Panama’s next president wants a deal with US on deporting migrants who cross the perilous Darien Gap

LAJAS BLANCAS, Panama (AP) — Panama’s President-elect José Raúl Mulino announced on Friday that he wants an agreement with the United States on deporting migrants who cross into the world’s busiest migration route, the perilous Darien Gap, along his country’s border with Colombia.

In a visit to the jungle region, Mulino said he will discuss the possible deal with a U.S. delegation, led by U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, that’s expected to attend his inauguration next week.

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 traversed the corridor last year and some 186,000 people are estimated to have crossed so far in 2024, with most of the migrants hailing from Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia and China.

Until now, Panama has helped speedily bus the migrants across its territory so they can continue their journey north — and reports of abuses, human rights violations and testimonies of deaths along the route have persisted.

“I hope to sign a respectful and dignified agreement with the United States so the two countries can begin the repatriation processes of all these people who are accumulated here,” Mulino said during the visit on Friday.

He did not elaborate on the details of such an agreement or say how the migrants would be deported t their home countries.

“I’ve seen other crises in the Darien, but this is the worst I’ve seen. It breaks my heart to see children my grandchildren’s age ask me for a bottle of water,” he told a news conference at the migrant camp of Lajas Blancas.

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, pathway 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 on toward the U.S. border.

Still, masses of people took the challenge and set out on foot through the jungle spanning the 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 set up a range of support services.

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

On Thursday night, 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.

“With the government we have (in Venezuela) we never had a life,” another migrant, Jorbys Ocampo, told The Associated Press.

He left his family and eight-year-old daughter in Venezuela’s coastal city of Maracaibo. “My daughter was born with a heart problem. There are no supplies, there is no money, there is not enough for anything.”

“It would be good if they gave more legal ways for people to migrate and to not have to make this terrible journey,” Ocampo said.

Asked what would happen if they close the Darien Gap, he said, “If they close it on one side, it will open on another.”


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