John Otis

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DARIEN JUNGLE, Colombia – For centuries, jungle-covered mountains, swamps and poisonous snakes scared people away from the Darién Gap, the dense rainforest separating North and South America. It's still the only spot where the Pan-American Highway, that runs from Alaska all the way to the tip of South America, dissolves into mud.

But thanks to the large numbers of migrants trying to get to the United States, the Darién Gap is no longer a no man's land.

MESETAS, Colombia — I'm with a small group of tourists preparing to rappel down a 150-foot canyon next to a waterfall in southern Colombia. It's scary, but we're in good hands, with guides intimately familiar with this jungle terrain.

BOGOTA, Colombia — The arrest in Haiti of more than a dozen former Colombian soldiers in connection with Wednesday's assassination of President Jovenel Moïse initially provoked shock and shame in Colombia and calls for swift justice.

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BOGOTÁ, Colombia — While marching in nationwide demonstrations this week, Pablo Mora wore a face mask to protect himself from the coronavirus. But every so often, the retired security guard took it off and blew a whistle to voice his disgust with Colombia's government.

Colombian President Iván Duque has won praise from the Biden administration, the United Nations and Pope Francis for his decision last month to provide temporary legal status to undocumented migrants from neighboring Venezuela. But according to Duque, what's been lacking from the international community is money to pay for a crisis that's similar in scope to the outflow of Syrian refugees in the 2010s.

BOGOTA, Colombia — Since fleeing Venezuela three years ago to escape a socialist dictatorship and the country's worst-ever economic collapse, Isaias Bello has lived in legal limbo.

If you send a bouquet of roses for Valentine's Day, chances are they were grown in Colombia. It remains the No. 1 supplier of flowers to the U.S. even though the coronavirus pandemic at one point threatened to wilt the industry.

"It's been a roller coaster," said José Restrepo, co-owner and general manager of the Ayurá flower farm, located just north of Bogotá in the Andean mountain town of Tocancipá.

Editor's note: This story includes details some readers may find disturbing.

At a shelter for Venezuelan migrants in the Colombian border town of Villa del Rosario, Alondra Castillo pulls back her blouse to reveal black-and-blue welts on her arms and shoulders.

Castillo, 23, explains that she and about 80 other Venezuelans were crossing into Colombia last month on a clandestine trail controlled by drug smugglers. But it was night, and she and her 2-year-old son became separated from the group.

Just three days after crossing the border into Colombia to escape food shortages, joblessness and authoritarian rule in Venezuela, Alexander González says he's shocked by the xenophobia of his adopted homeland.

"Colombians treat Venezuelans badly," says González, 19, as he takes a breather in the Colombian town of Pamplona before setting off on foot for the capital of Bogotá. "They practically spit in our faces."

The campaign to remove Confederate statues and other symbols of white supremacy in the United States is resonating in Latin America, where protesters have destroyed monuments to European colonizers who brutalized Indigenous populations.

The latest target was a statue of Sebastián de Belalcázar, a Spanish conquistador. He founded the Colombian cities of Popayán and Cali in 1537, while leading a military campaign that killed and enslaved of thousands of Misak Indigenous people.

Venezuela's worst economic meltdown in history has had a huge impact on neighboring Colombia, where hospitals, schools and welfare agencies are dealing with 2 million Venezuelan refugees. But the crisis has produced at least one silver lining for Colombia: the curtailing of gasoline smuggling.

It's been a rough two days for former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, one of the country's most influential politicians.

Uribe has gone from kingmaker to detainee after the country's Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered that he be placed under house arrest. Then, on Wednesday, Colombian media reported that he had tested positive for the coronavirus.

It wasn't long ago that Nicolás Maduro's days as the Venezuelan president appeared to be numbered.

The authoritarian leader had overseen his country's worst economic meltdown in history and was facing crippling U.S. sanctions targeting the vital oil industry. Amid chronic food shortages, millions of Venezuelans fled the country.

In Colombia, a spike in coronavirus cases has forced many towns and cities that had been reopening — including Bogotá and Medellín — to issue new lockdown orders. That's making life especially difficult for poor people who need to work in order to eat.

After imposing one of the tightest coronavirus lockdowns in Latin America, Colombia is now searching for ways to jump-start its economy. One experiment is a series of tax-free shopping days, but critics fear they could turn out to be super-spreader events.

At a time when the country is facing a spike in COVID-19 cases, urging Colombians to flock to stores and malls "sends an erroneous message," said Bogotá Mayor Claudia López.

With nearly 40,000 deaths, Brazil has registered the world's third-highest COVID-19 death toll and the second-highest confirmed caseload. Its neighbors fear the disease is spilling across Brazil's borders.

With COVID-19 deaths spiking in many Latin American countries, Colombia — which has confirmed more than 23,000 cases and 776 deaths — is extending its nationwide lockdown until the end of this month. That has meant more hardship for people living hand to mouth.

So some desperate Colombians have been sending out an eye-catching SOS — with encouragement from local politicians.

It didn't take long for Huber, a former Marxist guerrilla, to give up on peace.

A former member of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as FARC, Huber disarmed under the country's 2016 peace treaty. But he says the government failed to help former fighters transition to civilian life and that many have been killed.

All this prompted Huber, who asked to be identified only by his first name, and other disgruntled ex-rebels to take up arms once again.

Nearly 2 million Venezuelans fled to Colombia in recent years to escape their country's devastating economic crisis and rebuild their lives. But Colombia's coronavirus lockdown has thrown many of these newcomers out of work, and some are now trying to get home — by any means necessary.

Among them is Yordelis García. Unlike some of the returning migrants, she and her family can't afford bus fare. So they've started walking from Bogotá, the Colombian capital, to the Venezuelan border some 450 miles away.

Ecuador has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 in all of Latin America – with 10,128 cases and 507 deaths in a country of just 17 million people.

But the situation may be far worse than what the official numbers show. In fact, one Ecuadorian official says it appears that thousands more people may have died of the disease than his government is reporting.

An acoustic folk music developed by his enslaved ancestors along Colombia's Pacific coast helped to keep John Jairo Cortez on the straight and narrow.

While growing up in the crime-ridden town of Tumaco, cocaine smugglers killed his father and Cortez says he was "tempted" to join a rival gang to avenge the murder. Instead, he was lured into another local industry: currulao.

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Before the country of Colombia largely shut down due to the coronavirus, reporter John Otis visited a town there notorious as a shipping point for cocaine. As John discovered, though, it's also home to a hidden treasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Ecuador is one of the smallest countries in South America but it is dealing with one of the region's worst outbreaks of COVID-19, with more than 3,100 identified infections and 120 deaths.

The epicenter of the country's outbreak is the Pacific port city of Guayaquil, where bodies are lying in the streets.

Guayaquil has registered about half of all Ecuador's coronavirus cases and patients have overwhelmed the city's hospitals. In addition, a nationwide curfew and bureaucratic red tape have hindered the work of undertakers.

Álvaro Callama is struggling to survive an economic double whammy.

A Venezuelan electrician, he fled his homeland two years ago amid a devastating economic crisis that left him too poor to buy food. He moved to neighboring Colombia, where Callama — nothing if not resourceful — worked three jobs: picking fruit, laying bricks and guiding tourists on horseback rides.

It wasn't a coup attempt.

But when soldiers briefly occupied El Salvador's congress this month to intimidate lawmakers into passing an anti-crime bill, the scene recalled one of Latin America's darkest eras: In the 1970s and 1980s, much of the region was ruled by abusive military dictators.

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