Explaining and Predicting: President-elect Mulino’s Immigration Policy and the Darien Gap Under New Management

In this explainer, we examine Mulino’s migration policy and assess the current situation in the Darien Gap as well as the impact that “closing the Darien” could have for the region. 


Image Source: IVAN VALENCIA (AP).

As the region’s migration crisis escalates, Panamanian President-elect José Raúl Mulino has promised to crack down on migration by “closing the Darien Gap” and deporting anyone who crosses it. The Darien Gap, today, associated with widespread human rights abuses, suffering and death, has become the symbol of the modern migration crisis in the Western Hemisphere. In this explainer, we examine Mulino’s migration policy and assess the current situation in the Darien Gap as well as the impact that “closing the Darien” could have for the region. 

What should we expect from José Raúl Mulino’s presidency in terms of migration policy? 

In recent years, Panama has become part of a major international migration corridor for migrants going to the United States. The mass influx of migrants, driven by the growing Venezuelan political and economic crisis as well as the humanitarian collapse in Haiti, has put pressure on Panama’s authorities and institutions. According to the Panamanian government, in 2023 alone approximately half a million people crossed the Darien border region. Though Panama’s authorities are providing migrants with basic medical care at the border, international human rights organizations have denounced Panama for failing to protect migrants’ human rights. 

Despite growing pressure from the U.S., Panama’s migration strategy has remained one of “controlled flow”, allowing migrants to continue their journey to the U.S. while restricting their ability to settle in Panama. However, in Mulino’s victory speech he claimed “Panama and our Darien are not a transit route,” vowing to shift Panama’s migration policy by “closing” the Darien region and starting mass deportations of migrants. “The U.S. border was moved to Panama instead of Texas. So we have to work trilaterally [between the United States, Colombia and Panama], and they have to understand that Panama is not a transit country for immigrants,” Mulino claimed. Though his announcement would radically change the country’s migration strategy, it remains unlikely that he could implement it successfully. 

Shutting down the Panama-Colombia border and engaging in mass deportations would likely prove economically or logistically unfeasible, as. Mulino is inheriting a delicate economy without much room to engage in large-scale operations. Droughts impacting the Panama Canal, rising public debt, greater borrowing costs due to investment confidence loss, and an unsustainable social security system are some of the many challenges Mulino’s administration will face. And the much-publicized closure of a $10 billion copper mine following unprecedented mass protests is unlikely to help Panama’s already shaking economy. 

In addition to the economic barriers, migration is simply not considered a pressing issue by most Panamanians. According to recent polls, corruption, education, insecurity, unemployment, and poverty are Panamanians’ main concerns, which will prove crucial challenges for Mulino’s slim governing coalition to tackle. Instead, migration analysts suggest that Mulino’s recent rhetoric is a response to Panama’s frustration with international human rights organizations’ harsh criticism and the country’s desire to gain leverage in negotiating more sustainable migration management with countries in the region. Though migration will likely become part of Mulino’s agenda, it is very unlikely that there will be a radical migration policy shift in the short term. 

What is the current situation in the Darien region? 

The Darien Gap, linking Panama to Colombia, is characterized by its almost impenetrable jungle and a complete lack of infrastructure such as roads, bridges, or telecommunications. Despite its inhospitable features, the region has served for more than a decade as a major international migration corridor for people seeking to enter the United States. The International Organization for Migration estimates that from 2014 to 2023, approximately 342 migrants lost their lives in the Darien.

While reports of migrants crossing the Darien can be traced back to the 1990s, it was not until the 2010s when it became a popular migration route. According to the Migration Policy Institute’s figures, migrant crossings have ballooned in the last decade, from an annual average of 2,400 migrant crossings from 2010 to 2014, to approximately 500,000 crossings registered in 2023. Panama’s Ministry of Public Security estimated that of those crossing, 328,667 were Venezuelan nationals, 57,222 Ecuadorians, and 46,558 Haitians. Several factors have played a role in this mass migration, such asVenezuela’s economic and social crisis, Ecuador’s political instability and violence, and Haiti’s multidimensional crisis. Moreover, as it has become harder for South American and Caribbean migrants to get visas to enter Mexico and Central America countries, the Darien Gap became effectively the only path to reach the U.S. southern border.

As a result, the Darien Gap has become a lucrative business for criminal networks willing to take advantage of highly vulnerable migrants. Depending on the difficulty and length of the route chosen, prices to cross the Darien could range from $200 up to $2,000 per person — almost a year’s wages for the average Venezuelan. According to the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, migrants and refugees in the Darien are routinely “exposed to multiple human rights violations and abuses during their journey, including sexual violence, which is a particular risk for children, women, LGBTI people and people with disabilities. There are also murders, disappearances, trafficking, robbery, and intimidation by organised crime groups.” In a recent report, Humans Right Watch claimed that the policies of both Panama and Colombia have fallen short in protecting the international human rights of migrants and asylum seekers transiting through the Darien Gap.

How will Mulino’s migration policy impact Panama’s relations with neighboring Colombia and major stakeholders, such as the United States?

Mulino’s announcement has provoked mixed reactions throughout the region. Mexican President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador has questioned the proposal, stating that shutting down borders or building walls is not the right approach to address the migration crisis. In Colombia, potentially the country most affected by Mulino’s plan, concerns have already begun to grow in border towns such as Necoclí — a small town located on the shores of the Caribbean sea used for migrants as a transit point before entering the Darien Gap. Necoclí, like many other towns across the Colombian side of the border, does not have the infrastructure to host thousands of migrants for more than a few days. Migration experts have warned that Mulino’s plan to shut down the Darien Gap could result in more human rights violations, further strengthening criminal networks.

Though the Biden administration has not yet officially commented on Mulino’s plan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a recent phone call with Mulino, both have discussed the importance of working together to “safely and humanely manage migration.” In recent years, the United States and Panama have actively cooperated on migrations issues. In April 2022, both administrations signed a Bilateral Agreement on Migration and Protection aimed at improving migration management, expanding stabilization efforts, and increasing access to legal pathways and protection. Moreover, last month, the U.S. administration announced $578 million in aid to help partner countries, including Panama, respond to urgent humanitarian needs, expand lawful pathways, and support the regularization and integration of migrants.

If Mulino unilaterally closes the Darien without coordinating with regional partners, it is very likely the move would further destabilize the region. Regardless of the policy decision, migrants will continue to move across South America, including Colombia, Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela. Colombia, for example, remains under significant pressure as it currently hosts approximately 3 million Venezuelans. Though Colombian President Gustavo Petro has not yet publicly reacted to Mulino’s plan, Colombia’s Migration Director has claimed that closing the Darien “is not possible physically, monetarily, economically or militarily” and its effects could be “much more serious” than the current situation. 

In conclusion, while Mulino’s migration policy stirs regional tensions, its success might hinge on broader international dynamics, notably U.S. political shifts. Should former President Donald Trump reclaim office in November, Mulino’s stringent measures could see heightened U.S. support, aligning with Trump’s own hardline stance on border control. However, this approach, focused primarily on containment, sidesteps the underlying issues driving migration and would likely cause migrant backups in neighboring countries like Colombia. Addressing these root causes is crucial; without tackling the socioeconomic and political factors compelling people to leave their homelands, immigration will persist as a symptom of deeper regional disparities. Ultimately, a holistic and cooperative international strategy remains essential to truly manage and mitigate the migration challenges facing Panama and its neighbors.

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