Panama President-Elect Vows to Close Darién Gap, Begin “Repatriation”

    José Raúl Mulino, a lawyer and former security minister of Panama who stumbled into the presidency after a tumultuous campaign, is renewing his pledge to shut down the Darién Gap. The remote corridor at the Colombian border is a critical migration route—the only land bridge connecting South America to Central America. More than half a million people make the crossing each year.

    “Panama and our Darién are not a transit route. It is our border,” Mulino stated May 9 after the final vote was tallied. “The Darién odyssey … does not have a reason to exist.”

    Mulino, 64, was declared the winner with a little over one-third of the vote. His five-year term will begin July 1.

    After former President Ricardo Martinelli’s wife, Marta Linares de Martinelli, declined to be his running mate, Mulino was tapped for the position. But in March, Martinelli was disqualified following a money laundering conviction; he remains in the Nicaraguan embassy where he has sought refuge since February.

    Mulino served in Martinelli’s cabinet from 2009 to 2014. Mulino has stated that one of the achievements of the former administration was to “recover” the Darién Gap from “the hands of narco-guerillas” in Colombia. In 2010, Martinelli’s administration built a security base in the region to choke off shipments of food.

    “With international aid we will begin a process of repatriation, in full compliance with the human rights of all the people there,” Mulino stated in his speech May 9.

    “It just makes smugglers more emboldened, and they charge more. It will exacerbate the problem.”

    In 2023, an estimated 520,000 people made their way north through the Darién Gap—more than double the estimate from 2022. The vast majority were from Venezuela. An estimated one in five people crossing the Darién Gap are minors; one in 10 under are estimated to be under the age of 5.

    The Darién is a remote region, with high mountains, rainforest and swamps that make the crossing already dangerous. But it is also notoriously violent—reports of widespread robbery, rape and human trafficking have emerged as armed militia operate in region.

    For the past several years, the Darién Gap has been controlled by the Gulf Clan. During Martinelli’s presidency, before a landmark peace accord in 2016, it was controlled by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

    Bill Ong Hing, founding director of the Immigration and Deportation Defense Clinic at the University of San Francisco, fears that Mulino’s plan will strengthen armed groups, increasing the violence.

    “One of the reasons [Mulino is] giving is he actually wants to cut down on the abuse,” Hing told Filter. “But those industries are going to continue no matter what. I’ve seen this with respect to the US militarized southern border, it just makes smugglers more emboldened and they charge more. It will exacerbate the problem.”

    “It’s pretty evident there’s [US] money behind this.”

    The United States has played a significant role in the crackdowns.  In April 2023, the US, Panama and Colombia announced a coordinated attempt to end migration through the Darién Gap. That September, Panama increased deportations and further stricter visa requirements.

    Hing, who has worked with people who arrived in the US after crossing the Darién, said the budget for these efforts often comes from USAID grants. “It’s pretty evident there’s [US] money behind this.”

    While most people he’s worked with are fleeing violence, Hing said that the climate crisis is a rapidly growing factor in mnigration through the Darién as well.

    “It’s more difficult for low-wage workers in different regions,” he said. “That’s something the world has to content with.”



    Image via Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons 4.0

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

    • Show Comments