Panama’s New President Vows to Shut Down Darién Gap Migration Route

In a surprise victory with potential implications for the Biden administration, José Mulino was elected president of Panama May 5 on a platform that included closing the Darién Gap to migrants on their way to the U.S. southern border.

During a May 6 interview with a Colombian radio program, the populist president-elect reiterated his vow to repatriate migrants coming into Panama while shutting down what has become a major route for illegal migration.

“When repatriation begins here, those who try to arrive will think twice because they will not have an easy destination because they will be transferred to their countries of origin,” Mr. Mulino said.

“At no point do I say that this will be an easy action, but it will be a firm decision, with the purpose of making it known that we are not sponsoring that [migration] here and that we are going to put a stop to it.”

Todd Bensman, senior national security fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, believes Mr. Mulino’s promise to shut down the Darién Gap could become embarrassing for President Joe Biden, who rescinded Trump-era policies meant to curtail illegal immigration in favor of open borders.

“The thing to watch here, I think, is how the administration manages to oppose something good for America and that most Americans would love to see happen,” Mr. Bensman told The Epoch Times.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Mr. Mulino on his victory, adding that controlling migration is one of the countries’ shared goals.

“I look forward to continuing our strategic partnership and advancing our shared goals of democratic governance and inclusive economic prosperity,” Mr. Blinken said in a May 6 statement.

“Looking ahead, the United States will continue to work with Panama on our common goals of inclusive, sustainable economic growth, bolstering citizen security, and cooperatively curbing irregular migration through the Darién.”

Spanish media outlets reported that Mr. Mulino joked on the campaign trail about getting help with some “cement” for a wall in the Darién Gap should former President Donald Trump return to the White House.

The Trump campaign declined to comment, citing the need to first see a full transcript of Mr. Mulino’s comments.

Panama’s Cinderella Candidate

Mr. Mulino won nearly 35 percent of the votes in a four-way race with more than 92 percent of the votes counted, giving him a nine-point lead over his nearest competitor.

He takes office July 1 for a five-year term.

He faced off against Ricardo Lombana, an anti-corruption candidate who trailed in second, as well as former President Martín Torrijos and former foreign minister Rómulo Roux.

Outgoing President Laurentino Cortizo called Mr. Mulino to offer congratulations and pledged to work with him for an orderly transition. Constitutional term limits prohibited President Cortizo from serving a second consecutive term.

In an unusual turn of events, Mr. Mulino, who ran under the Achieving Goals and Alliance parties, replaced candidate and former president, Ricardo Martinelli, late in the race.


Panama’s President-elect Jose Raul Mulino (R) and President Laurentino Cortizo wave to the media after their first official meeting at the Presidential Palace in Panama City on May 7, 2024. (Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images)

Mr. Mulino had been tapped as Mr. Martinelli’s running mate, but took his place after the latter was sentenced to a decade in prison for money laundering and barred from running.

Mr. Martinelli backed Mr. Mulino from the Nicaraguan Embassy, where he has been living since early February when he was granted asylum.

Mr. Mulino, a 64-year-old attorney, served as minister of security in President Martinelli’s 2009 to 2014 administration.

He first served as minister of the interior and justice; eventually taking the reins of the public security office.

One of his achievements during that time was to “recover” a section of the Darién Gap that “was in the hands of the narco-guerrillas” of neighboring Colombia.

Besides mass migration, Panama’s new president must deal with a lackluster economy, a drought impacting the Panama Canal, and the economic impact surrounding the shutdown of a copper mine for environmental reasons.

As president, Mr. Mulino will have the power to stop a massive flow of migrants streaming through the treacherous jungle passage.

“It’s a bottleneck, so the Panamanians actually have tremendous control over the volumes of people coming through there,” Mr. Bensman said.

He likened the situation to the showdown between the Biden administration and Texas, with the state trying to curtail hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants crossing from Mexico.

The Biden administration filed lawsuits to cut the razor wire installed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott on the Texas side of the Rio Grande River meant to deter illegal immigrant crossings.

Likewise, it has sued Texas over a law allowing state lawmen to arrest and deport illegal immigrants that remains tied up in court.

Similar optics aimed at Panama’s efforts to shut down the Darién Gap could prove awkward, Mr. Bensman said.

“What are they going to say?” he asked. “We don’t want you to do it?”


Migrants, most from Haiti, break camp before trekking into the Darien Gap enroute to the United States near Acandi, Colombia, on Oct. 5, 2021. (John Moore/Getty Images)

Darién Gap Debacle

Last year alone, 500,000 migrants made the trek through the dangerous jungle terrain to arrive in migrant camps in Panama run by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the United Nations (U.N.).

Panama’s former border director, Oriel Ortega, told The Epoch Times in February that the NGOs and the U.N. should educate and help migrants in their own countries instead of facilitating mass migration.

The Epoch Times visited all four migrant camps in the Darién Gap in February, speaking with migrants from China, Somalia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Colombia, and others who hiked out of the passage leading from Colombia into Panama.

At the Lajas Blancas camp, migrants have access to a number of large maps provided by NGOs and U.N. agencies that display detailed migration routes heading to the United States.

One map from HIAS showed the migration route from Colombia to Costa Rica, including bus stops, temperatures, altitudes, and “migration kiosk” locations.

HIAS was founded as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society but now assists all migrants.

One poster prominently displayed the U.S. and European flags, along with the U.N.’s Unicef symbol.

“Thanks to the support of the United States Government co-financed by the European Union Humanitarian aid,” the Spanish-language sign said when translated to English.

Left-wing groups see the camps and helping migrants on their route as a humanitarian venture.

Groups such as Human Rights Watch have cast doubt on Panama’s ability to completely close the Gap and fear it would force migrants to find alternative, more dangerous routes.

