Panama’s presidential frontrunner vows to ‘close’ Darién Gap

Estimated read time 4 min read

Panama’s presidential frontrunner has vowed to “close” the Darién Gap, the swampy jungle straddling the border with Colombia that has become an unavoidable ordeal for many US-bound migrants – but experts criticised the idea as unworkable and potentially dangerous.

Presided over by criminal groups and corrupt officials, the Darién Gap is one of the world’s most dangerous and fast-growing border crossings.

Last year, more than half a million people – including 113,000 children – risked their lives to make the crossing, up from 24,000 in 2019.

“The border of the United States, instead of being in Texas, moved to Panama,” said José Raúl Mulino, who served as security minister under former president Ricardo Martinelli.

“We’re going to close the Darién and we’re going to repatriate all these people,” said Mulino, without saying how he would do it, though promising to respect migrants’ human rights.

“I have no idea what’s in their heads,” said Juan Pappier, the Americas deputy director at Human Rights Watch. “Closing the Darién Gap is virtually impossible.”

The Darién Gap is roughly 60km wide and 160km long, a mix of mountains and rainforest with few roads and little state presence. For decades, drug-trafficking groups have been the de facto authority in the area.

“Restricting the flow would push people to take even more dangerous paths,” said Pappier. “People will risk their lives, organised crime groups will get richer, and Panama will have even less control.”

The majority of those crossing the Darién Gap are fleeing collapsing economies in countries including Venezuela, Cuba and Haiti. But a growing portion of migrants come from as far afield as Africa and Asia in an attempt to reach the US.

The number of migrants crossing the Darién Gap is expected to keep rising as visa restrictions in Mexico and Central America mean ever fewer are able to fly over it.

If the first few months of this year are any indication, “the number of people crossing the Darién Gap could be as high as 700,000 or even 800,000 this year ,said Pappier.

As the numbers have increased, and the human-trafficking business has grown, conditions have deteriorated.

The Colombian side of the gap is strictly controlled by the country’s largest drug cartel, the Gulf clan. But the Panamanian side is more lawless, and armed bandits target migrants for robbery and rape.

“Doctors Without Borders – until they got kicked out by the Panamanian government – were documenting a sharp increase in sexual abuse,” said Adam Isacson, from the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights group. “The banditry has gotten much worse.”

“But if the government tries to establish more of a state presence along a path that people could take, that could actually make their journey safer – as long as security forces aren’t in league with the bandits,” he added.

Panamanian authorities reported finding 124 bodies in the Darién Gap between January 2021 and April 2023, but this is probably a fraction of the true number, given the challenges in reporting and recovering bodies.

“No one knows the exact number of people who have died crossing the Darién Gap,” said Pappier. “But all the migrants we interviewed on the Panamanian side said they saw bodies, sometimes 10 or 15, when they crossed the jungle.”

It is unclear why Mulino has vowed to close the Darién Gap, given the relative absence of anti-migrant sentiment in Panama, where migrants spend little time before heading north.

But in a US election year, migration is at the top of the political agenda in the region. Last year, Panama, Colombia and the US announced a plan to close the Darién Gap, with little apparent impact on the flow of migration.

“It may be a message he thinks the United States wants to hear,” said Isacson.

With less than three weeks until the 5 May election, Mulino is the frontrunner to be Panama’s next president.

Polls suggest Mulino has a comfortable lead of 13 to 25 percentage points over his two closest rivals, the lawyer Ricardo Lombana and former president Martín Torrijos.

Mulino only stepped in as a candidate in February, replacing the billionaire businessman and former president Martinelli, whose candidacy was annulled after local courts ratified his prison sentence for money laundering.


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