Panama Cracks Down On Darien Gap Migrant Trail - US To Pay For Deportations

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by Tyler Durden
Tuesday, Jul 09, 2024 - 03:05 PM

Days into his first term in office, Panama's new president has started following through on his promise to cut off a major avenue used by immigrants bent on entering the United States -- the notorious Darien Gap. However, migrant smugglers are encouraging their customers to keep on coming, assuring them new barriers are being easily bypassed. 

On July 1, President Jose Raul Mulino was sworn into office. On the same day, Panama announced it had signed an agreement with the United States with a goal of cutting the flow of migrants through the isthmus. Under the deal, the US government has committed to covering Panama's expenses for deporting people who enter Panama illegally, and to help with "equipment, transportation and logistics." 

“By returning such individuals to their country of origin, we will help deter irregular migration in the region and at our southern border," the US National Security Council said in a July 1 statement, adding that the program will also help "halt the enrichment of malign smuggling networks that prey on vulnerable migrants." 

Panama's new President Jose Raul Mulino at his July 1 inauguration (Matias Delacroix/AP via NBC News)

About a half-million migrants made the journey across the gap in 2023, and about 200,000 so far this year. On the campaign trail, President Jose Raul Mulino emphasized his intent to end Panama's role as a critical link in a path that funnels northbound migrants into Central America. He reiterated that intention in his inaugural address, saying"I will not allow Panama to be a path open to thousands of people who illegally enter our country supported by an entire international organization related to drug trafficking and human trafficking."

Fulfilling that promise is no easy feat. To do so, Mulino's administration must shut down migrant trails that traverse the Darien Gap, a roadless, 60-mile expanse of of swamps, mountains and rain forest that is the only terrestrial connection between South and Central America. Within the gap, migrants are routinely preyed upon by criminal gangs known to commit assaults, robberies and rapes, and to abandon beaten, hungry victims in the jungle. More than 60 migrants reportedly died in the first half of 2023, but some believe that number is a large understatement. 

Even ahead of Mulino's inauguration, Panama started installing concertina-wire fences inside the Darien Gap. “The patrol at the national border service has begun to block the majority of border passages," said Frank Abrego, Panama's minister of public security during a June 28 visit to the area. 

According to NBC News, the first imagery of the new barriers appeared as early as June 27. Videos were initially shared in WhatsApp groups used as information-sharing hubs by would-be emigrants to the United States, and have now spread to social media.   

This video shows fencing comprising some eight rolls of concertina wire; underscoring the challenge of blocking travel through a wilderness area, it also shows a single-file line of migrants queued up, apparently waiting for their turn to crawl under under the fence

Smugglers are taking to WhatsApp to tell potential customers there's nothing to worry about: 

“Listen to me, everything is active — Carreto, Acandi, Capurgana, Caledonia,” one smuggler said Sunday in a WhatsApp group, listing off popular routes he said are still open. “The guards did put a fence along Capurgana but people are passing one by one — kids, adults and they are passing the same. They have not sent anyone back nor are they sending anyone back.” -NBC News

A long list of perils awaits those traversing the Darien Gap, including heat, rain, mud, dehydration, dangerous water crossings, disease, thieves and rapists (John Moore/Getty Images via Council on Foreign Relations)

Portraying news reports as mere scare tactics, another smuggler said only "negative" and "lazy" people are deterred by the new fences -- essentially daring would-be migrants into making the harrowing journey.  

Given the Biden administration's reflexive opposition to walls and fences, we shouldn't be surprised that it would distance itself from the concertina wire. “The U.S. has not provided support to the Government of Panama to erect barriers at its borders,” a National Security Council spokesperson told NBC, noting that Panama nonetheless "has a right to protect its borders."