Paths of Desperate Hope, Federico Ríos Escobar's photography

Federico Ríos Escobar Paths of Desperate Hope

Luis Miguel and Melissa, 2022

Migrants Beginning Their Journey, 2022

Gabriel Ynfante, 2022

Chino and Baby, 2022

Rappi, 2022

Last Sip of Water, 2022

Human Chain, 2022

Dead Body, 2022

Hamlet Devastated, 2022

Colmenares Family, 2022

Artist's statement

Two crises are converging at the perilous land bridge known as the Darién Gap: the economic and humanitarian disaster underway in South America, and the bitter fight over immigration policy in the United States. 

In 2022, an estimated 250,000 people trekked through the Darién, which connects Centraland South America. The figure was nearly twice that for 2021 and nearly twenty times the yearly average for 2010–20. At least 33,000 of the 2022 migrants were children, and in the first four months of 2023 almost as many of them crossed as in the whole of last year.
Those who crossed in 2022 were mostly Venezuelan, many of them worn down by years of economic calamity, but they are just part of a diverse movement of migrants: Cubans, Haitians, Ecuadoreans, and Peruvians are also making the journey in significant numbers. Afghans, many escaping the Taliban, are among the fastest-growing groups.
The Darién jungle’s inaccessibility left it for a long time as one of the world’s most untouched rainforests. When engineers built the Pan-American Highway, begun in the 1930s to link Alaska to Argentina, they left one major stretch unfinished — the sixty six roadless miles of the Darién Gap.
In the past, only a few thousand migrants braved the arduous crossing, but now it has become a human traffic jam, a wave of people pushed from their homes by pandemic-battered economies, climate change, and conflict, hoping eventually to enter the United States.
I followed the migrants’ route, along with Julie Turkewitz of The New York Times, in September and October 2022.

We started at a Colombian beach town, passed through farms and indigenous communities, crossed the menacing Hill of Death, where being stranded overnight can be fatal, and followed winding rivers to arrive at a government campin Panama. The trek through the gap itself took nine gruelling days. Rivers rose up to our chests, mud sucked at our boots, every area of exposed skin was scorched by the sun and bitten relentlessly by bugs. But we were dressed and equipped for the journey. The migrants, by contrast, were in shorts and flip-flops, their possessions stuffed in plastic bags, carrying babies, and holding children by the hand, with hardly any food, lacking waterproof clothes or tablets to disinfect the water. Twisted ankles were routine and blisters quickly turned into infected wounds. Mothers sobbed as they ran out of breast milk to feed their babies.
Many of my photographs focus on the hardships suffered by the children. Some had become separated from their parents, others still had the strength to comfort the adults. Amid the horrors, we witnessed countless acts of kindness: people putting out a hand to help a stranger escape a fast-moving current, or breaking off pieces of papelón, the brown sugar blocks they carried, to share with fellow trekkers. Everyone knew that, somehow, they had to keep going. I’ll never know how many of those we met made it — and how many didn’t.

About the photographer


Manizales, Colombia, 1980



Based in

Medellín, Colombia

About Federico Ríos Escobar

Federico is a widely published photojournalist whose work has covered armed conflict in Colombia, the environment and its relationship with society. His early exhibitions included The Signature of Los Rios at Video Guerrilha in São Paulo, Brazil (2013), and Transputamierda at the Valongo International Photography Festival in Santos, Brazil (2016).

In 2017, Federico presented his work on FARC, the Colombian armed group, at LaGuardia Community College, New York; at Kaunas Photo festival, Lithuania; and at the Unseen Amsterdam festival. In October 2017, he showed Transputamierda at the Gabo Festival in Medellín, and in 2018 he held a solo exhibition, Venus 41, trochas e incertidumbres, at the Museo de Antioquia in Medellín.

Federico's most recent exhibition, Los días póstumos de una guerra sin final, opened at Bandy Bandy Gallery in Bogotá in February 2020.

Federico has won prizes including a Jury Award at Days Japan (2017), first prize in the News Series category at POY Latam (2017), and the Hansel-Mieth-Preiss (2019). In 2014, he was invited to participate in the Eddie Adams Workshop XXVII in Jeffersonville, New York.

In 2012, Federico’s photobook La ruta del cóndor (The Route of the Condor) was published jointly by Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano in Bogotá and Universidad de Caldas. The following year, he published Fiestas de San Pacho, Quibdó, together with the photography collective Mas Uno. His most recent photobook, VERDE, was published by Raya with photo editor Santiago Escobar-Jaramillo in 2021.

His work has appeared frequently in The New York Times and other media including Stern, GEO, Time, Paris Match and LFI Magazine.