By Juan Zamorano and Christopher Sherman Nicanor - The Associated Press
Panama on Friday unveiled a new effort to control illegal migration through the dangerous Darien Gap that straddles its eastern border with Colombia.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants have risked making the trek through the jungle in recent years and this year's flow is at a record pace. Most are trying to reach the United States.
In April, as the U.S. government prepared to lift Title 42, a pandemic rule that allowed asylum seekers to be expelled, it announced along with Panama and Colombia greater efforts in the mostly lawless Darien Gap. Panama's "Shield" campaign announced Friday is the first public display of those new efforts.
What is the Darien Plug?
The Darien Gap earned its name because it is the break in the Pan-American Highway connecting South and North America. Darién is also the name of Panama's easternmost province, which borders Colombia.
Migrants walk through the Darien Gap from Colombia to Panama in hopes of reaching the U.S., Tuesday, May 9, 2023.Ivan Valencia/AP
It consists of dense jungle without roads, mountains and mighty rivers. Migrants who have made the crossing regularly report being assaulted, sexually assaulted and seeing bodies of others who did not survive along the way. The crossing from Colombia can take anywhere from a few days to more than a week.
How many people are crossing?
Last year, nearly 250,000 people crossed the Darien Gap, nearly double the 133,000 who crossed in 2021, a record. That increase was driven largely by Venezuelans, who accounted for about 60% of migrants crossing there last year.
The United Nations warned in April that the unprecedented number of crossings to start the year suggested some 400,000 migrants could make the crossing this year. According to government data, nearly 170,000 migrants crossed the Darien in the first four months of the year, five times more than in the same period last year.
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This is the dangerous jungle between Colombia and Panama where thousands of migrants risk reaching the U.S.
Sept. 17, 202102:05
In early May, before the U.S. lifted asylum restrictions put in place during the pandemic, Panamanian officials on the edge of the jungle recorded the arrival of about 2,000 migrants in one day. Venezuelans remain the largest crossing group, but there are also Haitians, Chinese and Ecuadorians, among others.
This week, Panamanian authorities reported that, with the arrival of the rainy season and the flooding of the rivers, in one day some 790 migrants were registered. Expanded legal avenues offered by the United States and more punitive policies that attempt to enter the country illegally also take into account migrants' decision-making.
What is Panama's "Shield" campaign?
Panamanian security authorities announced they will deploy some 1,200 immigration agents, border police and members of the naval air service to an air, land and sea effort to confront organized criminal groups that traffic migrants, drugs and weapons through the Darien jungle.
There will be more aerial patrols with U.S.-donated helicopters and more specialized border police units to root out gangs operating along the shared border with Colombia. It is the first public sign of the coordinated efforts promised in April by Panama, Colombia and the United States. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas then met with the foreign ministers of Panama and Colombia in Panama City.
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In a joint statement, the governments acknowledged their "shared interest and responsibility to prevent risk to human life, disrupt transnational criminal organizations, and preserve vital rainforest," adding that Panama, Colombia, and the United States intend to conduct a two-month coordinated campaign to address the dire humanitarian situation in the Darien.
Panama says the effort to gain control of its border is a national security problem directed against organized crime groups. For migrants who make the crossing, Panama plans an information campaign to combat misinformation spread by traffickers.
What challenges do the authorities face in Darien?
It won't be easy. The migratory route through the Darién has been consolidated with enterprising locals, especially on the Colombian side who sell equipment services (tents, boots, food) and even offer porters. In addition, for those who have the resources, there are smugglers who offer a more personalized guided journey.
Some of Colombia's armed groups, mainly the Clan del Golfo, are involved in migrant smuggling and conduct very sophisticated operations.
Is there an opening date for a migrant center in Colombia?
June 1, 202300:44
Oriel Ortega, director of Panama's border police, said Friday that, according to intelligence information, the Gulf Clan was the organization most involved and profited the most from smuggling migrants through the Darien.
Panamanian Security Minister Juan Manuel Pino said authorities have identified three main maritime smuggling routes and two land routes between Colombia and Panama and will concentrate resources in those areas, though he acknowledged that criminal groups are expected to open new routes.
Sherman reported from Mexico City.