NICANOR, Panama (AP) — Panama on Friday unveiled a new attempt to control illegal migration through the treacherous Darien Gap, which stretches across the eastern border with Colombia.
Hundreds of thousands of migrants have made the perilous trek through the jungle in recent years, and the influx is at a record pace this year. Most of those crossing the border are trying to get into the United States.
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The Darien Gap got its name because it represents the gap on the Panamerican Highway connecting South and North America. Darien is also the name of the easternmost province of Panama that borders Colombia.
It consists of dense roadless jungle, mountains and fast-flowing rivers. Migrants who make the crossing regularly report being robbed, sexually abused, and seeing the bodies of others who didn’t survive the journey. Earlier this week, three suspected bandits died in a shootout with border police in Darien.
The crossing from Colombia can take anywhere from a few days to more than a week.
HOW MANY PEOPLE RUN OVER?
Last year nearly 250,000 people crossed the Darien Gap, almost double the 133,000 in 2021 and a new record. This surge was largely driven by Venezuelans, who made up about 60% of migrants who crossed the country last year.
In April, the United Nations warned that the unprecedented number of border crossings earlier in the year suggested some 400,000 migrants could cross this year. According to the government, nearly 170,000 migrants crossed the Darien in the first four months of the year, five times as many as in the same period last year.
This week, Panamanian authorities reported that about 790 migrants were registered in one day as the rainy season began and rivers swelled. The expanded legal avenues that the United States offers and tougher penal policies for those attempting to enter the United States illegally also play a role in migrant decision-making.
WHAT IS PANAMA’S SHIELD CAMPAIGN?
On Friday, Panamanian security officials said they will deploy about 1,200 immigration officers, border patrol officers and Naval Aviation Service personnel on an air, land and sea deployment to crack down on organized crime groups smuggling migrants, drugs and weapons through the Darien jungle.
There will be more air patrols using US-donated helicopters and more specialized border police units to track down gangs operating along the shared border with Colombia. It is the first public sign of the coordinated effort that Panama, Colombia and the United States promised in April.
US Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas then met with the foreign ministers of Panama and Colombia in Panama City.
“Recognizing our shared interest and shared responsibility to prevent threats to human life, dismantle transnational criminal organizations and preserve vital rainforest, the governments of Panama, Colombia and the United States intend to launch a two-month coordinated campaign to address the issue “There is a serious humanitarian situation in Darien,” the governments said in a joint statement.
Panama describes efforts to seize control of its border as a national security issue targeting organized crime groups. An information campaign aimed at combating misinformation spread by smugglers is planned for crossing migrants.
What challenges do the authorities in DARIEN face?
That will not be easy. The migratory route through the Darien has become well established with enterprising locals, particularly on the Colombian side, selling equipment services – tents, boots, food – and even porters. Additionally, for those with the means, there are smugglers who offer a more personalized, guided crossing.
Some of Colombia’s armed groups, most notably the Gulf clan, are involved in migrant smuggling and conduct very sophisticated operations.
Oriel Ortega, director of Panama’s border police, said Friday that their intelligence agencies indicated that the Gulf clan was the organization most involved in and benefiting most from migrant smuggling across the Darien.
Panama’s Security Minister Juan Manuel Pino said authorities have identified three main smuggling sea routes and two land routes between Colombia and Panama and are focusing resources on those areas. However, he acknowledged that it was to be expected that criminal groups would then open new routes.
Sherman reported from Mexico City.
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