Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Pan-American Prospects

By David G. Young

Cartagena, Colombia, November 28, 2010 --  

The failure to complete the Pan-American Highway made northwest Colombia a backwater. Those days may be coming to an end.

It was 4:00 a.m. when the echoes of a loud crack awoke me in the tunnel on the Pan-American Highway. A helmeted Colombian soldier ran by with his machine gun in the air. Our bus had ground to a halt, and the security forces were holding it in the tunnel until dawn in an area that was until recently the domain of leftist guerrillas and their paramilitary enemies.

But the crack was not hostile gunfire and there were no guerrillas in the tunnel today. The security threat was posed by torrential rains, which had washed out sections of the highway with mudslides, one of which killed 30 people when the side of a mountain buried travelers and villagers two months ago.1

Northwest Colombia is one of the last regions of the low latitude western hemisphere where land travel remains slow and perilous at best and impossible at worst. In defiance of its name, Colombia's stretch of the Pan-American Highway doesn't continue to the Panamanian border. It peters out at Lomas Aisladas, forcing most traffic north to the grimy and teaming Caribbean port town of Turbo. From Turbo, speedboats ferry passengers to villages on the Rio Sucio deep within the rainforest in the Colombian half of the Darien Gap, or to roadless towns dotting the coast up to the Panamanian border.

Thick jungle, poverty, guerrilla conflicts, and drug wars caused the land transportation revolution to bypass this region. In most of the world, the railroad supplanted the riverboat in the late 19th century, and the automobile supplanted the railroad in the mid-20th century. Not here. Though internal combustion engines now power the boats that ply the rivers in the Darien Gap and the Caribbean coast, water-based transportation reigns supreme just as it did 500 years ago.

Unfortunately for the architects of the Pan-American Highway project, Colombia's internal stability took a turn for the worse at precisely as the road was about to connect North America to South America. Shortly after the Second World War, Colombia erupted into a civil war called La Violencia. The end of rural security meant the end of road building -- a security situation that continued largely until the past decade.

But recent years have seen major gains in Colombia's security situation, and Colombia's conservative government has been pushing Panama to agree complete the last section of the Pan-American hightway.2

But this priority conflicts with that of most of the elite of the Western hemisphere, who have long since ended their love affair with the automobile. Environmentalists in Panama oppose development in the Darien Gap, and liberals in the Colombian capital, like much of the developed world, are focusing their energy on post-auto projects like rapid bus transit and urban bike lanes.

Who wins this debate will decide the future of the Darien Gap. If the highway remains incomplete, the current roadless backwater will ultimately become an unpopulated wilderness, gradually emptied of people as its Afro-Colombian and Amerindian residents move to more prosperous towns and cities. If the road is built, it will probably develop like the Brazilian Amazon, with roads leading to deforestation and conversion of forest to agriculture.

Which of these two visions of the future takes hold will likely be decided on the Colombian side of the border in the next decade. Given the victory of Uribe’s conservative hand-picked successor Juan Manuel Santos in the recent Colombian elections, smart money is on the long-delayed completion of the Pan-American Highway.


1. BBC, Landslide buries 30 in north-western Colombia, September 29, 2010

2. TVN, Uribe Insiste en Abrir el Tapon de Darien, January 22, 2010