Panama’s new president moves to close deadly jungle migrant route


Panama’s new president has moved immediately to crack down on migrants using the treacherous Darien Gap jungle passage to reach the US.

Former security minister Jose Raul Mulino, who has vowed to close the illicit route, said he would not allow his country to be “an open path”.

Within minutes of being sworn in, his government signed a memorandum of understanding with Washington to “allow the closing off of the passing of illegal immigrants through the Darien”.

Most migrants hail from Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and China. Pic: AP

Under the agreement, the US would cover the cost of deporting migrants who entered Panama illegally from Colombia using the largely lawless corridor.

More than half a million people made the crossing last year, with most migrants originating from Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and China, often at the hands of smuggling gangs.

Mr Mulino said: “I won’t allow Panama to be an open path for thousands of people who enter our country illegally, supported by an international organisation related to drug trafficking and human trafficking.

“I understand that there are deep-rooted reasons for migration, but each country has to resolve its problems.”

The agreement was “designed to jointly reduce the number of migrants being cruelly smuggled through the Darien, usually en route to the United States,” a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council said in a statement.

The Biden administration has come under pressure during an election year to demonstrate it has a grip on immigration and border security, in the face of criticism by former president and Republican challenger Donald Trump, who is vying to return to the White House.

The new president says he will not allow his country to be ‘an open path’. Pic: AP

Mr Mulino speaking with migrants at a camp after they walked across the Darien Gap. Pic: AP

The move by Panama to stop and deport migrants represents a major shift in policy, having previously sought to help people quickly cross the country into Costa Rica.

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Bolstering enforcement efforts in Panama could potentially reduce the number of migrants reaching the US border, at least in the short term until new routes are established.

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Migrants worldwide head to the US through Mexico

However, it could also force migrants to take more hazardous paths and benefit the smugglers.

Mr Mulino was elected in May after taking over the candidacy of his running mate Ricardo Martinelli, a popular former president who was barred from running himself due to a money laundering conviction.

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In addition to migration, the 65-year-old will have to manage one of the world’s key trade routes, the Panama Canal, which was forced to limit traffic this year by drought.

Mulino will also have to wrestle with the country’s economic problems.

He said: “We have the challenge of leaving a growing Panama so that those who come after us can do a better job than our generation.

“The state of public finances is worrying.

“In five years they [the previous administration] doubled the debt [but] with my government team we will turn the economy around and will start progressing.”

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