Ships Log: How borders dehumanize us
First hand observations from borderlands reporting in three countries over 7 years led me to one conclusion: borders kill
Borderlands in the modern era are inherently chaotic, violent and dehumanizing regions. Between 2018 and 2020, I lived on a particularly troubled one and it changed me. I spent the majority of my days talking to penniless refugees fleeing starvation and violence. I witnessed street protests devolve into a terrifying madness that resulted in hundreds of wounded.
I saw a bomb explode in a restaurant during the lunch-hour rush. I saw a teenager shot for trying to strip parts from an abandoned car. And I saw a lot of desperate people prepared to walk across a continent in search of a better life.
It feels strange to write these words, but it wasn’t shocking. It was just something that happened every day. It was my job.
One can become accustomed to anything.
Since then I have reported from the infamously dangerous Darien Gap, the impenetrable jungle crossing between Panama and Colombia that separates Central and South America. Controlled by armed criminal groups in both countries, the region has become part of the main migration corridor in Americas— one of the most dangerous in the world.
I watched the last Venezuelan migrant enter Ecuador before new visa restrictions demanding passports. I walked from Venezuela to the Colombian capital, Bogotá, at the height of the Venezuelan exodus— more than 7 million have now fled that country amid economic collapse and increasing authoritarianism.
And I have watched the southern border of my own country become fully militarized as the xenophobic and deadly border polices of Trump were continued, and even worsened, by the Biden administration.
Like all who spend time at borders, this work dehumanized me. When I first started on this beat, especially in Cúcuta in that time period, the only way I could deal with the horrors that borders create was to distance myself emotionally— to develop an armor of indifference as a survival strategy.
It was not an effective one.
In 2019, on a trip to New York to visit family and tie up loose ends before committing to South America for good, the floodgate I had built against all of that trauma finally found release.
Thousands of miles from the border that had become my new home, I found myself crying in a bar with someone I had met 24 hours before— a near stranger. In a place where I no longer needed to keep my guard up, I finally began to face the darkness I had been documenting.
I was describing a teenager I saw shot by Venezuelan militia. I mentioned that it was one of the stories that didn’t generate much interest.