Jun 6, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Crocodiles, snakes and bodies: Migrants' path through Panama

A migrant carrying a baby crosses the Chucunaque river after walking for five days in the Darien Gap, in Bajo Chiquito village, Darien province, Panama on February 10, 2021, on their way to the US.

A migrant carrying a baby crosses the Chucunaque River after walking for five days in the Darién Gap on the border of Panama and Colombia. Photo: Luis Acosta/ AFP via Getty Images

Panama is struggling to handle a surge of migrants crossing the deadly jungles of the Darién Gap separating the country from Colombia — many bound for the U.S., government officials, migration experts and members of Congress tell Axios.

Why it matters: Vice President Kamala Harris departed Sunday on her first trip to Central America after being tasked with the migration crisis. Most migrants reaching the U.S. border still hail from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador. But more people than before from farther-flung points are fleeing their homes and trying to enter the U.S.

  • Lax visa requirements in places like Brazil and Mexico, political and economic turmoil in South America, a still out-of-hand pandemic and hopes of eased enforcement are driving the growing push north.
  • "The trip through the Darién Gap presents migrants with really unimaginable hardships — thirst and hunger and crocodiles and snakes and armed cocaine traffickers and common thieves," Benjamin Gedan of the Wilson Center, a global policy forum, told Axios.

What they're saying: Reps. Tom Tiffany (R-Wis.) and Burgess Owens (R-Utah) visited the border village of Bajo Chiquito in Panama at the end of May.

  • "What we saw was people just rolling in, one after another," Tiffany said. "We saw people from Haiti, one person identified himself from Senegal. There was a person from Egypt. People talked about seeing Pakistanis come through."
  • Local villagers told them about seeing bodies float down the river, both Tiffany and Owens said. Migrants who survived the Darién Gap described "how they walked over bodies, people that just died in the jungle down there," said Tiffany.
  • Owens described seeing the red, infected and possibly gangrenous feet of one migrant who made it through.

Panamanian Foreign Minister Erika Mouynes has begun sounding the alarm, speaking with numerous U.S. and United Nations officials in recent weeks.

  • In a phone interview with Axios, Mouynes emphasized the point, saying, "We have them in migrant camps and we gradually lead them in a controlled flow to go through the border. All they want is: U.S., U.S., U.S."
  • One thousand migrants have crossed into Panama through the gap in a single day, the foreign minister added. The large and sporadic numbers can overwhelm towns in which the populations are smaller than the caravans.

Most migrants come from Haiti and Cuba, although hundreds who crossed from Colombia into Panama this year were originally from Bangladesh, Senegal or Nepal.

  • Mouynes expressed concern about the impact of Colombia's decision last month to open its borders again and emphasized the need for other countries to stop allowing visa-free travel.
  • Mouynes also told Axios that in addition to providing care for migrants, Panama runs biometrics and that officials had stopped some who had been flagged for associations to al-Qaida.

By the numbers: More than 5,000 migrants arrived through the Darién Gap in April and again in May, per data from Panama's migration agency — the highest monthly numbers in at least three years.

  • By comparison, the monthly peak was just shy of 4,000 during the 2019 U.S.-Mexico border surge.
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