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'Narco Jungle': A cameraman's perspective filming in the Darien Gap


Ping. It’s the end of June, I’m on assignment in Northern Ontario when I get a text message from Avery Haines.

“Hey Jer,” it reads. “Have you ever heard of the Darien Gap?”

“Yes,” I text back and quickly Google “Darien Gap” to refresh my memory before our conversation continues. The first hit that appears tells me, “The region is crawling with paramilitary groups and criminal gangs. They are ready to pick off migrants along the way. Violence, extortion and rape are common threats for the migrants. So is death from snake bites, exposure and drowning.”

Avery is texting me from her vacation in southern Costa Rica. She tells me she is surrounded by women, men and children who emerged from the jungle and made their way to Costa Rica, having survived “The Gap.” She tells me about their incredible resilience and their desperation.

“You want to help me tell their stories?” she asks. Again, I immediately text back: “Yes.”

I’ve had the privilege of shooting with Avery on stories that have taken us to North Korea, Iraq, Haiti, Hong Kong and -- repeatedly -- deep into cartel-controlled territories of Mexico. So, whenever I receive a text from her that begins, “Do you want to…” I always interrupt with an emphatic “Yes.”

Spin ahead six months and after weeks of research, security briefings, insurance questions and of asking ourselves 'are we really going to do this?', we are ready to tackle our most difficult assignment ever: trekking deep in the jungle from Colombia to Panama.

(CTV W5)

This assignment comes with a number of technical challenges.

Electronics don’t like moisture and the Darien Gap is one of the wettest places on the planet. It’s incredibly humid, and there are hundreds of river crossings.

W5 Director of Photography Jerry Vienneau shares what it was like filming in the Darien Gap at the Colombia-Panama border -- a treacherous journey that hundreds of thousands of migrants attempt every year.

We’ll have to lug my equipment through the jungle for at least six days, along with all our food and supplies.

I usually travel with nine hard cases of gear: three cameras, lights, monitors, tripods and audio gear. But for this trip, I need to scale way back and bring just two small DSLR cameras (Sony 24-70 2.8 lens) supplemented by a drone and GoPro.

The plan is for our team to also use cellphones to capture scenes developing in front of us.

From the usual nine cases of gear, Vienneau whittled his equipment down to two backpacks for the journey across the Darien Gap (CTV W5)

Normally I put a lavalier microphone on Avery that wirelessly transmits to my camera, but because I am worried about moisture, I decide to use a submersible mic that Avery sewed into her bra. I devised a plan to put the recorder in a surgical glove to protect it, and then put the recorder inside a runners pouch that Avery would wear around her waist.

From nine cases, I whittled my equipment down to two backpacks.

Setting off on the journey, I had a lot of things on my mind: obviously the human desperation we were witnessing, but also my concerns about carrying and protecting my equipment through treacherous terrain.

Every night in the jungle, I put my equipment in zip lock bags with heavy duty silica packs to try to remove any moisture. I also kept all my gear under my hammock to keep it close to me at all times.

Avery Haines chronicles her and her W5 crew's perilous trek across the dangerous Darien Gap, which hundreds of thousands of migrants risk their lives crossing every year (CTV W5)

It became clear really early on that shooting the way I usually do was not going to work in the Darien Gap. Pulling out my tripod, setting up shots and making sure everything was perfect was taking too long, and making us fall behind the families we were following through the jungle.

We were also constantly racing against nightfall because we needed to find a relatively safe place before the sun went down, so we had to move faster. I started to shoot more “run and gun” style. At times, I even had to pack away my DSLR because I needed both hands to grab onto tree roots and to scale rock faces.

My equipment held up suprisingly well. I relied on cell phone shooting more than I thought I would but was glad I had my larger cameras to shoot more cinematic images for our documentary.

Vienneau trained for the journey for months with a weighted backpack and long hikes. He also whittled all his gear down to two backpacks (CTV W5)

The trek was much more physically exhausting than I anticipated, even though I trained for months with a weighted backpack and long hikes in my neighborhood in Toronto.

I’m an avid marathon runner and long distance cyclist but six days of hauling equipment through ankle deep mud, waist high river crossings and oppressive humidity took its toll.

I lost 16 pounds over the six days.

An exhausted Jerry Vienneau lying in front of some of the migrants on the journey across the Darien Gap (CTV W5)

I had planned to write this during the six-hour flight home from Panama City. But I wasn’t ready at the time to take my mind back to what I had just experienced. I needed a little distance. I needed to see my family. That was about a month-and-a-half ago.

I remember everything as if it was yesterday: the initial reluctance of migrants to let me shoot video of them at the beginning of the trek, to the end of the harrowing journey, when the jungle would erupt with sounds of “Jerry” when they saw me approaching -- we were bonded by the fact we had all gone through this terrible ordeal together.

I hope the cries of kids and babies that I heard all those days in the jungle have stopped and that the people I met are in a good place now. They’ve had a permanent impact on my life. Witnessing their tears, desperation, frustration, but also their strength, determination, perseverance, are all memories I’ll carry with me forever.

From left: Producer/translator Teresa Scott, Jerry Viennau and W5 managing editor and host Avery Haines on the Darien Gap (CTV W5)

Watch W5’s 'Narco Jungle: The Darien Gap' in our video player at the top of this article Top Stories

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