Panama’s next president meets migrants at the Darien Gap, promises to shut down the perilous route

By The Canadian Press

Published 11:57 PDT, Fri June 28, 2024

LAJAS BLANCAS, Panama (AP) — Panama's president-elect José Raúl Mulino on Friday arrived at the jungle-clad province of Darien, where he was to face one of his biggest challenges: controlling the world’s busiest migration route from South America bound for the United States.

The 65-year-old lawyer, who will take the reins of Panama on Monday, promised during his campaign to shut down the Darien Gap, calling the daily crossings "an odyssey that does not have a reason to exist.”

More than half a million people crossed the migration corridor on the border with Colombia last year and it is estimated that some 186,000 people have crossed so far in 2024, with most of the migrants hailing from Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and China.

The migrant route through the narrow isthmus grew exponentially in popularity in recent years with the help of criminal gangs and migrant smugglers who made it an affordable, if dangerous, route for hundreds of thousands of people.

The popularity of the Darien also grew after countries, under pressure from the U.S. government, imposed visa restrictions on various nationalities including Venezuelans and Peruvians in an attempt to stop migrants flying into the country just to continue onto the U.S. border.

Still, masses of people took the challenge and set out on foot through the jungle-clad Colombian-Panamanian border. A crossing that initially could take a week or more was whittled down to two or three days as the path became more established and entrepreneurial locals established a range of support services.

Mulino, who was accompanied by members of his future Cabinet, arrived at a temporary reception center where thousands of migrants arrive every week, including pregnant women and children.

On the eve of the visit, migrants staying in the camp of Lajas Blancas after crossing the Darien, recounted their economic and security difficulties and several expressed their support of Mulino's plans to close the migration route.

“He (Mulino) will have to close it,” said Pedro Monte, a Venezuelan migrant who lost his wife on the way to the Darien Gap. "It’s the most dangerous thing (...) there are thieves, there are deaths, it’s a pity that people lose their lives there.”

Mulino has said he will deport migrants who continue crossing the Darien, but experts caution it will be a difficult — and expensive — task. He has also hinted that he will seek agreements with the United States at a time when reports of abuses, human rights violations and testimonies of deaths throughout the route persist. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is expected to attend Mulino's inauguration on Monday.

– Abraham Terán and Juan Zamorano, The Associated Press

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