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

Last Updated: June 20, 2024By

Taking Action on the Darién Dilemma


Determined to Tackle the Darién Dilemma

Panama’s top dog in the presidential race is swearing to “shut down” the Darién Gap, that murky maze bordering Colombia, which has morphed into a nightmare for many migrants aiming for the US – but experts are giving the thumbs down to the idea, calling it impractical and downright risky.

The Darién Gap, lorded over by shady gangs and crooked officials, stands as one of the planet’s most treacherous and rapidly expanding border breaches.

Just last year, over half a million souls – among them 113,000 innocent kids – gambled with their lives to cross, a staggering leap from the 24,000 brave souls in 2019.

“The US border, instead of chilling in Texas, decided to set up shop in Panama,” quipped José Raúl Mulino, ex-security honcho under ex-prez Ricardo Martinelli.

“We’re slamming the brakes on the Darién and shipping all these folks back home,” declared Mulino, sans a clear blueprint, though assuring he’d play nice with migrants’ human rights.


“I’m clueless about what they’re thinking,” barked Juan Pappier, the Americas’ deputy boss at Human Rights Watch. “Closing the Darién Gap is like mission impossible.”

The Darién Gap, about 60km wide and 160km long, is a blend of hills and rainforest with scant roads and even less government muscle. For ages, drug cartels have been the big kahunas in these parts.

“Crimping the flow would just force folks onto even riskier trails,” Pappier cautioned. “People will roll the dice with their lives, crime bosses will laugh all the way to the bank, and Panama will be left twiddling its thumbs.”

Most crossing the Darién Gap are fleeing sinking ships in countries like Venezuela, Cuba, and Haiti. But an increasing bunch come from as far off as Africa and Asia, all dreaming of Uncle Sam’s land.

With visa restrictions tightening in Mexico and Central America, the Darién Gap express is likely to see more traffic.

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,” Pappier projected.


As the crowd balloons and the human-trafficking racket balloons, conditions nosedive.

The Colombian side is bossed around by the Gulf cartel. But Panama’s turf is a bit wilder, with armed goons preying on migrants for cash and worse.

“Doctors Without Borders – until Panama gave them the boot – saw a sharp spike in abuse cases,” dished Adam Isacson from the Washington Office on Latin America, a rights outfit. “The thievery is off the charts.”

“But if the government beefs up its presence along the routes, it could actually make things safer – assuming the security squad isn’t in cahoots with the crooks,” he tossed in.

Panama coughed up 124 bodies from the Darién Gap between Jan 2021 and Apr 2023, but that’s likely just the tip of the iceberg, given the reporting hurdles.

“No one knows the exact death toll,” Pappier said. “But every migrant we spoke to saw bodies, sometimes a dozen or more, in the jungle.”

Why Mulino wants to slam the Darién door shut is anyone’s guess, considering Panama isn’t exactly hostile to migrants, who breeze through on their way up north.

But with a US election brewing, migration is the hot potato in town. Last year, Panama, Colombia, and the US cooked up a plan to seal the Darién Gap, but it didn’t move the needle much.

“Maybe he thinks Uncle Sam will give him a pat on the back,” Isacson mused.

With the May 5 election inching closer, Mulino’s leading the pack, with polls giving him a cushy 13 to 25-point edge over rivals Ricardo Lombana and ex-prez Martín Torrijos.

Mulino hopped into the ring only in February, subbing in for billionaire bigwig Martinelli, whose bid went up in smoke after courts upheld his money laundering rap.

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