transit point for US-bound drugs and for money-laundering. But Panama has also the largest rainforest in the Western Hemisphere outside the Amazon Basin, the Darién Gap a rarely visited area, still a nearly impassible divide between North and South America. For centuries Darién's jungle flourished unchecked, providing an ideal refuge for pirates, runaway slaves and Indian peoples like Kunas, Emberà and Wounaan. The Pan-American Highway dead-ends in Yaviza, 30 miles from the Colombian border, a town famous for lawlessness, drug runners, contrabandistas, fugitives, poachers, prostitutes, and drunken men. From there until Guapá, Colombia, some 60 km miles south-east, there are nothing but mud tracks and footpaths, a inhospitable environment that repulsed also the Spanish conquistadores. Panama has no control over the border with neighboring Colombia, making the Gap a dangerous place. In the mid-1990s, after kidnappings and massacres related to the endless Colombian civil war, even Panama's own security forces withdrew, so the Gap is still a refuge for outlaws, narcos (drug smugglers), Colombia's guerrillas and their ultra-rightist enemies, the paramilitaries. The violent contest between these two groups, and the increasing influx of Panamanian farmers, constitutes the biggest threat to the small Indian communities living inside the Darien National Park.