“Whatever the reason for their journey, migrants and asylum-seekers crossing the Darién Gap are entitled to basic safety and respect for their human rights along the way,” Juanita Goebertus, Americas director of Human Rights Watch, told The Associated Press.


A Venezuelan migrant suffers from sore feet after crossing the Darien Gap, at Lajas Blancas, Panama, on Feb. 17, 2024. (Bobby Sanchez for The Epoch Times)

Former Border Patrol chief Rodney Scott is now a senior fellow for border security at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

He served as the chief of the U.S. Border Patrol at the end of the Trump administration through the first eight months of the Biden administration in 2021.

He told The Epoch Times that while the Biden administration and others on the left may see helping migrants on their journey to the United States as compassionate, it has proven to be just the opposite.

By making it easier to migrate, millions of people have been exposed to the ugly consequences, he said.

Death, rape, murder, human trafficking, and illicit drugs make up the dark underbelly of the illegal immigration crisis, he said.

Shutting down the Darién Gap could be a game changer in stopping illegal migration and saving thousands of lives, Mr. Scott said.

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He said even if Panama’s new president can’t totally shut down the migration route, his vow to do so could deter migration.

“Just like at the beginning of the Trump administration, cross-border illegal activity dropped tremendously just on the rhetoric,” Mr. Scott said.

It’s not surprising that mass illegal immigration isn’t popular in Panama, just as it’s not popular in the United States, where people want to feel safe and expect immigration laws to be upheld, he said.

Americans living along the U.S.–Mexican border generally support border security regardless of ethnicity, he said.

“That this is a big issue for people [in Panama] does not come as a surprise to me, just like here in the United States,” Mr. Scott said.

Powerful NGOs

But the massive infrastructure built by the NGOs in Panama, along with the billions of U.S. tax dollars given to these organizations, could prove it difficult to stop, Mr. Bensman said.

“You have NGOs that have become fat with riches on this crisis,” he said. “Those NGOs have become politically influential in Panama because this is just great for [their] business.”

The Epoch Times knocked on multiple U.N. agency doors at the City of Knowledge complex while in Panama in an unsuccessful attempt to interview officials with the U.N. and HIAS concerning their operation in the camps.


United Nations refugee agency personnel arrive at San Vicente migrant camp in the Darien Gap, Panama, on Feb. 20, 2024. (Bobby Sanchez for The Epoch Times)

Amy Pope, director general for the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration (IOM) served as President Biden’s senior adviser on migration and as deputy Homeland Security adviser to President Barack Obama.

“The evidence is overwhelming that migration, when well-managed, is a major contributor to global prosperity and progress,” Ms. Pope said during an appeal for money earlier this year to assist migration efforts.

Mr. Bensman said Panama’s president-elect could theoretically “boot them out of the country” and shut down the NGO-run migrant camps.

Trying to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants would be expensive and probably not possible without U.S. help, he said.

But if the United States redirected the billions of dollars currently funneled to the NGOs and the U.N., it would likely fund a massive deportation, Mr. Bensman said.

Mr. Bensman, who has written two books on the border crisis, said airlifts using U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) could probably get the job done using the migrant camps as bases.

“In an ideal, normal world, Americans would find this as an incredible twist of fortune,” he said.

Chaos and Control

Experts have said hostile regimes are using illegal immigration to collapse the U.S. border and create chaos.

Mass migration is being “weaponized” to overwhelm and destabilize the United States and ultimately break it apart, according to Joseph Humire, who studies unconventional warfare and is the executive director of the Center for a Secure Free Society.

Mr. Scott said the different outcomes of border policies set under presidents Trump and Biden offer a sharp contrast.

In fiscal year 2023, border authorities apprehended a record 3.2 million illegal immigrants, far exceeding any volume in the past.

As Border Patrol chief under President Biden, Mr. Scott said he and his staff briefed the new administration on which policies worked to slow illegal immigration. Still, he said, Biden’s team was only interested in how to speed up the processing of illegal immigrants before releasing them.


Texas National Guard look on as illegal immigrants board a bus after surrendering to Border Patrol agents on the U.S.–Mexico border in El Paso, Texas, on May 12, 2023. (Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images)

“We explained to them that you’re literally pulling your finger out of the dike. We warned them all this was going to happen,” he said.

“Every one of those conversations got shut down in seconds anytime we talked about protecting America.”

During a May 7 visit to Guatemala, Mr. Blinken discussed the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, which was signed by the United States and Latin American countries in 2022 to “create the conditions for safe, orderly, humane, and regular migration and to strengthen frameworks for international protection and cooperation.”

“Since then, together, we have partnered to transform our hemisphere’s approach to this truly historic challenge,” Mr. Blinken said during a speech.

“We’ve taken meaningful steps to expand lawful migration pathways as an alternative to irregular migration, to improve enforcement efforts, to support host communities, to strengthen protections for vulnerable populations.”

Meanwhile, on May 8, the Republican-led House passed The Equal Representation Act along party lines that would require the Census to include a checkbox to indicate whether the respondent and each household member is a U.S. citizen.

The bill mandates that only citizens be counted for apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives and Electoral College votes.

President Trump signed an executive order for the 2020 Census to include only American citizens, but it was blocked after left-wing civil rights groups sued, arguing the order violated the Census Act, the Enumeration Clause, and the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

Counting noncitizens skews the representative form of government, Mr. Scott said.

“Only Americans should be determining the future of America,” he said.

Epoch Times reporter Janice Hisle and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

The Epoch Original Documentary “Weapons of Mass Migration” is available to full subscribers starting May 9, at 8:30 p.m. ET on EpochTV.

Original News Source Link – Epoch Times

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