PANAMA CITY (AP) — The United States, Panama and Colombia announced Tuesday that they will launch a 60-day campaign aimed at halting illegal migration through the treacherous Darien Gap, where the flow of migrants has multiplied this year.
Details on how the governments will try to curb the flow of migrants that reached nearly 90,000 in just the first three months of this year through the dense, lawless jungle were not provided in the joint statement.
The ambitious announcement came as the Biden administration nervously awaits the expected end of a pandemic-related rule May 11 that has suspended rights to seek asylum for many. Without that instrument of dissuasion at the U.S. border, there is concern migrant arrivals could again become unmanageable.
The joint statement said the countries will also use “new lawful and flexible pathways for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees as an alternative to irregular migration,” but again gave no details.
The plan’s third element is investment to reduce poverty and create jobs in the Colombian and Panamanian border communities, presumably so fewer people work at smuggling migrants.
“Recognizing our shared interest and responsibility to prevent the risk to human life, disrupt transnational criminal organizations, and preserve the vital rainforest, the governments of Panamá, Colombia, and the United States intend to carry out a two-month coordinated campaign to address the serious humanitarian situation in the Darién,” the statement said.
U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas met with the foreign ministers of Panama and Colombia in Panama on Tuesday.
According to Panama’s government, more than 87,000 migrants crossed the Darien Gap in the first three months of the year, mostly from Venezuela, Haiti and Ecuador. That was up from nearly 14,000 migrants during the same period a year earlier.
Last year, set a record for migrants using the Darien route, with nearly 250,000. That increase was driven largely by Venezuelans, who accounted for some 60% of the migrants crossing there last year.
The Biden administration responded in October by using the pandemic-related rule known as Title 42 to deny Venezuelans the chance to request asylum at the border. Instead, the U.S. government said it would accept as many as 24,000 Venezuelans at U.S. airports who had already applied and been pre-approved through a government online application. That program was expanded to Nicaragua, Haiti and Cuba earlier this year.
Now with Title 42 set to expire next month, the U.S. is looking at the Darien Gap as the natural choke point to stop extracontinental migration.
Michael Lee Weintraub, a profesor at the University of the Andes School of Government in Colombia, said that with Biden under pressure from conservatives to address immigration ahead of next year’s presidential election, his administration is looking for ways to diiscourage irregular migration and make legal migration easier.
But he expressed doubt that Colombia’s security forces have the capacity to dramatically affect migrant smuggling because the country’s armed groups profit from it and are “very sophisticated.”
The Darien Gap is among the most dangerous portions of the long route to the U.S. borders. Migrants and international human rights groups have denounced sexual assaults, robberies and killings in the remote jungle. That’s in addition to the natural dangers posed by venomous snakes and rushing rivers.
For the migrants who survive the crossing, the Panamanian government and nongovernmental groups bus migrants across Panama to near its border with Costa Rica to continue their journey.
Associated Press writer Astrid Suarez in Bogota, Colombia, contributed to this report.